George Lucas Educational Foundation

Impossible & Necessary: Surviving the Hardest Year of My Career

Impossible & Necessary: Surviving the Hardest Year of My Career

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Man looking out at a lake

I’ve never submitted a student to the child study team for talking, but I came close last year. Let’s call him Joe.

Joe the Impossible

Joe opened his mouth and everything fell out. It was impressive, really. His stamina and energy for talking, which I soon found out was really a performance, equaled three students –– maybe four if he was really cookin’.

I’ve had persistent talkers in the past, but Joe was different. He didn’t really have interest in talking with other students. He channeled most of his air towards me. It didn’t matter if I was addressing the whole class or working quietly at my table, he cut in with a story, a comment, or just a little, “Hi, Mr. P. What’s your favorite color?”

Sometimes he tried to sneak up on me. Sometimes I’d be working at my table and when I lifted my head…Joe! There he was ready to chat, to give me an update on his day, or to ask a question. Joe was the self-proclaimed question machine. “I have questions! Many questions. And I need answers now,” he told me early in the year. He wasn’t lying. It was a mixture of curiosity, ADHD, just being a talker, and sometimes he just asked questions to lead into some sort of comedy routine or joke.

I started writing down some of the questions and comments throughout the year. He had some doozies like, “Did you give your wife a massage on Valentine’s day?” and funny ones like, “Why are children called children?” I have no doubt Joe will mature into a great comedian or actor. The difference between a good comedian and a great one is timing. Joe had impeccable timing and sometimes I couldn’t even tell if he was joking or not. Like this one time…

Joe moped up to me, clearly distraught, gazing down at his palms, which were a lighter skin tone than the rest of his body, and said, “Mr. P. I think I’m turning white.” I wanted to laugh. I was waiting for the punch line. It never came. I really wasn’t sure if he was serious or not. I don’t know much about skin tone and pigment, but I told him what I knew and he walked away. I told his dad at parent/teacher conference and he couldn’t stop laughing. I was probably the topic of the dinner table discussion that evening.

It Gets Harder

The year weighed on me, heavier and heavier. Not only did I have the most difficult student of my career, but add five other 504 plans for ADHD and another few undiagnosed and – BOOM. The year felt impossible. Teaching felt impossible because I was managing classroom behaviors almost all day. No time to breathe. No break. And sure enough, life made things a little bit harder. Testing my mettle, so to speak. My mom fell ill and landed in the hospital a couple weeks before Thanksgiving.

ICU, rehab, ICU. 

After six weeks of fighting, on Christmas Eve, she went to heaven. I rode the emotional roller coaster for six weeks dealing with my mom and the stresses of teaching. In the end… what’s that song? “I’m going off of the rails on a crazy train.” Yeah, that about sums it up.

The very next day, Christmas morning, I got up with a four and eight-year-old and acted like nothing happened. My mom would have wanted it that way. My mom took care of everyone around her no matter what the situation. My house was the hub for the kids on the street. We ate, swam, and played video games, whatever we wanted – my mom made it happen. She took in family members, cared for her elderly parents, and practically ran the elementary school.

The day after New Year’s Day we buried my mom, beloved Nona to my children. I did the eulogy. A piece of writing I’ll never forget. A piece that I never thought I could read. I couldn’t visualize any version that ended well. I told my wife she would have to read it for me even though I knew I was the one who needed to deliver the message. And while my dad and brother wept, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace. Time stopped. The particles of dust seemed to hang in the air illuminated by the rays of light entering the church through the multicolored stained glass window. I felt my mom, really. I took the speech from my wife and read it. I think I did okay.

My mom always pushed me into uncomfortable situations. “Get up on that stage.” “Call that person.” “Ask that girl out on a date.” All of those uncomfortable situations made me the human I am today. My mom and dad made the impossible possible with their unwavering belief in the person that I could become.

In his book, The Inner Game of Tennis, Timothy Gallwey uses the surfer analogy to explain this. The surfer can certainly be a surfer by riding medium sized waves beautifully to the beach. Maybe even achieving oneness with the wave. However, the surfer is always searching for bigger waves. Why? Gallwey states, “Because it is those very obstacles, the size and churning power of the wave, which draw from the surfer his greatest effort.”

In other words, the impossibilities we face in life are necessary for us to “see” the possibilities in ourselves. Gallwey goes on to say, “He (the surfer) directly and intimately experiences his own resources thereby increases his self-knowledge.”

Back on the Surfboard, Buddy

After a week off, school lunged back into my life. Ready or not, here I come. And Joe was waiting for me. Curious and interested in how my vacation was and even more interested in my mom and my mental state. My mom’s death was the most difficult time in my life, no doubt. Add the most difficult class and student in my career and it’s a double whammy. School happened. Joe happened.

The second half of the year was trying. I became a dull point. And at the darkest moment, there’s always some spark, some sign of hope that leads you back to the light. That was Joe, of course. Who else would it be? It was Joe’s year. We were packing up for lunch recess and…

Joe shyly walked up to me and said, “Mr. P., the bible says that you should love everyone.”

I said, “Are you asking me or telling me?”

He started to giggle and couldn’t stop. I even started to laugh. Kids around us started to laugh. He finally composed himself, spread his arms, and, with a grin from ear to ear, said, “I love you!”

This class was my big wave. My mom’s death? Another one right on top of the first. Joe was my energy, the spark. I might have been beaten down for most of the year. But I finished strong. I saw the possible in the impossible by accepting the waves, not ignoring or diving under them. I rode them as far as I could, even becoming one with the waves at times. I did it by completely banishing the big picture from my mind. I only focused on small moments. Author and teacher, Thomas Newkirk, calls these moments “molecular moments” –– the tiny successes of humanity that happen in the classroom.

Step by tiny step I saw possible. And for Joe? Well, I loved him back, of course.


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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

This is beautiful, Gaetan. I don't think I had a more difficult school year than the one that started with my dad's death, just two days after school began. But I think you and I both know that even (or especially?) on our darkest, lowest, saddest days, our students are the ones who lift us back up. After 25 years with 8th graders, I should know that, yet I'm still so pleasantly surprised when they are the ones to buoy my spirit and get that smile back on my face. Seems impossible, but it's not. Thanks for sharing your story, and for loving Joe. I've seen quite a few Joes in my life. :-)

(1)
Espe Olea's picture
Espe Olea
Middle School Professor

Incredible post Gaetan. I wasn't going to read it completely at first but I couldn't help myself with it. There is something in your text that touched me deeply.
Thanks for writing, keep on moving.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

Ladies....Thank you for the kind words. I'm happy that my words have touched you in some way. Thanks for reading.

Gaetan

Debbie M.'s picture
Debbie M.
Second grade teacher

Thank you for sharing your difficult year. This was a wonderful article and I really enjoyed reading it! My middle son had a brain tumor and cancer when he was five and my class that year really helped me to keep my life balanced. My son is 29 now and a paramedic but it was a long journey to get here. Thank you again for your beautifully written piece!!!

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