Guest blog by Lisbeth D. Bennett, Secondary ELAR Coordinator in Mansfield ISD.
A poem comes to mind.
If you groaned or shuddered, that’s ok. I think some people had no-good-rotten experiences when teachers covered poetry. I guarantee it was traumatizing for most educators as well. Maybe it was figuring out stress and meter or being asked to write a poem with a rhyme scheme. Or (and this one makes me cringe), you were asked how the poem made you feel? There’s nothing wrong with connecting personally with a piece of writing. In fact, I’m about to! There’s just more to it. The way I see it, poetry, like all art, can be a window. Maybe we like the view…maybe we’ve been actively avoiding the view. Poetry can also be a mirror and maybe we don’t like the reflection, as was the case with me.
“The Juggler” by Richard Wilbur changed my life. Now I’m not going to take you with me to the fires of Mordor to analyze the poem (though we could). What I am going to do is take you back into my classroom, to the moment I accidentally held up a mirror and was startled by my own reflection…
A tiny bit of background: “The Juggler” was known among AP Literature teachers as one of the hardest poems students had recently faced. It is about a person who attends a circus act, specifically a juggling act. Essentially the juggler comes out with his makeup and juggles three red balls with expertise and speed. He defies gravity. But this is a circus act and juggling red balls isn’t enough of a show stopping act. So he juggles a table, a plate, and a broom. A table is heavy and encumbersome, a plate is delicate, and a broom is awkward and weighs less, requiring more skill. Of course he’s successful! He has one job: to juggle. The audience claps and cheers and for one moment, chasing that dopamine, they have forgotten their own worries at the expense of the juggler’s exhaustion. Heavy stuff.
In my sixteenth year of teaching, I was a fledgling AP Lit teacher. I wanted to create experiences for my students, like labs, that they could retain and draw from. Excited and a little bit unsure (heck, a lot of good teaching is about taking risks), I set a pile of scrap paper on a table in the front of the room. I read the poem to my kiddos. I often read to my students, which was not the issue.
What made me nervous was the moment of vulnerability that followed: As I tried to get my students to understand how important it was to connect and engage prior knowledge when they tackled poetry, I grabbed a piece of paper and crumpled it up. As I crumpled the piece of paper I said, “Lesson plans,” and threw the balled up paper onto the floor. Surprise–I can’t juggle!
I grabbed another paper, “Grading essays,” and threw that one.
Another paper, “Department meeting.” Onto the floor it fell.
Another, “Emails.” It rolled away.
Another, “Packing lunches for my kids,” and two balls fell to the ground.
Two more papers because I did the laundry, but ran out of time to put it away.Another paper, “Exercise.” Another paper, “Meditate.” And another, “Data analysis.” Again, “Prep the lesson.” And another, “Grocery list.” And on and on and on it went until the floor was covered in crumpled paper balls. The students, students who I had been fortunate enough to teach twice, sat in stunned silence.
At this point, my blood was pumping. Surrounded by my own reality, I too was silenced by the weight of it and frankly, a little surprised at how I felt. I looked around at all of the paper balls and picked up one. “Resents its own resilience,” I quoted from the poem.
Still they watched me in silence. “Sometimes just because we do hard things well,” I explained, “doesn’t mean we want to.” There was so much I resented doing well and I knew it in my gut. And thinking about it made me angry, but the lesson wasn’t about me, so like all good educators, I bought back some time and asked them to, “Take a moment and talk to your neighbors about juggling.”
Looking at all of the obligations and expectations of both my work and personal life strewn across the floor, I felt heavy. The truth was that at the height of my teaching career in the classroom I was burnt out. There seemed to be no refuge anymore. I could not escape the demands of being a spouse or a parent. I could not escape the demands of being a good teacher and mentor. I was the ball that resented my ability to bounce. I wanted to deflate. I needed a break from this circus.
So then what happened? We discussed it. We talked about how as a society we value and applaud people who can win “over the world’s weight.” We look up to people who do not get enough sleep and compare how little sleep we get, as if it were a badge of honor. I say we, because the advanced students, those students clawing and vying for the benefits of being in the top 10% of their class, aren’t sleeping enough either and yes, they do resent their own resilience and sometimes they sabotage themselves and deflate.
And I was reminded that we shower teachers with praise and more work when they sacrifice their entire weekend to grade, update documentation, and create effective, meaningful learning experiences. We onboard student teachers and emerging educators by reminding them that they will never earn overtime, but are expected to get everything done. We accept the “world’s weight” and the world doesn’t care “if the juggler is tired now.” Instead they applaud louder. Instead they are mesmerized that we defied gravity. Instead they expect us to do it again and again…and we do.
This can apply to a lot of professions in the United States, but as the work force of educators dwindles, as the demands and gaps from the Pandemic become clearer, the work piles on until we realize we’ve traded our simple juggling balls for ridiculous objects like a plate, a broom, and a table. And the more ridiculous the juggling act, the more spectacular, the more dangerous–the bigger the praise. And man, let me tell you, kids have a lot to say about this idea!
So now what? What did this mirror do, except nearly cause an anxiety attack among my students?
Remember how I bought back some time?
I was looking at all of the strewn paper balls, while my students were discussing, and my youngest student who sat in the front whispered, “You have too much on your plate.” He was right. I reached down and picked up one ball and said, “True, but I’m not trying to juggle right now. Right now I’m focusing on one ball. This one.” I held one in my palm and said, “This one is called teaching 6th block. I can carry this one right now.” Then I set it onto the table beside me and truly felt a lot lighter.
And while the world will applaud us for all the tremendous things we can juggle, and while we may feel pressured to take on absurd obligations, to defy gravity–I am the storywriter here and I choose to juggle one ball at a time.
For all my veterans out there burning out, for all my emerging educators, set everything down and when you resent your own resilience, do one thing at a time. That is what this poem, this mirror showed me. In yoga, this is called being present. It’s not always easy to maintain, but when we are present in the here and now things are less stressful. Because when we are present we realize the rest will be there later. So rather than resenting my ability to bounce (and some days I still do), rather than trying to figure out how to deflate my own abilities, or take on more for the sake of those darn applauses, I control the show and you can too.
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