Every teacher knows the value of summer. It’s a time when children build shelters on the beach, create grandiose castles, sell lemonade and, as they get older, gather golf clubs, sell ice cream, bus tables or direct summer traffic. All those months of sitting at a desk suddenly translate into hands-on activity, putting into practice abstract skills that have been learned. They learn math from checking their pay slips (and mistakes carry a very different penalty — they don’t give detention for work not done in the real world).
And what about teachers? For many of them, summer is a time to unwind, reacquaint with family and catch up on your own education. My colleagues take courses, travel, grade advanced placement papers and, in my own case, review the MCAS tests for bias and issues of sensitivity. The school year is intense, building to a crescendo each year until finally there is a break. And in September it all begins again with a new cast of students. This marks my 20th year of teaching at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, and the students I have known during that time have enriched my life, decorated my room, shared their thoughts with me and struggled for success. And each year I walk into a new class with a feeling of nervousness as I begin the annual search to find rapport, build relationships and learn to read each student so that I can be a mentor. It is my job to light a fire for thinking in the minds of these young people. So far, so good, but what if this year is different? I think awareness of the fragile bond between teacher and student is what makes every teacher try harder to share their passion and learn the passions of those they are teaching. Too many protocols and laminated lesson plans can make the magic disappear. I would advise any new teacher to take a deep breath and not be intimidated by the avalanche of paper and regulations that will descend upon you. Know your subject, understand that when it comes to information, so much is the perspective of the participant, and realize that the classroom is where it matters. Get to know your students and know what happens with them, treasure your teaching colleagues who labor daily, as you do, to reach and enlighten students. And realize that the point of this great endeavor of education is transformation through learning. Let those who generate papers rather than teach children do so. It is not the way of the teacher.
So what did I do this summer? I went to Ireland as I always do to reconnect with family and neighbors. Ireland, where I was raised, and I know its values and culture. This year a neighbor’s brother died in England, so he went on that sad journey to bring his brother home to the village where he was born. We all went to the reception at the church and shook hands with the bereaved, honoring their sorrow and recognizing the value of the life that was lost. There was a carnival, a heritage day and a family reunion for me, known in Ireland as a gathering. Forty-five cousins who all shared the same grandparents gathered in Glencullen, County Mayo and shared their memories of our redoubtable grandmother born in the village of Dubh lough who was married to man more than twice her age and bore eight children before his death, when the youngest was a baby in the cradle. Our memories were of a strong woman who dominated the family throughout her life and ensured survival. We spent three days together sharing memories, watching Gaelic football, visiting ancient graveyards, recording our stories and enjoying great hospitality. At the end of the three days, we were all different. We had laughed and cried together and rebuilt the bonds of blood that tied us.
And what did I do next? Well, we went to Spain to enjoy the hot sun that Ireland does not provide. Courtesy of Ryanair, friend of the impoverished traveler, we arrived in Gerona, a beautiful town. We explored the medieval cathedral and enjoyed the pavement cafes and then left for Barcelona. I should mention at this point that I had been warned repeatedly about Barcelona’s reputation for pick-pocketing tourists, so I was prepared with a borrowed handbag, replete with numerous zippers. Unfortunately, in the one minute I had to leap from the wrong train, I grabbed my suitcase and left my bag on the train. I do not speak Spanish and so began the saga of the handbag. Everything of importance was in that bag, and it was heading for Valencia, about four and a half hours away. Even the hotel where we were staying warned me that I would probably never see it again and if I did, it would be empty. Without speaking a word of the language, I was dependent on the kindness of strangers and I will never forget how much kindness I received. The concierge at the hotel called the station repeatedly to talk to them about the train where I had left my bag, and found out that the bag had been found and given to the lost property office at Valencia. When we decided that we would take a trip to Valencia to get the bag, he wrote a letter for me detailing the bag, its alleged contents and got the manager to sign and stamp the letter. Then off we went to Valencia, where I was reunited with my bag with all its contents, including cash, intact. Beware my friends of stereotypes! They mislead us for sure. Barcelona, city of the alleged pickpocket, turned out to be the city of kindness to strangers who do not speak Spanish. I wonder in how many places on earth I would have been as lucky. Two lessons learned: the first is to go beyond stereotypes and actually talk to people; and second, recognize how frightening it is to be unable to speak the language of the country and reach out a helping hand.
Summer is a time for learning. To all those students now preparing for school, buying their new clothes and backpacks and looking hopefully toward a new year — bring what you learned this summer. Bring your culture, your community, your hopes and dreams for your future and seek out the teachers who make you welcome. Let your teachers get to know you and find a space where you can actually be who you are. There is always that safe, welcoming space, so seek it out. Somewhere there is a teacher who welcomes and encourages you. From that safe space, you can conquer the world.
Elaine Cawley Weintraub is chairman of the history department at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.