By: Jessica Michael Bowman

“There’s so much beauty, it could make you cry”

So Much Beauty In Dirt by Modest Mouse

It’s no secret that teaching is work. Hard, sacred, rewarding work. This time of the year, as the shine of newness has just begun to wear off and a hum of hope still hangs in the air, this universal truth is subtly acknowledged. We are all drawing a collective breath. We pause, holding it in, and exhale slowly. Then we roll up our sleeves, ready to begin our great work, and pause again. We are so often confronted by the thought, There is so much work to be done.

Teaching can be the very stuff of exhaustion. Physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. Sometimes, if we’re being honest, it is pure toil. While we’ve lovingly and painstakingly stocked our classroom libraries with care and begun to build the foundations of the relationships with our students that will transform our lives for the next several months, there might be a tiny part of us that also already feels like we’re about to begin a great quest, fraught with peril, insurmountable joy, and life lessons. And while we know there are friendships to be forged and battles to be won, we might also find ourselves already feeling the wear of the long journey ahead.

Like, I said: teaching can be toil. When I close my eyes, imagining this word, I feel the beads of sweat. I see the dirt-stained hands. I roll up my sleeves and I pause. This year, as the dirt and sweat intermingle (and with a little help from Matt de la Pena and Modest Mouse) I am remembering to see the beauty, too.

Let me explain…

This past May I was chaperoning my school’s end of the year trip to the pool.  I was running around tirelessly with sunscreen trying to prevent sunburns, looking for any signs of possible drowning, and trying to avoid being pushed in the water by my giddy, sun-crazed third graders. At the end of an admittedly taxing day, I stood in the hot afternoon heat, drenched in sweat with trash bag in hand. I had been given the glamorous task of gathering the discarded garments and other belongings from the dank, sopping floor of the pool’s dressing room. As I went about my work, fielding through the grass and dirt, tossing strewn trash and pitching half-eaten scraps into the trash can, I looked around in that moment, end-of-the-year-teacher-tired, and felt the weight of the toil. This job did not feel beautiful. I felt surrounded by dirt.

That’s when I spotted her. One of our parent chaperones was making a beeline for me with such purpose and intention that I was certain I had forgotten a child at school or thrown away food that was, in fact, still someone’s meal. Did I accidentally throw her child’s flipflop into the this garbage bag? WOULD I HAVE TO FISH IT OUT?!

“I need to tell you something,” she began and my heart stopped. I can’t handle this right now, I thought. At times this year had been too bittersweet for me. I’d worked so hard and felt like I hadn’t accomplished anything, constantly wondering if I was making any difference in the lives of my students. As a new mother and a teacher, I had battled balance, doubt and inadequacy. Unfortunately, often times I had lost.

I steeled myself for entry into the dark garbage bag of uncertainty. “I want to thank you for making my daughter a reader this year,” she continued. And from there she began to describe the impact the culture of literacy in our classroom had on her daughter, and consequently on her younger siblings as well. Her words were purposeful and sincere. They were such a stark contrast from the frame of mind I was in that at first I stared at her blankly, taken aback.

In that moment, surrounded by “dirt,” there was so much beauty that I started to cry.

This is where my students would be BURSTING to turn and talk, because this memory has all of the makings of a text-to-text connection and is a prime example of how conflict reveals a character to herself and the reader. However, for me this is above all a lesson about perspective.

In one of our favorite read alouds and mentor texts, Last Stop on Market Street by the ever amazing Matt de la Pena, CJ is begrudgingly venturing to an unnamed destination he and his Nana visit each Sunday. While the reader doesn’t find out what this stop is until the end, the real value and intention is in the journey there. Along the way, CJ peppers the pages with complaints about many undesirable situations. They’re out in the rain, they don’t own a car and have to take the bus instead, and the area they’re traveling to is full of dilapidated buildings, crumbling sidewalks, and boarded up windows.

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“Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.” – Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena

In each situation they encounter, Nana offers the reader a vastly different perspective. As one of my students shared, “She sees the beauty around her, even when it’s hard to see.” As a mentor text for studying perspective and character development, it’s effective. As a source of inspiration to a reader, it is powerful.

Here I am in August, at the beginning of a new school year, learning the value of this lesson all over again.  While I’m not holding a trash bag of wet clothes or gleaning discarded trash with a countdown to summer break on my desk, I find myself intimidated by the year ahead of me. Teaching, and many of the less glamorous tasks that come with it, is hard work. And although we toil, sweat drenched and dirt stained, we are surrounded by such striking beauty.

So as the tumbleweeds blow through the back to school supply aisles, the coffee intake spikes, our calendars fill up, and we begin the business of literacy, I want to encourage you and challenge your perspective. It’s not that our work is “dirty,” undesirable, or void of enjoyment. In contrast, we pour so much of our energy and heart into what we do, carrying a mental load that can at times by overwhelming. It’s easy to become weighted down by the many demands of legislation, disheartened by the data, or exhausted from treading the waters of work-life balance. This “dirt” that comes along with what we do doesn’t negate the beauty that we are surrounded by. Those moments when students find their love of reading, or you recognize them as empathetic peers and critical thinkers – I know the work that goes behind it. I see how tired you will become – tired, beloved and rewarded.

Teachers are some of the hardest workers I know. We inhabit some of the most sacred spaces within our communities, while serving its most precious members. And while the journey is long, and the effort demanding, we are witnesses with front row seats to some of the most moving beauty we could hope to experience.

Jessica Michael Bowman is a literacy coach for Berkeley County Schools, unabashed bibliophile, and advocate of lifelong literacy. When she’s not coaching teachers, teaching students, or blogging for WVCTE, she’s probably crying over a book. Aside from literacy, her other loves of life are traveling with her family and adding to her music collection. You can connect with her on Twitter @JMichaelBowman5.

WVCTE is wondering… What beauty are you witnessing in your classrooms? 

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