Keira Flynn-Carson - Metzger Fellowship Essay

SISYPHUS

Before my first class as an 8th grade English teacher at Pierce School began, the guidance counselor wanted to speak to me.  “So Rachel’s mother met with me yesterday to see if Rachel could switch out of your class into Miss Kra’s.  It wasn’t  anything  against you. She doesn't even know you. But  that is kind of the point.” The fact that skeptics were appearing even though my first lesson hadn’t transpired yet triggered every ounce of self consciousness and anxiety I had ever collected.  

“I get that,” I responded. She had doubts about me; so did I.

 But why did I?

My upbringing was not exactly an intellectual one. My father went to technical high school to learn carpentry. His skills  and  work ethic pulled him from poverty in Ireland (and then Cambridge) to the blue collar middle class in Dedham. My  mom was the child of a Newfoundland fisherman who moved to Dorchester for more plentiful fish.  She and her four brothers grew up in one floor of a three family home in Fields Corner. But although my parents hadn’t gone to college, they both voraciously read (mostly crime novels), and espoused the value of a good education and a library card.

In every family of a certain size, the emergence of identity constructs is inevitable. Though no one ever asked us to verbalize it, my three siblings and I would probably use the same language to identify each other: Heather is the responsible, hard worker. Jen is the smart, theatrical one. Sean is the only boy. I am the big-hearted optimist.  Having a label solidifies an identity, but it also artificially limits it.  To me, Jen would always be the smart one. She participated in the gifted and talented program in elementary school, went to a “fancy college” and took on an affected British accent when she returned from said fancy college in a way that made us (with our Boston accents) feel judged.

Though I did well in school, I deemed my work as a friend and a track captain more important than my intellectual development, until my obsession with the band The Cure opened a new portal for me. When I saw them live during my Junior year, I bought the tour booklet, which listed several of their favorite books.  There, I saw names like Camus and Sartre. My love of The Cure morphed into a love of philosophy and literature (what would become my double major in college). By that time, I had lost my Boston accent, though I don’t remember ever trying to.  

In my college years, I tried to make up for lost time. I read poetry for pleasure and spent hours at the library watching BBC’s collected Shakespeare plays. When one chapter of Foucault or Nietzsche was assigned, I read the whole book. I loved learning, but I was also fueled by an anxious need to reconceive of myself as scholarly.

My first teaching jobs were as a Humanities teacher at a residential treatment program for female sex offenders, and in Winchester’s social/emotional middle school program.  In these roles, my big-hearted optimism fit the bill.  When I was hired in Brookline, I started to have doubts about how well developed my intellectual self had become, given its late nurturing. I was caught in the middle of two worlds: spending my days with the children of editors, Harvard professors, and judges, then leaving for a family vacation where my mom teased me for bringing “hard books” to the beach.

When I got married the summer after my first year at Pierce, my uncle Kevin walked up to the pulpit to read the poem I assigned him, but first he cleared his throat and went rogue. With his strong Dorchester accent, he launched in, “This is a really classy wedding and all, but I want to remind everyone that we’re from Dorchester. And in the barrooms of Dorchester, we have our own wisdom . . .” I can’t remember what he said next, probably because I was ruminating on his need to “keep it real”.  I was not at all embarrassed by this. In fact, I was charmed by it. But my school stress-induced insomnia was painful evidence that Kevin didn’t need to remind me of my roots; my self doubt would always keep me tethered to them.

That Fall, I was given the chance to teach eighth grade English. Here, I learned that the kids other teachers thought were challenging were easy for me.  Because my parents hadn’t gone to college, and because my sister was the smart one, the kids who other people deemed easy (the ones who did all their work and wanted more) I saw as my weak spot. If they needed the intellectual in me, could I deliver? What if, in a rush, I misspelled something on the blackboard? What if I dropped my r’s and revealed too much of my Dorchester lineage? These thoughts preoccupied me.

All of this led me to the moment in the guidance counselor’s office where the confines of the schedule forced Rachel to stay in my class. And each day, I’d develop my lesson plan, imagine a cruel scenario in which Rachel and her elegant mother would critique each choice I made, and then I’d redraft the lesson plan. I read Rachel's serious or inquisitive expressions as  doubtful or judgmental. Even a few months in, the more consistent enthusiastic eye contact she gave me in class did nothing to quell the tsunami of fear I had allowed to overtake me.

In contrast, there was Ivan. Ivan was expelled from another Brookline public school and was being given a second chance at Pierce. Ivan got in fights, seemed to hold himself apart from the other kids, and had a diagnosis of non-verbal learning disability. Other teachers were nervous about him, but his needs called forth my strengths. I wasn’t the erudite professorial teacher I thought some students needed me to be, but I was good at connecting with disenfranchised kids who needed nurturing. And we went on to have a very successful year together.

While other teachers and administrators marveled at how I had connected with Ivan, I didn’t see what the fuss was about.  I taught him about his learning disability, I gave him the tools to navigate it, and I told him that he was capable and bright. But most importantly, he needed to be cared for and listened to, and I was good at very persistent optimism and caring.

I took the fact that Rachel would linger in my classroom at the end of the day to talk about music and to ask for book recommendations as evidence that I successfully won Rachel (and maybe her mom) over - though the credit it allowed me to give myself was painfully fleeting. I couldn’t capitalize on it in a way that would have any traction because the problem was that I hadn’t won myself over.

The following year, I got my Masters at Harvard to convince future students and parents, but most importantly to convince myself, that I, too, could be the smart one.  Yet even Harvard’s stamp didn’t save me from my self-doubt.  Each year there would be new Ivans and new Rachels. The Ivans I could approach with confidence knowing that the only thing they required was a tireless application of my skills.  The Rachels were different. They made me question whether or not I had the skills. Each year, there would be new skeptics (real and perceived), especially when I transitioned to the high school where the intellectual culture seemed all the more ingrained.

From Camus, I learned the myth of Sisyphus (thanks for that one, Robert Smith!). Now I realize that my own path as a teacher is a Sisyphean one. Each year, I encounter my Rachels and their parents. They are the rock I press up the steep hill toward June. But the next September lands me right back where the hill meets flat land.  In the myth, I can’t remember any mention of Sisyphus’s muscles getting stronger each time he pushed the rock uphill. Luckily, teaching  does allow for that kind of growth. The hill may be as steep, the rock as heavy, but fourteen years of experience here has gradually strengthened me for each new attempt.  

Now, I don’t identify myself as an intellectual faker, but rather as the intellectual striver I’ve always been.  I don’t feel the deep pang of fear anymore when a parent asks me if I have read xyz novel and I haven’t. I just add it to my very long Amazon wish list.  I even intentionally let my Boston accent out in class to add color to stories or to talk about how to craft authentic sounding dialogue.  So when I teach a new semiotics course in the spring to the brilliant boy with the photographic memory whose mom is a well known education activist who majored in semiotics, instead of triggering my past wounds of self doubt, I’ll remember that each path uphill is a new opportunity to change my mindset about the journey. And every year, as I chip away at my doubt, the hill starts to appear just a little less steep.

Keira Flynn-Carson teaches English in School Within a School at Brookline High School.