The Dancer


I love the intimacy of podcasts – personal stories of people I have never met, delivered directly to me via my phone and a set of earbuds.  But recently, I heard a podcast that felt a bit too intimate.  While I walked home from the gym on a spring evening, I heard a former professional dancer talking about why she had to quit.  “I was so beat up,” she said.  “I would have ice packs attached to every part of my body.”  She still loved the job, still believed it to be her calling, yet she also saw how it wore her down.  Tears rose to my eyes, and I had to pause the podcast.

Why was the dancer’s story making me cry?  I heard my own story in hers.  For five years, I had taught in Brookline High School’s Opportunity for Change program (known as OFC), working with students who struggled with their attendance and homework, mostly because their lives outside of school made it difficult for them to motivate themselves.  Often I felt like little more than a witness to their pain, feeling their suffering but powerless to do anything about it.  I felt as battered and bruised as the dancer covered in ice packs.

I started the podcast again.  I heard how the dancer explained her feelings to her comedian husband: “Imagine if comedy was a thing where you could... on the job, hurt yourself and then you weren’t able to be as funny as you used to be.”  I didn’t have to imagine.  My teaching experience in OFC was just like that, wearing me down emotionally until I could no longer do my job as well as I wanted.  Very early in the year, I had decided to leave OFC and move to the mainstream English department.  Like the dancer, I knew I had to leave, but it pained me.  I was as devoted to teaching in OFC as she was to dancing.  It had consumed five years of my life and given them meaning and purpose.  I loved it, I loved my students, I wanted to stay committed to them so they knew they were worth my time and love.  But if I was going to keep dancing at all, I needed a gentler dance.

My own memories began to drown out the podcast.  All year, I had been doing a job I had acknowledged I could no longer do.  The winter was the worst; while snowstorm after snowstorm pummeled Boston, the daily demands of teaching left me feeling beat up and defeated.

In January, I was dragging my seniors through an essay that would prepare them for their senior paper.  It took almost ten minutes just to get everyone working quietly. Finally, I knelt beside Jeremy’s desk to see how he was doing.  He had re­written the first sentence of his second paragraph for the third time and wanted to change his whole thesis.  It looked like he would not finish, just as he had not finished most of his writing assignments in the past two years.  Next, I approached Emma’s desk to check in about her senior paper reading, and she rolled her eyes before I even said a word.  She knew she was behind, and she had been arguing with her aunt about it every night.  Then the door banged open to reveal Mike, striking a pose in its frame and saying, “Miss me?”  He sauntered into the room, fist­bumped his friends, sat down, and drew the class into a conversation about their weekend plans.  I sighed, scanning the room, and noticed that Laura was still not there.  She had not come to school all week.

It was painful to watch my seniors, some of whom I had taught for two or three years, flounder and sabotage themselves.  I knew what they had gone through ­­ growing up far away from home and family in Barbados, watching two parents battle addiction, losing a mother to cancer ­­ and I knew how far they had come.  I saw their resilience, their intelligence, their ambition.  But here they were, failing to take charge of their lives in this crucial moment.  I was starting to wonder if any of them would graduate on time, and I felt powerless to help them.

 It was no different, really, than it had been in my previous years in OFC, but I was no longer the sprightly new dancer, recovering from bumps and sprains with a little rest and a little ice. Repeated impact had turned surface bruises into deep injuries, and I could no longer dance through the pain. I vented in my journal, “I still have almost six months left, and my patience is already gone.  I feel completely ineffective... and the fact that that makes me angry is not good for the kids.  I need to leave because I am no longer the best teacher for them.”

Knowing that I would soon leave OFC didn’t help.  I could no longer feel the joy in the dance through the pain it caused me, and I felt guilty for failing to create that joy for my students.  More rationally, I understood that it was not my fault.  I knew I was not the first teacher to feel this way. But my deeper fear was that I had lost the joy of teaching forever.  I was afraid it was not just OFC that was beating me up, that it was teaching itself.  While I was still dancing on my strained muscles, it was hard to imagine that leaving OFC would re­energize me.  On top of that, I felt like I was abandoning the students who needed me most.

In the last days of June, while I was limping off the stage, my body mostly intact, I felt more optimistic but just as conflicted.  The very last day of school, I witnessed two scenes that threw into sharp relief my mixed feelings about leaving OFC.

Laura was working in my room, making up time from her earlier absences so she could earn her diploma.  The OFC Coordinator, Amy Bayer, came in to talk with her. She asked Laura where she had been the previous day; she had not called or texted.

“I was visiting my dad in the hospital.  He overdosed again,” she said plainly.

As Amy placed a hand on her shoulder and expressed her sympathy, Laura’s eyes filled up.

“It’s okay,” she said. “He’s getting older.  I know that’s just how he’s going to go one day.”  None of her tears spilled over.

 A few hours later, I walked down a third floor hallway, weighed down by a box of books I would be teaching next year.  A junior girl stood with her biology teacher, sobbing, “That can’t be my final grade... I need an A in this class... I’m applying to college early – I’ve already applied to college early.”

I was struck by the difference in these two tearful moments.  In my classroom, Laura stoically faced her father’s mortality, while this junior cried about her grade.  Next year, I would go from working with students like Laura to working with students like the inconsolable junior.  I wasn’t sure how to handle this different type of tears. 

I walked down the stairs and opened the door to my classroom.  I sat in one of the student desks, scanned the now bare walls.  I felt like I was giving up on students like Laura.  I could escape the pain of her life, and of her classmates’ lives, but they could not.  That was what tore me up about leaving, but it was also why I needed to leave.

The crying junior came back to me, and now I saw her with more empathy.  Her emotion, though it seemed at first ridiculous next to Laura’s, was no less real.  I could certainly relate to cracking under college application pressure.  There was also a lot behind her tears I could not see; maybe an older sister to whom her parents constantly compared her, or a sick grandmother whom she wanted desperately to impress.  Students like her would need me too.

Teaching is full of balancing acts.  One of the most precarious is to feel empathy for your students, but not too much.  Not enough empathy, and you become cold and cynical, dancing through the motions without any joy.  Too much empathy, and you are left battered, icing your bruises.  You need to balance empathy for your students with empathy for yourself.

This year in mainstream, I will have all kinds of students: students like Laura, students like the stressed­out junior, students like none I have ever had before.  I will have a lot more students than I had in OFC, and most of them I will not know as well.  At first, I will feel this as a void, but it will also be a respite, a chance to heal. Then my new students will fill that void, and I will have to guard against new and different injuries.  But I will keep dancing as long as I can, as long as I still feel the joy.

Julia Rocco teaches English at Brookline High School.