The Moment Between: On Tingling Stomachs and Striving for Teaching Perfection

In the summer of 1992, after five years as an apprentice teacher, recess aide, instructional aide and homework center director, I got my first full-time teaching job at Brown Middle School in Newton.

My new principal Judy Malone-Neville called me in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to deliver the news.

I’d be teaching seventh and eighth grade English and Social Studies in a wealthy section of a comfortable Boston suburb.

I listened politely, hung up the phone and started jumping up and down for joy.

I sang, no yelled, really U2’s She Moves in Mysterious Ways.

I set up my classroom a couple of weeks before school started,

The pictures of Larry Bird that the Boston Globe published after his retirement went right on my coat closet.

Images of nature and posters phrases designed to inspire ringed the walls.

My stomach tingled as I walked around the room after I had arranged the desks in a long U-shape to stimulate conversation.

I bounced on my heels in the center of the room, just imagining the dialogue and learning community we would be able to create together.

It was that special moment before the school year began, when no homework assignments had been missed.

No disrespect, intentional or otherwise, had occurred.

All was perfect and everything seemed possible.

It’s more than 20 years later, and again I’ll be in a new classroom.

There are differences, of course.

The students are not in middle school, but in college.

Many are not coming from suburban comfort, but from impoverished communities.

Some are juggling working three jobs.

Others bring their children to class at times because they can’t find child care.

I’m changed, too.

Firmly in middle age, I no longer hold the same belief in teaching perfection as I did as a younger man.

I understand how formed the students are when we get them and the increasingly narrow window we have in which to influence them.

But when I think about what we’ll do together, as I start inviting the guest speakers and planning the specific sessions, when I start thinking about the stories they’ll write, the scoops they’ll uncover, the progress they’ll make and the lessons they’ll teach me, I feel that familiar stirring in my stomach.

It’s a feeling of nerves based in caring about the outcome.

But it’s also that sense that, just as it was more than two decades ago in a suburban classroom close to 1,000 miles away, for a moment, all is possible.

Classes begin two weeks from today.

Stomach rumbling, I’ll be there, ready to roll.

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