Seriously, guys. How do teachers do this every day?

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Boots: check.

Lasso: check.

Yodel: check.

Folks, this week, I’m back in the classroom again. Cue music.

As many of you know, I am a former full-time teacher (Middle School, natch. And I have the scars to prove it) (I’m just kidding. Middle School kids are puppy dogs with fairy wings and butterfly kisses. For real.), and now, in addition to my writing work, from time to time I return to the classroom to teach fiction writing for a week with eager, energetic, enthusiastic, and oh, good god, tiring children.

I’m so tired right now. I can barely see straight. I may melt into the floor.

With each class today, I stood in front of these kids and poured my energy out so they could pour that same energy onto the page. That’s what I do – pour and flow, crackle and burn, light the room, hold their attention in the palm of my hands, and set their stories ablaze. They were maniacs today. Story-writing maniacs. They wrote stories with spies in them and stories with aliens in them and stories with best friends in them and stories with soldiers in them and stories about jury duty and super heroes and cranial implants and stories narrated by an arthritic dog. And they were awesome.

Since this is not my regular classroom and these are not my regular kids, I can’t rely on the relational foundation that most teachers use to keep their classrooms going. These kids don’t know me. So the only way I can get them to lose their inhibitions long enough to get their stories written down is to do my little magic tricks on my makeshift stage.

“Look here,” I say. “Storytelling is ancient.”

“And here,” I say. “Stories are an integral part of your humanity. We tell stories, therefore we are.”

“Look here,” I say. “Your brain can do tricks. Watch.”

“Look here,” I say. “I can tell you words and turn them into sentences and use those sentences to make your heart beat fast and your breathing go shallow and make all of you sit on the edges of your seats. Look at yourselves! Look at how you’re gripping your chairs. Look at how your knuckles are white. Now you make that happen in your stories.”

“Look here,” I say. “There is a dragon that can fit in your pocket. And a kingdom made of cattails. And a forest with fire in its belly. Look! A witch! Look! A liar! Look! A horde of bandits, smiling in the dark.”

I told them stories. They wrote stories. They read their stories out loud. We postulated and discussed and argued and laughed and made excellent points. I think we’re all exhausted. The kids walked out holding their writing hands limply in makeshift slings.

On my way out to my car today, I literally waded through a sea of Kindergarteners. They swirled and swelled and crashed like waves. They clung to my boots like seaweed. Third graders jostled me from side to side and fourth graders shouted like fog horns in my ears. Fifth graders pulled at my coat sleeves as I left, and sixth graders called me back because I had to listen to the funniest joke. It took me like an hour just to leave.

I love them. I love them so much. But I forget how tiring this work is. I’m sitting on the couch right now and it is so much work just to keep my skeleton from turning into a puddle on the floor. I am a pot boiled dry. I am an empty husk. I am the ashes from yesterday’s campfire. I have no muscles. My skull has shattered. My eyeballs rolled away an hour ago, and I think they’re lodged under the refrigerator. It hurts to breathe.

And I just want to point out that your kids’ teachers do this every single day. Every day, they work themselves to the dang bone. Every day they pour out their love and their intellect and their training. Every day they chart a course on your kids’ learning. You are here, they say, pointing to the map. And just look at where you are going. Isn’t it wonderful?

Teachers are awesome. And I know that, of course I do. But I know it even more during my little teaching stints. Where I meet these kids and work with these kids and love these kids, and they inhale every joule of energy in me. They drain my essence. They absorb every ounce of my soul. And I know that for their teachers, this ain’t nuthin. For them, it’s just Wednesday. They pour themselves out every single day. They are inexhaustible wells. And god bless ’em.

So here’s my challenge for you: Go out and do something nice for a teacher. Any teacher. Buy ’em a latte. Give ’em a Target gift card. Write ’em a note. Do something. Because holy smokes. Do they ever deserve it.

My hat, ladies and gentlemen. It is off.

And now, will someone please bring a hose and an air machine? Because I seem to have deflated. And I need to be re-inflated by tomorrow so I may return to the classroom and teach my heart out once again. ONCE MORE, MY FRIENDS. INTO THE DEEP.

Please play this video to all the fabulous, amazing, butt-kicking teachers in your life.

I think we need a new holiday. We can call it Make A Teacher A Delicious Cake Day. Or Give A Teacher A Pedicure Day. Or Hook A Teacher Up To A Wine I.V. Day. Something like that.

