September 1 marks the start of my 25th year teaching middle school. In two different districts and three different middle schools, highly qualified ceritification, standards, benchmarking, and state testing, one thing has been constant: work family. Each school I’ve been in has focused on creating a work family. Sometimes, the family is more dysfunctional than others, but through it all, we’re there supporting each other. We celebrate the good times, we mourn losses, we hold each other up.
I spend a good chunk of each summer working in an office setting. I always laugh when at some point during the week (usually around 2 PM), cake will come out to celebrate a birthday, and then like prairie dogs (or whack-a-mole) people’s heads start poking out of offices and cubicles, and the word “Cake!” is passed around in hushed tones. What I have noticed, though, is that in this environment (whether it is from first-hand experience or from my husband’s anecdotal evidence) is that it seems that celebration is the only time my office colleagues tend to support each other. I suppose being in a school and being aware that we are role models is one of the reasons we support each other through everything. I suppose the other reason is that teachers are a unique breed of people.
This summer more than others I’ve been thinking about what it means to be family. As colleagues and I supported a faculty member through the loss of her husband, the weight of her family’s loss has weighed heavily on me. I was privileged to sit with her family following the loss of her husband. I watched her 15 year old son and 18 year old daughter start to navigate this loss. Her son found he had another family (and source of support) with a close friend, the friend’s parents, and his football coach. Her daughter has relied upon her friends as another source of support, and as she begins college in a few weeks, she’ll begin to find her college family.
Part of being an adolescent is forging an identity separate from your parents. It’s normal. Countless YA novels focus on finding identity as a theme. You could probably go back through any book mentioned on the blog and find identity as a theme. The current group of books I’m reading is no exception.
I recently finished Mr. 60% by Clete Barrett Smith. The novel’s protagonist, Matt Nolan, is also the high school drug dealer. He is dubbed Mr. 60% by his guidance counselor because Matt does just enough to get pass. Failing out would cause him to lose his client base.
The novel’s tone is dark, and I really wanted to dislike Matt. Except I couldn’t. Matt reminds us that there is more than one side to a story, and not everything is what it seems. Had any adult in Matt’s life taking the time to remember this, life might have been easier for Matt. However, they don’t.
What the reader quickly learns is that Matt is selling drugs in order to take care of his uncle Jack. Jack is dying from cancer, and the money Matt makes from dealing pays the rent, buys food, and helps Matt get pain meds for his uncle.
Matt doesn’t do all this simply because Jack is his family. Matt does this because Jack is the one person in Matt’s life he has been able to count on. Despite where the state said Matt should live, Matt and Jack chose each other to be family.
Matt is handling things well until the school board decides that every student needs to have participated in an extra-curricular activity in order to graduate. Matt’s counselor is able to secure a spot for Matt in the Helping Hands club, where he meets Amanda. Through his relationship with Amanda, Matt once again learns what it means be able to choose your family.
Despite knowing where the book is headed and the ultimate outcome, it is a book that is gripping simply because of the “realness” of the relationships.
Carole King writes, “People can be so cold./They’ll hurt you and desert you. Well, they’ll take your soul if you let them,/oh yeah, but don’t you let them.” In the novel, Mr. Gill, Matt’s vice principal and nemesis, definitely is out for Matt’s soul, as are many others. It’s Amanda, Jack, Mr. Nash, and even Officer Hershey who look out for Matt and guide him on his way, much the way a nuclear family should. They are a support for him, and in the end, he learns what it means to be a family.
And when I think about my tenure in middle school, the same rings true. King’s lines ring true. Teaching is not for the weak of heart. And that’s why we should be so lucky to have our work family to support us through tough times and not just eat cake with us on our birthday.