I’m not done yet.
In the past year, many people have congratulated me on winning NJ State Teacher of the Year. My usual response was, “But I’m not done yet.” In many people’s eyes, I had reached the pinnacle of the teaching profession, but I was just a teacher and now I was expected to either return to my classroom to teach and ignore everything I had learned, or leave the classroom and become an administrator. I refused to accept that there were only two options, and I refused to accept that I was “just a teacher.”
My travels broadened the lens through which I viewed education and as a developing policy wonk who speaks "teacher," I have a unique perspective and big ideas. However, in the policy world I am still seen as “just a teacher” and it is frustrating. I feel a responsibility to the profession and believe that if we are going to do what is best for kids that we need to bring all the voices involved in educating our students to the table. I am learning by leaps and bounds, but have found that you are only an expert as long as you are fifty miles from home.
In January, I decided to apply for the Holy Grail of fellowships, a White House Fellowship. If I was going to make a difference I was going to need to broaden the lens of my perspective even more than I had already. Gaining this kind of experience would be invaluable, but this would not be an easy fellowship to attain because I would be competing against people in all fields, not just education, for one of these coveted spots. I was thrilled that I made the first cut and would be interviewing as a regional finalist in Boston. How cool would it be, as a history teacher, to arrive shortly after Patriots Day which celebrates both the battles of Lexington and Concord and the marathon, named after the run of the ancient Greek Phidippides to deliver news to Athens about the defeat of Persia?
Then terrorism reared its ugly head.
I arrived in Boston two days after the marathon. Boyleston St. was still shut down, as was the Copley T stop, and the first thing I saw when I exited the train station was the tents that were erected to cordon off the area because evidence was still being collected from the blasts. There was a tense atmosphere and people were demanding answers to this cowardly and heinous act that dared to destroy Patriots Day and the famous Boston Marathon.
Needless to say my mom was not very happy about me going up to an area that was an active crime scene of a terrorist act. She asked if I would be anywhere near the blast site while I was there and I lied, but it was for her own good. The original hotel suggested for the interviews was the Lenox, which was located in between the two blasts and was shut down. I assured Mom that I was nowhere near the blasts, when in truth I was only about three blocks away in another hotel. My argument was that Boston would now be the safest city on the planet for a while… and it was.
There were lots of people in Boston, including an army of media, and while many were tense, they were not scared.
Things were fine on Wednesday when I arrived and Thursday the sun came out as I sat in the park and watched the ducks and the swan boats paddle around in the park. I understood the ducks that glided effortlessly across the surface while paddling like hell underneath. They seemed to fit in Boston, a city full of grit and determination that would not be shaken, which was evidenced by the memorial service that took place earlier in the morning. I needed to channel that vibe for my White House Fellows dinner that night which would be the first time I met my competition and the judges who would be interviewing me the next day.
I can’t tell you how impressed I was with my fellow candidates. Many were from the Boston area and they are the best of the best at what they do. If you looked up the word overachiever in the dictionary, you would see their pictures. The bombings were a topic at dinner, especially since they had just released pictures of the suspects, but it didn’t control the conversation. There was something in the room that evening that just would not allow fear to stand in the way of higher ideals like civic responsibility and democracy. Clearly, the terrorists had picked the wrong city to mess with.
Dinner was great and we said our goodbyes until the next morning’s interviews. Just as I was drifting off to sleep there was something on the news about a shooting at MIT.
By the time I woke up the next morning the city was on lockdown. Being a teacher, I am used to lockdown drills every month, but preventing a million people from going anywhere was impressive. I got the call early that the interviews had been cancelled, many of my fellow candidates and the judges lived in the area that was now being searched block by block for the terrorist. With the busses, subway, taxis and Amtrak shut down, I wasn’t going anywhere. The streets were empty and there were no restaurants open except for the one at the hotel, so I hunkered down to watch the coverage on TV, but it was weird to hear sirens and helicopters both right outside your window and on TV at the same time. You could hear the cheers outside later in the evening as the second suspect was caught and every time a police/fire/security vehicle drove by.
My interview will be rescheduled, and although I have been given the option to go to other panels in NYC and DC which are closer, I will be returning to Boston. I like the city and the toughness of its people because as a Jersey girl, I identify. I want to make a difference for our students, and that means growing and learning while also keeping that idea of civic responsibility and social justice as the goal of my actions. I need students to not only learn content, but to build relationships and be the absolute best that they can be, whether it is as a cosmetologist, chef, nurse, firefighter or law enforcement officer. Whether they are defending our country in the military, designing the roads we drive on, building the planes we fly in, or composing the music that inspires us, I need them, whatever their calling, to remember that we all have a responsibility for each other and a common humanity. I want my students, like the people of Boston, to run toward the danger and help when it is needed and organize supports to help people recover because it is the right thing to do. I need them to do all this because some day my students are going to be in charge of you and me and I need them to be resilient, determined and exemplify perseverance. I need them to see the big picture beyond their own circumstance and realize what they do matters.
The best way I know how to do that is to lead by example.
I’m not done yet. Boston proud, Boston strong.