Teachers rule. You know it; I know it. Anyone who says differently is not allowed in my house or at my dinner table. Observe:

I just finished week #2 at Roosevelt High School, and I continue to be blown away by these kids – and even more blown away by these teachers. The two women who have graciously opened their classrooms to me are amazing. They are tough, funny, compassionate, razor-sharp, and built of stronger stuff than I am, I’ll tell you what. And they love those kids. And the students love them in return.

The student body at Roosevelt is remarkably diverse – racially, economically, religiously, as well as their educational backgrounds. What unites them is their kindness. These kids, man. They are kind. 

Within each classroom there is a broad skill-level range (extreme low-performers, extreme high-performers, and everything in-between), but each child – regardless of where they’re coming from – is charged with the same thing:  do your best; learn the material; don’t make excuses.

There were some kids in class today who, due to a cascade of reasons outside their control, happen to be reading way below grade-level. It happens. And yet, they still had lots to write about. Their imaginations were vigorous and intense, and when they looked inside to find the stories of their own, they realized that they had much to say. There was one kid who reads at a third-grade level, and yet when given a prompt and a little guidance, cranked out six pages of fiction in a half an hour. And it was good. 

Nice work, kid.

Whenever I do these teaching gigs, I am reminded how hard – how very hard – this job is. Right now, my voice is sore, my legs ache, and I feel like my body has spent the last six hours having tennis balls chucked at it. My head hurts, my skin hurts, and I think about nine million germs are having a party in my sinuses.

I think most of us forget how physically demanding it is to just be in a high school, much less teach in one. And Roosevelt is not even that large a school – less than a thousand students. Still. The crush of kids, the cloud of hormones, the din of voices shooting this way and that. Each one of these kids is like a nuclear reactor about to blow – all their love and hurt and hope and rage and lust and confusion and questions and knowledge – it boils and churns and accretes inside them. They are nascent stars. They are supernovas. They are quasars. Steam shoots out their ears and their skin bubbles and smokes and splits. They are a fury of kinetic energy and potential energy. They are both particle and wave.

It’s fucking hard being a teenager. Each one of them deserves a goddamn medal.

I got home, after being in that radioactive, glorious, primordial stew, and collapsed in bed. I am exhausted. I am ravaged. I am spent. My eyes are raw. My bones are made of glass. I am Chernobyl. I am Love Canal. I’m the friggin’ Bikini Atoll.

Teachers go through this every day. Teachers take these burning hunks of radioactive particles, and transform them into stars.

Good work, teachers. And God bless you.

(And Ms. Sheehan, Ms. Ober: My glass. It is raised.)

First Lines

As I mentioned before, I’m teaching this week in Chanhassen Elementary through my work with Compas Arts. (For those of you who work in schools, I can’t say enough good thing about this program. The artists on the roster are some of the most passionate and talented artists that I have ever met, and all are deeply committed to their work as teachers. There is grant money available, and honestly, you could do worse.)

I love this part of my job. I love it a lot

Whenever I start the kids off in their week of working hard writing stories, I have them do a project writing first lines of stories. Stories that do not exist yet. Stories that they would like to read someday. I tell them to write as writers write, which is to say selfishly. Because we are selfish. We follow our own passions, quirks and compulsions. We write to entertain ourselves, and it is ridiculously fun.

I have the kids think about the kinds of stories they like to read. I ask them to think about what hooks them as readers. I read to them a long list of cool first lines, and then I set them to work.

Here is what they wrote:

I was the only one left.

The sun went down, and I knew it was time.

Late one night, Bruce came back from Buffalo Wild Wings and his house was a mess.

There once was a zombie named Trevor.

Close this book and burn it.

I’m not telling you nuthin.

When she went to live on the moon, she swore she would never come back.

School is a prison for me!

We all live in Garbage Town.

She was sitting in a large field where roses bloomed.

Her eyebrows never grew back.

He became the most popular kid in school after that day, and it was all because of one paper airplane and a miniature hamster named Morris.

I told them not to go; of course they didn’t listen.

I woke up and my room was warm. Warmer than usual.

The moment I walked up to the house, the lights went out.

My teacher screamed bloody murder.

When I woke up, the elephant was in my room. And he wasn’t happy.

Yup. I’m pretty sure this week is gonna rule.