My first real teaching interview was in Stafford County, Virginia. It was still rural then and there were only a handful of elementary schools. Everyone knew that if you were from Emporia you would get a job; the people in charge were from Emporia. I wasn’t from Emporia– I didn’t even know where it was– but I’d done my student teaching in Stafford. I was applying for a first grade position and hoping for the best. My father, having interviewed hundreds of people throughout his career, had given me solid “insider’s” advice. I was ready.
I don’t remember much about that interview, but I remember the end of it. The Assistant Superintendent seemed to be scratching his head about what might have been an unanswered or unasked question.
“Don’t interview the interviewer,” my father had warned.
“Is there something else?” I prompted.
“Well, yes, there is,” he said. But he paused and seemed reluctant to go on. I nodded, encouragingly. I wanted this to be over. The interview had gone very well. But now I was getting nervous. What was this? Had he seen through my well-rehearsed performance of “22 year-old confident teacher?”
“Don’t speak into the silences,” my father had warned.
“I’ll be glad to answer any other questions you have,” I volunteered with an ebbing perkiness.
Mr. Webb went on, “I’ve interviewed a lot of first grade teachers,” he drawled. “I’m curious about one thing….I’ve never interviewed a first grade teacher who didn’t say she loved children. Until you. You haven’t said it.”
“Reflect before you respond,” my father warned.
I didn’t reflect. I didn’t think. My face reddened and I just blurted out, “I know I love teaching, but how can I love children I haven’t met yet?”
I was horrified that I hadn’t given a more measured and perhaps less honest answer. I wasn’t sure that kind of honesty was the way to go.
Mr. Webb threw back his head and laughed. He stood up and put out his hand. What was happening here?
“You are going to make a great teacher. Welcome to Stafford County Public Schools.”
I teach third grade now. I’m in a different grade and different place. It is 38 years later, but I am still living out this story’s happy ending. On the first day of school I am matched with 25 children that I don’t love yet. They are sitting in the desks of children that I’ve just lost to the next grade. I don’t panic, because I know I will love them. I move through September setting the ground work for excellence and relationship and community. I move through September waiting for my students and me to become ‘us.’ I move through September as if they were my favorites until ‘as if’ becomes truth. And it always does.
It happens on an October day that is crisp around the edges with fall and brighter in its burnished light. A child slips her arms around my waist and says, “You are the best teacher I’ve ever had.” I know that she may well have said that to her teacher last year and might easily say it to her teacher next year. She is not insincere. And neither am I. She, like me, is living the satisfaction and beauty of the hard work of September. It isn’t about me. It’s about us. By October, it is real for us. The hard work of September is the heart work of teaching. It happened on an October day thirty-eight years ago and it happened on an October day this year, too. I love them.