Doubts, Part Two

Without getting into all that business from Part One all over again, I am having a lot of doubts about what I am doing with my time and energy, and why. I have no doubts that what I have been doing has merit and is important. I have no doubts that properly commemorating the Civil Rights movement is a good thing, because people need to know, understand and remember what happened. I have no doubts that teaching writing to young people has merit, too. Nor do I have any doubts about teaching young people to pay attention to things going on in society.

But what I am wavering about is: what effect am I actually having on people’s lives? At this point, I have taught probably 150–250 students in seven years – keep in mind that I teach most of my students for three or four consecutive years – and a few express sentiments that I made an impact on them. People tell me all the time, “Keep it up, you’re making a difference in these kids’ lives.” But am I? Really? Teaching is one of the most thankless professions, and after seven years I am having trouble handling that lack of a direct understanding of the impact of my work. When I began teaching, I was all piss and vinegar, going to show the world what I could do to the changes the lives of my students. Every year that goes by, I understand more and more how some teachers just go through the motions. I still won’t do that – I will quit before I let myself do that – but I understand now why some people do.

And all this social justice work, volunteering on these extra projects, working long hours for no pay to see some event or product given to the public for free. I have had plenty of people tell me, “You’re doing good work,” or “I’m so glad people like you do these things,” but I’ve never had anyone who took part in something I helped organize or create to tell me that experiencing it changed his or her life. It’s getting hard to “keep up the good work” when I don’t see any tangible proof that it really is making a difference.

And do people really change? I know that I did, after reading about and experiencing the real story of the Civil Rights movement, but do other people? I don’t see it happening. I see the same backwards way of thinking, the same refusals to allow change to occur, the same transparent political rhetoric winning elections. For instance, I hear the very solid case for rewriting our state constitution over and over, and I have never heard a reasonable argument for keeping the old one, and efforts to rewrite get squashed every time. I hear people plead to better schools and I hear politicians promise better schools, and we’re still wallowing around at the bottom of national rankings.

I don’t know what to do with these doubts. Am I just tired? I don’t know.

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