Updated: Aug 30
By Mike Keller-Wilson
Unshowered and stubble-jawed on the final day of winter break, I balance a steaming pistachio latte in each hand, trying not to spill on my sweatpants while opening the door. Across the parking lot, I hear “Mr. Keller-Wilson!” a shout from a rolled-down window in the drive thru line. I can’t really see the face, even less likely I’d be able to place the name to go with it, but I crack into a wide grin and raise a to-go cup in a wave.
This is my tenth year of teaching. A decade. Ten years of seventh-grade writing. I tell people that it’s gotten easier because, in some ways, it has.
How much would I miss this if I left it? This and a thousand other moments, insignificant and as easily forgotten as grains of sand.
I saw a viral photo a while back that claimed to show magnified sand. It was easy to see why it was making the rounds; the image displayed such a wild variety of shapes and colors, an expectation defying impossibility: yellow-green rods, a shattered wedge full of pink waves, a spiraling swirl of yellow shell in miniature. It wasn’t real, of course. No, that’s not quite right. As with so many things—as with all those special teaching moments—context matters. These were all microfossils, conceivably plucked from one or several beaches, but like our class funeral for the busted clock or Tai’s unexpected essay about the inner lives of ants, those microfossils weren’t scooped up in a handful without a million other moments of mundanity.
On a recent winter vacation to San Francisco, I went with my partner, Jordan, to see the Pacific up close. In a rare gap between record-breaking rainstorms, we shuffled out onto the beach, squinted in the relentless wind, listened to the smash and churn of the breakers. In general, I think of beaches as places to lounge, peaceful places, but it’s easy to forget that a beach is really a place of weathering, a place where a billion shattered stones grind against the bones of long-dead creatures.
I worry that I’ve lost myself, my teacher self, somewhere in the crushing swirl of a billion unremarkable moments. Did I lose track of something, some vital part of who I am, in the latest round of spending cuts? The voucher bill? Was it the thousandth Zoom call that did me in?
There, on the beach with Jordan, I touched a hand to the foaming aftermath of the latest wave and wondered how long I could keep at it, this teaching gig with its fossilized moments of pure joy, just waiting in the sand: the goofy grins and rolled eyes at yet another pun, the sudden opportunity to compliment a drawing, gift a writer’s notebook, in short, the chance to see straight to the unweathered core of a kid and reflect it back so they can know themselves. It’s a power that deserves reverence.
Mike Keller-Wilson lives, writes, and teaches in Iowa City, Iowa. He is a founder & co-editor-in-chief of Vast Chasm Magazine. In his day job, he teaches writing and dad jokes to a captive audience of 7th graders. Find him on Twitter @Mike3Stars or at mikekellerwilson.com.