During a free period at the end of May, I walked from the Dining Hall to the house just outside campus which would become my residence in August. The air had lost most of its spring luster; the close of another school year was imminent. Standing on the porch that I knew would become my porch, I fished the cell phone from my messenger bag and checked the time. 11:55. I walked down the steps, turned right, then left, and headed across campus. When I arrived at the door of the Caldwell Writing Center, I checked the cell phone again. 12:05.
I had imitated my 2010-11 morning commute as closely as possible – dress clothes, bag weighed down with papers and novels. I even deliberately stopped twice to chat, once with a teacher, once with a student (uninterrupted walks across campus are the exception to a rather delightful rule in this community) And so, of all the questions facing me about 2010-11 through the summer - What will it be like to work in the Writing Center? To teach only sophomores instead of freshmen and juniors? To leave the North Shore and live by campus? To take the lead on The Argonaut and to take on a little responsibility in the boarding community? – I could answer one: It’ll take ten minutes to get to work.
In the past two weeks, another unexpected benefit from facing this year of the unknowable has emerged – I have been reminded of what it’s like to be the very teenagers I am interacting with every day.
I’m not exactly a rigid person, but I’m also no fan of the by the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach. I took steps over the summer to figure out what I could – met with Mr. LeSourd to talk over plans for the Writing Center and with Mr. Chakwin to gain some insight into the World Lit experience, but mostly I had to accept that August 2010 was a giant question mark. I wrote, edited, read, camped, biked, fished, and cultivated obsessions for the World Cup and Mad Men. I measured the quality of my summer in the naps I took (tie for the best goes to the top of Roan Mountain and the bow of a canoe), and I waited for August to come barreling in.
I walked into the classroom on August 23, unsure of what exactly would transpire, but certain that McCallie would maintain its sense of energy, that I would be happy to see my students and hear about their summers, and that eventually the school year would work itself into a routine. In the past two weeks, another unexpected benefit from facing this year of the unknowable has emerged – I have been reminded of what it’s like to be the very teenagers I am interacting with every day.
A great deal of our time in the Writing Center over these first two weeks has been taken up with college essays. Oh, college essays. I’d either forgotten or repressed the memory of sitting at a desk in the guidance office at Hume-Fogg High School with a blank sheet of notebook paper in front of me. I had forgotten that every adult tells you college is the most important decision you’ll ever make and all you can do is sit in a familiar place and feel your life hurtling toward an abstract idea. Still, it’s an exciting time when your life is as blank a canvas as it will ever be.
Freshmen are also experiencing that blank canvas sensation. I am trying to make my new house feel like a home and I think of the ninth-graders just up the hill who are adjusting not only to a new place to live, but to roommates, a completely new social scene, and high academic and athletic expectations. Coaching novice crew is almost old hat to me (I’m in year four), so I’d forgotten that the young men who come out for the sport are throwing themselves into a situation that is completely foreign – crew even has its own language. They have no idea what’s going to happen the first time their boat heads up the Tennessee River, but they’re out there and they’re facing it.
I believe that it is this space between knowing and not-knowing where our best work can occur. The college essays I have read so far have needed little tweaking in terms of content. These boys know what they are about, and their writing shows that. They don’t exactly know where they’re going to end up, and their writing carries that edge to it as well.
There’s a tension between returning to a familiar place for your fourth year (as the seniors and I are doing) and not knowing what the year will bring. Really, every teacher and student encounters this to varying degrees. It’s the reason schools are such dynamic places to be. Good ideas occur in that space. Learning occurs in that space.
The typical school week for any high school student is filled with so many decisions, negotiations, situations to defuse or navigate, and plain old hard work that seven days can both move maddeningly fast and feel like an entire year. I still have a lot of my own questions, but the outline is getting some color – and my hope is that this year of unknowns and the creative energy it brings will get me closer to understanding the heart of McCallie – the students themselves.
Erin Tocknell teaches English and serves as Assistant Director for the Caldwell Writing Center at McCallie School. Her first book, a collection of creative nonfiction, will be published this fall.