And so here I am. After an employment scare and a restful summer, I’ve returned to the same school to continue my venture as a high school English teacher. No longer can I claim the status of First-Year Teacher, which often and conveniently followed the phrase, “I don’t know.” This past June, it was seemingly clear to me that I would not return to the same school, if any school at all. There were simply not enough jobs to offer me a new one—the standard is that first- and second-year teachers are given what is called a “provisional” contract (or often more accurately known as a “limited” contract). The contract is designed to last one year and no longer. Normally, if an administration likes a young teacher, they are able to offer them a new contract when the initial one expires, without much of a struggle. But with national budgets that inform state budgets that inform school district budgets that inform school budgets—there just wasn’t any more money. As the school year disintegrated and stumbled into summer, I was met, a bit uncomfortably, with good-luck wishes, a few tears, and even a student-led petition advocating for my future return to the school. All of this was extremely flattering and humbling, but in the end, only made my leaving that much more difficult. A summer of fretting and nail biting lay ahead. Thankfully, however, after many dominoes fell, a job was made available and I was offered a new position at the same school. There was much rejoicing.
And now my job is secure. Until June. I have a bigger classroom. I have a working pencil sharpener. I’m closer to the office, the coffee maker in the teacher’s lounge, and the nice, clean staff restrooms. But the problem with being closer to everything is just that: I’m closer to everything. My room is on the main thoroughfare, easily accessible to principals, assistant principals, visiting school board members and superintendents. Anyone looking to “drop in.” Needless to say, the pressure is on.
Teachers and students have shared kind words, expressing their relief or joy to have me back on the team. Unfortunately, all the positive attention is, at times, more frightening than it is helpful. Have I created the image of an exceptional teacher? Have I fooled everybody? Need I remind everybody that I was a rookie a few months ago? Couldn’t I start the year off with the lowest of expectations? When it comes down to it, I don’t deserve any accolades or hyperbolic statements about my abilities as a teacher. There isn’t much I could point to last year that could be mistaken for exceptional teaching. Most kids ended up getting along, many passed. Some even enjoyed a book or two. Though I know there is pressure to follow through, I hope nobody realizes that I still have no clue what I’m doing. I’ve been given an amazing opportunity: hired back in favor of teacher applicants who have far longer résumés and much more experience than I do, into a school community that I love and feel immeasurably lucky to belong to. I assure you that a first second year is much better than a second first.
As the returning students file in on the first day, I can’t help but be emotional. The reality of my place in life is frightening to me. To have a career in which the young minds of others are entrusted to me is a responsibility I have trouble stomaching. To have a career where intimacy is built, whether willingly or reluctantly, day in and day out, in a way that few other careers allow frightens me as well. At this point of my life to have any career at all is terrifying. I do my best to force these thoughts away or at least cover them up with the stacks of new schedules and syllabi on my front table, still warm and smelling of toner. I have the privilege of teaching many of the same students I taught last year and I can’t help but feel like I’ve played some tragic prank on them by announcing my departure last spring and then standing before them this fall. Regardless, most of them greet me warmly. Some are taller. Some are much taller. A few have new elaborate layers of make-up, and many have comically dark tans. New hairstyles, new clothes. Some are unrecognizable. Some have the same clothes. The same hairstyles. The same looks of pride or shame or fear or isolation.
Some are thrilled to be back. To many, the school is some reality television show in which they are each a star. They brag about their summers, their families, their friends, their shoes. Everything is big and grand. For others, this place is prison. They carry the weight of a broken parole – some mix-up that landed them back in after three months of joyous freedom. Either way, they are all firmly aware of the fact that they are no longer freshmen. Last year, I constantly reminded them that it was my first year in high school, just as it was theirs. We were in it together. None of us knew where anything was or where the cool tables were at lunch or where to get a yearbook or who to ask about stuck lockers. We were in the same boat. But now they know unequivocally that they are in no way, shape, or form, freshmen. It can’t hold them back or be an excuse. It gives them freedom, but also trepidation. They are no longer at the bottom of the food chain. No longer “first-years.” As each class begins on the first day, I assure them that a first second year is much better than a second first year.