Writing Down the Demons
How a teacher struggles to find the balance between honesty and professionalism—and sometimes doesn't.
The private high school where I teach begins each school year with a trip to a retreat center in the mountains. At the start of this past year, on the very day we returned from that retreat, my wife moved out. She had announced her intention to divorce me after the year of separation legally mandated by the state of North Carolina.
My colleagues and supervisors were amazing. They regularly reached out to support me in any way they could. In one such conversation with the principal, I mentioned my intention to live my experience openly with my students, hoping that my willingness to be honest and vulnerable with them would help us to connect as human beings. I felt that this was not only a healthier choice for everyone involved, but would also encourage in them the sort of honesty and vulnerability that is absolutely essential if real, gutsy art-making is to occur. After asking that we “remain in dialogue” about what sorts of details I would be sharing, he gave me his blessing and I proceeded to open my life to the student body.
On the first day, I started out each class by telling a mini-autobiography. Then, at our first gender-divided student assembly, I told all the young men a longer, more gritty version. These experiences produced the most silent, attentive audiences I had ever spoken to, and allowed me to engage with my students in often heart-wrenching new ways. The teacher/student/friend lines began to blur as my students, encouraged by my openness, began to share their own, often less-than-pristine stories.
Then I went even further. I started to write a memoir chronicling the steps I had been taking my entire life towards the failure of my marriage. I entitled it “Anatomy of an Effup,” and serialized it on my blog as I wrote it. While I did not tell the students how to find it, I did mention that I was doing it—so a few quick Google searches later, I had myself a number of devoted student readers.
Now, in theory, that wouldn't be a bad thing. I work as hard to remain honest in my writing as I do in my classroom, so the end result is sometimes a bit, well, raw. For example, when profanity was necessary, I didn't both writing in asterisks and pound signs—*#@^ it!!—I typed out the words, letter for letter.
It is very likely that that is what ended up getting me into trouble. Shortly thereafter a pair of protective parents found out that their son had been reading my posts and after a little investigation, they pulled him from my class and forbade him to have any contact with me. I found myself back in the principal's office, trying to respectfully defend my words.
By that time, I had completed the rough draft of my memoir and had removed it from the internet to begin the laborious process of rewriting until my forehead bled. The administration stood by me but, sadly, the student in question was withdrawn from the school and I was left with a melancholic taste in my mouth and a whole lot of questions in my mind: Did I do the right thing, posting such an intimate, personal story on a public forum my students could access? Could/should I have done more to keep them from finding it? When I knew that they were reading it, should I have changed the content, or even taken it offline?
I don't know. It has been a struggle, all this year, to search for the balance between honesty and professionalism. While I feel that the students crave reality and that it is my obligation as an art teacher and a human to try and give it to them, I understand that I am a representative of my employers both in and out of the school building. In a private institution such as the one where I teach, I do not believe I have the right to say and do whatever I darn well please when I walk out the doors at the end of the day.
It is a difficult sand-line to draw, but this I know to be true: despite the regrettable example of that one student, I was able to speak into many students' lives this year in a way that I do not believe would have otherwise been possible. And they, in turn, spoke into mine—are in fact a major part of the community effort that has helped me to thrive and grow in a difficult time.
Josh Barkey is a high school art teacher in North Carolina.