We all made a large circle around a table covered with hamburgers, hot dogs, and every type of salad imaginable. It was one of my favorite days of the year: a departmental party at a colleague's house to celebrate the opening of another school year.
To my dismay, most of my colleagues started to discuss how our school was being destroyed by the lack of funds, the No Child Left Behind programs, school board politics, and a lack of values the students brought to school from their homes.
After the conversation grew even more discouraging, I decided to say something.
"Does anyone remember why we got into teaching in the first place?" My question produced silence from my co-workers - and looks that seemed to ask: Who made you king of arrogance?
"No, I mean it," I said. "Does anyone remember the philosophy that made all of us take the vows of servitude, and, of course, poverty?"
A veteran history teacher asked me to remind them of what this philosophy was.
Being the storyteller I am, I told the group I would use a metaphor to describe what teaching is to teachers.
I said that the beginning of each year is like taking a group of young men and women to the base of a mountain. Observing my students, I see they are afraid and uncomfortable with what they are expected to do. I tell them that for the next 186 days I will show them how to climb the cliffs and reach the plateau that is above the clouds and seemingly out of reach.
Then we start the climb with me showing them how to put one foot in front of the other and how to use their hands, legs, and, most important, their minds to reach the next stone.
All my kids start to fall. I tell them it's OK to fall, to make a mistake, because this is how we all learn and get better at what we're trying to do.
Some students give up and simply fall to the bottom of the mountain. I try to encourage them to continue, but they simply don't want to take the the risk that they might fail. I feel bad, yet I realize that I can't help everyone. I can only try.
Looking around my small group of colleagues, I notice everyone is listening. I continue.
Halfway up the mountain, I see my kids are beginning to build confidence. Every now and then a child falls, but as we climb farther up the mountain, fewer children decide to quit.
Now it's no longer a case of me showing them how to climb. They work with one another and find easier and better ways to achieve success. Every now and then, I fall, and I find my students helping me. Students become teachers. We all realize we need one another to continue and succeed.
We finally reach the plateau. We are dumbfounded by what we see. We observe the colors of life: the greens of their futures, the reds and oranges of their passions, and the blues of their dreams. The air is fresh and clear. There are no clouds on the plateau, just the feeling that everything is achievable.
I walk over to the edge where the view is even more dramatic and beautiful. I ask them to come to the perimeter with me. They hesitate and say they are still afraid. But I explain that they have earned the right to look out at their futures. Their hard work and perseverance have made them competent.
They come to the edge of the plateau. I push them off.
And I watch them fly.
The group surrounding the table stayed silent for the next few minutes. An English teacher told me I should write down my thoughts. I just smiled and said I probably would.
The conversation then became very positive - filled with hopes and visions of the school year ahead.
One of my favorite days was coming to a satisfying end with another favorite day not far away. That's the day each year when I gather my students and tell them how we will climb the mountain.