Jennifer Nelson

My Mississippi Teacher Corps Experience

For the first part of my reflection, I am going to pull from two of my early journal entries from that first summer when I arrived in Oxford. I titled the file “Mississippi Memoirs,” intending to keep up with it, but alas, that was not to come to fruition. There are two analogies that are apt to summarize my MTC experience: one, as a tale of clean and new to dirty and worn shoes, and second, as a maturation of clothing tastes, from childish outfits to YUPpie style. I never thought I would say this happily, but here it is: Goodbye childhood, hello adulthood!

June 7, 2008 - When I was talking to a Corps member yesterday on the way to class, her exasperation with college struck me: “when college was over, I was like, ‘thank goodness – I’ve worked my butt off and I am ready for this to be done.’” But I cannot criticize her with a clear conscience: I think the very same way. I wish I weren’t like a plow that just wants so get through everything and say, “look, I’ve done it.” May my time in Mississippi be more than a “when will this be over so I can do the next thing” experience.

June 14, 2008 - Mississippi ruined my shoes.

Maybe it’d be better to say, “When I came to Mississippi, my shoes got ruined.” But then, that old English lesson of using vivid verbs got the best of me, and I decided to be more direct. When I arrived here two weeks ago, my running shoes where pristine.

But then, on one of my first Mississippi runs, I opted for the long stretch of divided highway, where the dust on the side of the road is the finest I’ve seen anywhere. With one careless sweep of the foot on my part, the dust made its way into the shoes’ pristine latticework and colonized in the pockets of cotton. They wre probably pretty comfy there, but I winced in disappointment.

If my shoes had eyes, they also got a shock on that run: I passed by five road kill. I remember reading an Annie Dillard essay in high school on the vast assortment of road kill to be found in the South, but passing it within a one-yard eyeshot is different than holding a clean book. My shoes made 6-inch clearance of the turtle, the possum with its feet in the air, the snake, and the unidentifiable, smushed creature with many fossilizing limbs I decided that, to reduce trauma, I would only grant road kill my peripheral vision. With a sideways glance, this one actually looked like an octopus. Obviously, there are no octopi to speak of in inland Mississippi.

A few days later, I was making my way for a run on a trail nearby. The trail is part of a massive trails project in this town, whose “movers and shakers” have led in order to transform the former paths of dismantled railroad tracks into pretty nature trails. Anyways, as I stepped underneath a magnolia tree, one of its massive leaves lost its balance and dumped a pound of water on my shoe. The water was freezing cold, which felt okay, but then my shoes really started to look ugly. That’s when I realized, I came here not to keep my shoes nice and new and clean, even though that’s my natural impulse. Rather, I came here to change, grow, blossom, learn. Which, yes, requires getting dirty - perhaps even ruining a few of the former things.

The best part of walking new territory is making new friends. When a phase of life ends (college), making a new beginning seems like no remedy at all. At first, it seems like any conscientious adjustment to the present is a deprecation of the past. When I am in this mood, I chastise myself for being a highly-mobile youth, who forms strong bonds only to disband them in a few short years. I am constantly re-arranging my affiliations, like some restless secretary who has gone mad, moving supplies around in the office supply cabinet, expending tons of energy to no real effect. Wouldn’t it just be easier – more importantly, healthier – to just maintain the same social bonds and ties and friendships in one place, over a long period of time? Can’t I have discipline enough to resist the urge to get up and move all the time, to go to a new place, to stash another “experience” into my “life experience” fanny pack? I used to regard the lifestyle of chronic traveling as a disease. A person catches it when he or she lacks the wherewithal to solve problems where he or she is, and instead opts to just run away from them.

