D. just commented this evening that I seem more relaxed about this new school year than she's seen me in recent years, and I think it's true. Mostly it's because (a) hello, Autumn of Healing! Respect the season!, but also (b) I had an epiphany this August that I'm always about the same level of stressed and frazzled one month into school, regardless of how much work I did or didn't do during the summer beforehand. And one of the lessons I've learned about HS teaching is that (at least for me) there's always a certain amount of flying by the seat of my pants no matter how much I think I have everything carefully planned and controlled for. So why fret too much ahead of time? I try to have a road map for the year, including the approximate timing of various books we're reading and a pretty good idea of the major assignments I'll give, and beyond that I know I'll be hammering the details out in 2- to 3-week chunks (and even then things will often get changed up a bit as we go). And this year I'm teaching two sections each of two courses I've taught before, so I'm feeling like I've got things relatively under control. This relative calm has been a hard-won victory over the course of the last five years, and I'm feeling good about it.
But there is one thing that has been stressing me out about the new school year, something I managed to forget about for most of the summer but that was brought forcibly home to me again on Wednesday morning.
As you may have noticed, we're in an election season, with heated contests at multiple levels of government. And I am going to have as a student this year a close family member of a Republican candidate for office, a candidate whose family has some significant political weight. I'll be vague here, but let's just say that, if you live in my part of the country, you know this family name well. And this candidate's young relative of the same last name is going to be in my class, which normally would not be a big deal -- there is room for different political opinions in my classroom, I would hardly hold a HS student responsible for her family's politics, I wouldn't assume that a teenager necessarily shares her family's politics, and in general we don't talk about party politics in my classes anyway -- but the course she's going to be enrolled in is my AP course on rhetoric and composition, in which we often do talk about political speech, so I'm feeling nervous. I am always careful to have us talk about the *rhetoric* rather than the *politics* of political speech, but that distinction is often lost on people.
Now, I've known since last spring that this kid was going to be in this AP course, because students have to apply to and be selected for the course. And, according to previous teachers, she's a lovely, bright young woman ... and one who doesn't necessarily agree with her family on all points (and what teenager really does?). I haven't met her myself (which is unusual, but there were logistical reasons that we didn't meet last spring when I was meeting the other incoming AP students). I will confess that the ignoble part of me has cringed a couple of times when her name has popped up in my email inbox, because of the association with her political candidate relative, of whom I am decidedly not a fan, but I've taught all sorts of students whose families I wasn't wild about! So I really am keeping as open a mind about her as I do about all of my students whom I don't yet know.
Her family, on the other hand ...!
I was trying to ignore the thought of Parents' Weekend, Grandparents' Day, and all the rest, and I kept telling myself not to get all wound up, that there was no reason to expect that there would be any problems at all. FGS has a mostly liberal student body but with some conservative students, some of whom are outspoken in their politics, and I had never had problems before. Well, with the obvious exception of that Occupy Movement difficulty last fall (which I wrote about here and here and here), and I'm sure that I'm extra-sensitive about potential political problems in my AP course because of that experience last fall. Knowing that, I had been working overtime not to project last year's experiences onto this year's students (what is that saying about generals always fighting the previous war?).
But then, on Wednesday morning at a faculty meeting, the head of school made a special point about this particular student and her family and the upcoming election, telling us that the student's father (who is not himself the political candidate) had complained to the school four years ago about the "unbalanced" atmosphere of the school around the election. In the context of that announcement, she reminded us that we have a student body that is more politically diverse than we may realize (and definitely more politically diverse than the faculty) and that we need to be extra careful in this election season to make sure that all students feel welcome to express their political views -- to which I say "absolutely, fair enough. I'd hope that we would all do this anyway, but the reminder is most welcome." But the rest of her announcement, about this family and the fact that they'd complained before, felt like a warning that this family was watching us and would be quick to complain again. I wasn't the only one to feel like that particular warning crossed the line -- several colleagues felt that it was a misstep on the part of a head who rarely makes them -- but it probably freaked the kid's teachers more than others, and I bet that, because of my specific course, it probably freaked out me in particular more than the student's other teachers, except maybe her US History teacher. (I do know that the Political Science teacher ran straight from the meeting to make sure that the kid wasn't in her course, and she was very relieved when the answer was "no.")
As part of that freaking out, I spent a good bit of energy Wednesday night practicing potential speeches to this student's father in case he officially accuses me of bias or the like. I wanted to be able to (apparently) extemporaneously defend my professionalism and make him seem small and petty for daring to impugn the great Dr. Now. There was a good deal of heat to my practiced protestations, which I completely realize is very silly since I've never even met the man, probably couldn't pick him out of a lineup (since he himself is not the political candidate), and he obviously hasn't ever accused me of anything at all. So, on the one hand, this was obviously a ridiculous waste of my time and energy and wasn't good for my peace of mind that night; on the other hand, maybe I just had to wrap my head around the worst-case scenario, in a "hope for the best, prepare for the worst" kind of way.
What I realized the next morning in the shower (where I often have my best ideas) is that I was also having quite a bit of St. Martyr's flashback in all of this -- the idea that a conservative, powerful force is watching my every move and will impugn my professionalism and my very character and, in doing so, threaten my livelihood.
Having realized that flashback effect -- and will I ever completely exorcise St. Martyr's from my psyche? -- and having my "extemporaneous" speech prepared in my back pocket in case it's needed, I've been able to calm down and managed not to fret about this student and her family at all today. And I'm hoping that, when I finally meet her next week, she will shrink down to regular student size, and her parents down to normal parent size, instead of the gargantuan, looming threat that they've seemed to me this week. It also helped that, completely unrelated to all of this, the academic dean made a point of stopping by my room today to congratulate me on last year's AP scores -- which really were truly fabulous, although I say it as shouldn't! As always, I modestly gave the credit to the students; and of course the students really do deserve much of the credit, but the dean immediately stressed that my teaching was obviously vital to the students' achieving as much as they had ... which is true! But this exchange was a nice reminder that I do have a significant reputation at FGS as well as being much beloved by the administration; this is no St. Martyr's, I'm not in a vulnerable position, and so I can just calm down and treat this kid just like all the rest of the kids, as a student who is coming into the course prepared to do her best, learn a lot, and have fun along the way.
Or at least that is the refrain that I will repeat to myself as needed.