I wasn’t sure what I was going to say to them once I’d gotten past the “Hi, my name is…” portion of the day. I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell them that I was going to be their teacher, that I had been chosen to replace their beloved strings teacher. I didn’t know how I was going to convince them that I was qualified to guide them and lead them—especially because I was having trouble convincing myself of that. They were all so, well, they were scary. They were angry. They were apathetic. They were disconnected. And they were all so old.
This isn’t what I thought I’d be signing up for when I was in college. I had spent countless hours preparing myself to teach elementary school; to sing songs and play games and teach the foundations of music. I wasn’t supposed to be teaching middle school. And I definitely wasn’t supposed to be teaching high school, with their weird smells and their bad attitudes and their disregard for authority. I was supposed to be teaching kids who were 7, not 17.
So I mustered my courage. I stood up tall. I drew on the wisdom I’d gained from every strings teacher I’d ever had. I channeled Lisa Roberts and the way she commanded a room. I channeled Barbara Woodring and her passion for music. I channeled Kelly Ginther and her excitement. And I channeled Carole Makowski and her unfaltering love for her students. And I stood up. And I breathed in deep. And I said: “Hi,mynameisMr.AdamsandI’msoexcitedtobeyourstringsteacherthisyear.” I word-vomited, all one word, no breaks, no breaths, nothing that resembled actual human communication.
They all blinked in slow motion at me trying to make sense of the ridiculous thing I’d said. It was their first day back after summer break and, unlike me, they had not yet reacclimated to the world of academia. They were still trying to figure out who they were; they weren’t ready to find out who I was. But I told them anyway. I told them why I was qualified to tell them how to play violin. I told them about how once, when I was their age, I had played in Honor Orchestra of America. I told them about how I had a brother their age, so I wasn’t out of touch with them. I told them about how I had never been so excited for anything in my entire life.
And on the inside, I told myself over and over that this was fine. That I could do anything for a year. That I just had to stick it out for this school year and then I could quit.
Those kids looked at me in total disbelief. They didn’t care what I knew. They didn’t care how good I told them I was at viola. They didn’t care what I said my qualifications were.
One girl shoved a handful of goldfish crackers into her mouth every time she thought I wasn’t looking. A boy and a girl sat so close together I thought I might have to surgically separate them. One boy told me he’d only signed up for my class because the previous teacher didn’t make him do anything.
My vision grew dim for a moment as I asked for the 30th time that day if I’d made some kind of mistake. I’d left a job at Wal-Mart with the potential to promote. I had good recommendations and good evaluations. I could have stayed there and not had to venture out of a world I had come to exist comfortably in.
Sure, I had student taught. I had done well at it; nobody questioned whether or not I was ready for a classroom. Nobody, of course, except for me. I questioned everything.
When the students had entered my classroom just moments before, I had panicked that I was messing something up. I had a horrible flashback to a question on my teacher certification test. It had been a question about Mr. Jones—you know, that notorious Mr. Jones who always had some kind of issue going on.
Mr. Jones was a first year middle school teacher. He had prepared for the first day of school, He had the desks set up in perfect rows and his name and start-of-class information on the board. Three girls came into Mr. Jones’ room and asked where to sit and he allowed them to pick their own seats.
There was a list of other things that happened as well, but nearly ten years later, I can’t remember what they were.
What I do remember is we had to write about five things Mr. Jones should have done differently to create a successful classroom environment. And I couldn’t figure out five things he’d done wrong. I was so frustrated over the question that I eventually just shut down. Needless to say, I did not get full credit for that question.
As the students filtered into my room that day, I wondered if I had become Mr. Jones. What had I done wrong that students would write about me on their certification exams? What would an observer think about the way I conducted that first day? Because I was just playing make believe in that high school classroom that day. I had no idea what I was doing. I was totally winging it. I didn’t even know how to print my syllabus from the school printer. I’d had to print it at home, then bring it up and make copies at school. I didn’t know how to use the staple setting, so I had hand stapled all of my syllabi. I didn’t know anything. I certainly didn’t know how to teach these children anything.
I looked out at the skeptical faces before me, all over analyzing and questioning and confused. I checked my watch after three forevers had passed. Exactly six minutes had passed. I had 44 more to go. Great. This was wonderful. The orchestra room was like a football game: times didn’t matter and it passed as it saw fit here. Three forevers was six minutes. That math seemed pretty easy to work out. If I carried the one and multiplied by the reciprocal, it seemed I was either going to die of old age or pure anxiety before the class period ended. Either way, I was not making it out alive.
Why had nobody taught me what to do on the first day of school?
I mean, sure, I had taught the first day of school when I student taught. But that was first grade. We’d played a sing-song game. I’d taught them that I’d sing, “Good day, boys and girls.” And they’d respond, “Good day, Mr. Adams.” And then I’d sing, “How are you today my friends?” And they’d sing, “Very fine, thank you.”
Somehow, I didn’t see my high schoolers going for the same game.
So I reevaluated. What did I know about high school? Nothing. Literally nothing. My little brother was their age, but he wasn’t your typical high schooler. He’d been raised by me. He was the nerdiest, weirdo kid who ever existed. After me of course. He just had a lot more social grace than I’d ever dream of having.
So I stood awkwardly for another four minutes while they stared back at me. Finally, I excused myself to my office where I could take attendance. And then I realized I’d never asked their names. I’d introduced myself but I hadn’t asked a single student his or her name. What was wrong with me? I was floundering hard. This is not how things were supposed to go.
“You look like Adam Lambert,” one of them finally said to me, breaking the awkward tension.
I didn’t know how I looked like Adam Lambert. I looked like I had eaten Adam Lambert, maybe. But that’s it.
“You have dark hair and pretty green eyes like him,” she said, very comfortingly.
“Oh yeah, I can see that,” said another sweet girl.
The heaviness in the air disappeared with that one comment. And suddenly we were friendly. We were old friends, chatting away. Something about that statement fixed everything that was broken between us.
The rest of the year went swimmingly after that. It wasn’t perfect, by any means. It was rough at times; I had all of the typical issues of a first-year teacher. And I had issues atypical of a first-year teacher. It was nothing like I’d expected, teaching that group of students who taught me so much more than they’d ever know. I wouldn’t trade that first year for anything, those amazing kids who, for the very first time, allowed me to love them like my own.
That group of seniors still check in with me from time to time, updating me on their lives. One is a chef and one is finishing law school. One just graduated from OT school and one is going for an advanced degree in Latin. One is in Seattle, living life free as an artist. And I couldn’t be more proud of any of them. And I couldn’t be more thankful for any of them.
They’re the ones who taught me how to do what I do now. I owe them more than I’ll ever be able to repay.