Near the end of his WWI classic, A Farewell to Arms, Hemmingway wrote :
“The world breaks everyone, and some are stronger at the broken parts.”
Even in high school, I loved the sentiment. Sure, the quote is often applied in the “what doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger” category. Yet, my appreciation for the quote fed off the word “some.” Not everyone, not all, not most. Only “some” become stronger at the broken parts.
In retrospect, it was a wise recognition in my youth, having no depth of experience to justify this belief. Years later, I have found that many of my greatest defeats and failures have served as catalysts for transformation. The pain and suffering I felt provided the foundation of many of my greatest strengths today. I am better and stronger having been broken down.
Yet, I will admit that there are parts that are not stronger. Parts that may in fact still be broken. These are parts that may never heal and may never function as they once did. They still hurt today. Only time will tell if I can ever recover.
“. . .some are stronger at the broken parts.”
As the school year comes to an end, I worry for my wife. Teaching has been her passion for her entire life. Yet, I helplessly watched as this school broke that passion. With every stupid policy and every dumb requirement, I saw the district take the creativity and joy out of my wife’s work. I saw a school more concerned with being on time rather than learning in the classroom. I saw the pressure to perform every lesson as prescribed, confusing uniformity for equality. I watched as the system made it harder and harder for my wife to teach using methods she knew worked. I saw the toll it took on her.
I remember the many days my wife came home and cried, not for an incident during the day, but the fact that she was failing the kids in her classroom. She recognized that the prescribed approach was not working. I remember her trying to subvert the system, introducing elements to her structured day that would actually help kids learn. I remember her being reprimanded for not being on time, or for not doing the prescribed lesson, her judgment as a teacher falling on deaf ears.
“The world breaks everyone . . .”
I still remember the day her passion for teaching broke, the day she wondered if she ever liked teaching. The day she wondered if she could even last another day. I shed tears myself realizing that teaching might never be the same for her.
After that point, the focus became on survival. Just make it to the end of the year. After 8 months of struggle, she stopped actively subverting the failing system. She avoided scrutiny and incorporated her methods without discussion with administrators. Open and honest discussions had led to nothing but heartbreak and angst. Now, she focused on the kids in her room.
Even that was hard, as the stress and requirements increased. As testing approached, she found herself in more meetings with less plan time and less time with kids. People “just trying to keep their job” kept getting in her way. It no longer bothered her. She was doing all that she could for the kids, knowing that it was not her best. Knowing that she wasn’t allowed to do her best.
The end of school this year was like none of the previous six for my wife. In previous years, there was a bitter-sweetness to another school year ending. The transition to summer break was also balanced by the interactions with colleagues and students that would be missed but then renewed. In contrast, the end of this school year was like a nightmare finally coming to an end.
When it was announced that my wife would not return next year, the response was muted. Her kids were sad that she would no longer be in the building, but it was no shock to them. She’s not the first teacher to leave them and the school behind and won’t be the last. From many of her colleagues, there was sadness, more than one saying that the good ones always leave. Yet, surprise was not part of their equation. They understood why. If you are not tethered to the area or the school, why would you stay? There are better jobs in education.
But my wife won’t have one of them.
She is taking a step back and getting a masters degree in school administration. This step made it easier to walk away. This route had always been planned and saved for. It offers an opportunity to do something different, to gain new perspective, to gain tools for her future. It allows a breather from the torture that teaching had become.
Think about that for a moment.
Is it any surprise that over 50% of teachers quit before they reach their sixth year of teaching (1)? In an era of high stakes testing, reduced benefits and constant disrespect, is teaching a career to stay in? In a rush to get rid of all the perceived “bad” teachers, have we considered that the system in place drives out the good ones too?
Well, one good one was driven out this school year. She made it longer than most, lasting 7 years, but all it took was one bad year in one bad school. A place with no support, no camaraderie, no teamwork. . . no hope.
“The world breaks everyone, and some are stronger at the broken parts.”
Imagine if this school was all she had known about education. Imagine if she had never had the great mentors during her first few years of teaching; the people to encourage and push her to improve. What if she had never met colleagues that inspired her and drove her to learn? What if she had never had a great team that made teaching just a little easier? Friends who understood her frustration and celebrated her successes. What if this had been her first school, and not her last?
…some are stronger at the broken parts.”
I shudder to think what would’ve happened if my wife had started her teaching career in this school. She may have been a real estate agent or working in event coordinating by now. Anything other than teaching. She would have been part of the statistic, the 50% that never made it to 5 years in teaching.
It would’ve been a shame. For the kids that would’ve missed being in her classroom. For their parents she would’ve interacted with. For her colleagues that would’ve learned from her and been pushed by her. For the schools that would’ve been supported and better because she taught there.
It would’ve been sad if she had been broken by education like so many of her colleagues have been and continue to be during their first five year.
In all honesty, she may be broken now. But, if she comes back to teaching, she will be stronger at the parts that were broken this year. If she sets foot in a classroom, I believe she will be a better teacher because of her experience and what it drove her to do. If teaching is in her future, the education world that broke her will be stronger at one of its many broken parts.
Unfortunately, the “if” in the previous paragraph is synonymous with the “some” from Hemingway’s quote. Not everyone is stronger at the broken parts, only some; and “if” means there is no guarantee that my wife will return to the classroom. It is truly a shame that it has come to this point.
Yet, I know the chances are good that she will return. While true, some are stronger at the broken places, it is rarely what broke them that heals and sustains them. No, what came before and what comes after leads to healing. For my wife, a journey back into the purity of academia may be the much needed balm. But, I know that what will sustain her is the first six years of teaching.
One bad year will not be what she remembers. She will draw back on years of education happiness, where she felt accomplished. Where she felt supported. Where she experienced teamwork. Where she grew. It is there that she might find healing.
I hope she is stronger at the broken place and that the healing has already begun. If not, she will join so many others who cared about education when they started. Broken. . . just like our education system.