Monte Cristo is really a breathtaking place. In Spanish, the word for it is bellísimo, or the most beautiful it could possibly be. After school Hilary and I sit on the back porch and watch the hawks glide in circles through the valley. Their wings, spread 5 feet across, carry them in loops above the pine trees. I know they’re looking for something but it seems like they’re just enjoying the wind, flying for nothing more than the pleasure of flight. In those moments, when the clouds stop to rest on the volcanoes and the chickens rustle softly around the coffee farm, I think of Monte Cristo as a place that could not be more beautiful. It is perfect.
The peacefulness slips away unnoticed in the chaos of a Middle School classroom. It escapes out the door, diffuses through the windows, and passes like smoke among cracks in the terra cotta roof. All that remains after is tension. I have a new respect for middle school teachers after my time here. Classrooms are like rubber bands for the children. They stretch it exactly to the point they think it will reach before it snaps back at them. For that reason, there is always tension. When I started teaching, I snapped harshly against the pressure. I was quick to raise my voice and my face was always stern. During test days I wore all black to scare the children away from cheating. Sometimes my tactics worked, most of the time they didn’t. More importantly, I began to understand that harshness does not soften a rock. It only chips at it roughly or pushes it away altogether. The gentleness of the brook is what will smooth it to a stone, but only over time.
We teach here five days a week, eleven classes total. Some of our free time is spent typing up assignments and tests to put them into the soon-to-be Monte Cristo English curriculum, which the school can then pass down from year to year. For now, we create each week from scratch. The rest of our time is spent grading or planning, and we use any slivers of a break to press forward with Queen Bee lotions.
I have learned a lot in the last three months of teaching. A lot of it is about myself- my temper, my flexibility, my sense of humor. Some of it is about teenagers- why they don’t listen, what they care about, and how insecure they are. Much of what I learned is about the classroom itself. A lot of work has to go into the children away from their desks to prepare them to sit behind it. English is learned in a class; leadership is learned on the soccer field. Grammar is learned on a blackboard; self-confidence is learned during the talent show. Vocabulary comes from the glossary; respect comes from the lunchroom. The students remember the moments you spend with them when you don’t have to. When kids take off the weight of their backpacks, they should be carrying each lesson from outside the classroom as a tool to flourish within it. A better classroom is constructed from the outside in.
Watching hawks and teaching students are two very distinct activities. Hawks looping in the valley is a beauty already completed. It makes Monte Cristo seem without want of anything. But children forming into leaders is a beauty in process. It brings exposed the challenges around us and gives me inner peace in the chaos of the class, because I see the scene forming. Both together bring a fullness to life here that I cherish. There is always a long way to go and forever a reminder of where we can arrive. And always, in everything, beauty.