But then, that magical moment presents itself, like a girl in her dress at the top of the stairs, whose prom date awaits her at the foot of the stairs: you look down and realize, hey, my mitt’s finally broken in! It’s a glaringly obvious and exciting moment. Here’s how it happened: I was sitting in the passenger seat of my friend’s red SUV, when suddenly, I looked over at her while she was turning the steering wheel left and I realized: hey, she is my friend! And all at once, my philosophies of anti-mobile youth melted away. I am so happy to be in Mississippi, so pleased that my shoes have Mississippi in their fibers, so thankful to have a new friend. Friendship is probably the best education.

Today, April 25, 2010 - Since those early days, I have found that Mississippi has not ruined me (although I’ve gone through a few pairs of shoes), but this is the place where I have grown tremendously. I’ve left behind the days when I was a self-sufficient student whose energies only paid off for myself. Today, I rely heavily on friends, mentors, community members, and even my students, sometimes, to keep me encouraged and putting all my energy into my job. Also, what I do or fail to do now affects way more people than just me. So in analogical terms, this shift is like a wardrobe turnover from bright, jejune patterns and prints and cuts to more somber, sensible, mature earth-tones in urbane cuts and combinations. Actually, my closet underwent a transition like this as the years progressed!

But returning to the topic of work, and how I've persevered through it: I admit, I’ve found that this profession comes in waves; there are times when I am extremely focused on my work, and am inputting grades and innovating mini-units left and right, alternating with stretches of weeks where I don’t grade a lick and do very little for school outside of school hours. I like the flow of push and glide. It’s a sustainable vocation. I feel that my time is well spent when I put time into making resources. I enjoy being creative and no longer get stressed out about prepping for the next day. Granted, I have students this year who seem to appreciate my efforts more than they did last year.

As I write this, I have two parent contacts I need to make hanging over my head. But it has become an exceptional case to have to make frequent parent contact.  My job does not stress me out like it used to. That being said, I am still a basket case in the mornings, often. I am only pleasant after all my copies are made, the word of the day has been selected, and the chalkboard agenda is written and up. In sum, I have changed significantly as a teacher in some regards, but remain the same in others. At my school, among students and coworkers, I am seen as an energetic but uptight teacher (I think that’s a good summation of my teacher persona). Even so, I have an ease and confidence this year that I never had last year. I have a reputation, kind of. At times, the upkeep of that reputation seems arduous. But then I just have to remember, as long as I am doing my duties and allotting a fair amount of time to my students’ success (“fair” being particularly defined, with regards to what is due to them, taking into account the inequalities they have historically and already endured), I do not need to worry.

I’ve learned how to rest and recharge. I deliver much stronger content this year than last year. I still get immense pleasure out of teacher-student rapport. I am, in the words of one of my students, an “I don’t care if I embarrass myself” teacher. I feel free to be me with my students, and lessons are strewn with humor (be it lame or clever). I pride myself on having pretty good student engagement, which I witnessed two weeks ago in second period. During two of my reading response questions, one girl raised two hands and a leg in hopes of being picked on, and another girl, who is usually a comatose, indifferent participant (oxymoron!), yelled (really, yelled!), “No, no, no, wait! I’ve got it!” as she wracked her binder for the answer. My teaching style is very verbal. The sound of papers flying as students seek an answer is far more gratifying than a pristinely silent environment. I used to be so insecure about that, that I felt incompetent to hold a silent classroom, but now I feel comfortable with my teaching style.

That being said, I can still list many things I want to change about how I teach, the timing of it, the presentation of it, the assessment of it, and the management of it.  That’s what next year is for. I am excited to continue life in Mississippi, because I have room to grow. I fit here, vocationally, and also socially. I can’t wait to see what next year has in store. I now regard my worn shoes as trophies and relics, and I this has not been a time that I have been itching for to pass. Rather, Mississippi has been maturing me from a child into a working adult, from a student into a teacher, from a consumer/follower into a producer/leader, from a speculating spectator into a struggling participant, from a wonderer into a praiser. I feel like I am watching my life unfold the way I hoped it would here.

AlumniLaura Beth Lott