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The On Being Project

Gratitude for Teachers and Compassion for Kids

Let us now praise teachers. It’s August, and K-12 teachers are gearing up for the start of a new school year. These folks are at the top of my list of “culture heroes.” Five-plus days a week, often under adverse conditions, they help our children find their way into a challenging future.

For many teachers, caring about students goes far beyond good lessons, long hours, and endless patience. Among other things, they buy needed supplies that schools can’t afford, and provide breakfast food for kids who come to school hungry. (From my Almanac of Intolerable American Facts: at least 20% of our school-age children live at risk of hunger, in “food insecure” households.)

But it’s not only social conditions that make growing up a challenge. There’s also the child’s inner life, something we adults often forget about, even though we were once young — in the last century!
Here’s a Billy Collins poem that reminds us of what kids sometimes feel, and why they need “soft eyes” from all of us. Reading it, I’m filled with gratitude for all the teachers who care for our kids with compassion as well as competence.

P.S. Let’s find meaningful ways to tell teachers that we’re grateful and give them our support. I welcome your ideas about how best to do that. As my singer-songwriter friend Carrie Newcomer says, “I can’t do everything, but today I can ___________ .” Fill in that blank, tell us what you came up with, inspire the rest of us, and then go do it!

On Turning Ten
by Billy Collins

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light—
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was on an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

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