“Oh Captain! My Captain!”
It’s the title and repeated line of Walt Whitman’s poem. It’s also a pivotal scene in many English teachers’ favorite film collection about teaching with passion and gusto.
I always imagined myself as a female Mr. Keating, albeit a bi-racial small Asian version with tattoos and a gold butterfly nose ring. As an imperfect teacher and human, I’ve crafted stories and weaved history together on-demand for classrooms of 30+, stayed nights until 10 P.M. to run concessions stands with butter stained paper popcorn bags, and sat in hallways with students to cry with them over their frustration with school, their confrontation with death in the midst of COVID and guns going off in classrooms, and their deep grief of loved ones, sometimes their own children, passing into eternity.
At the end of the film, Mr. Keating, played by the immortal Robin Williams, leaves the school. He makes it abundantly clear that it’s not the students, that they didn’t do anything wrong, that they are loved and brilliant, but rather it is the system that saw students and teachers as numbers – necessary martyrs for society.
The best example we can set for our students, loved ones, and society is our lives. I have a deep urgency to SHOW the students how to take care of their mental health – something in this COVID-era that everyone is screaming and the government is throwing money toward but no one is SHOWING them. Words without action is complaining. I cannot continue to have several panic attacks when I park in the school lot, on the way to unnecessary meetings, and after the last student has gone home – vomitting in the school trash cans and trying to calm myself so I can drive home to my family – a shell of the vibrancy I used to exude.
Mere weeks after I finished intensive chemotherapy for stage IV ovarian cancer five years ago, I went back into the classroom bald and still sick – popping my wrists back into place during lessons on British literature because my body was not yet healed. I was forced to go back because of an absent paycheck due to illness and the bureaucracy that prevented me from using any of my over 100 hours of sick leave, but I was incredibly moved by my students, their genuine empathy, and our laughs in the classroom which helped me heal more than any medication cocktail. In all of the infinite futures which could’ve come from the moment I stepped into the classroom 9 1/2 years ago, the students have always been the effervescent source of purpose. They still are!
It’s with immense grief that I resigned from teaching effective this month. I have five more days in my classroom: two even days and three odd days. I’ve dry heaved with students about my departure and made sure to let them know, through our tears staining our masks, that I love them all dearly and with whatever influence I have left – I MUST show them with my life how to take care of themselves. I’m still here – I will be transitioning from a teacher to a community member who has a deep passion for teenagers. I hope that after mental health treatment – including more intensive therapy and healing – that one day I can step back into the classroom.
People will speak to you in the manner in which you allow them to – and this includes their silence. School systems – your silence speaks tremendous volumes – and you may no longer speak to me like this.
For every teacher stepping out of our heart work, I leave you with this:
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,– Walt Whitman
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.