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A Teacher's Yarn
By: Shannon McClellan
teach English. Or at least that’s what I signed on for twelve years ago.

But I teach in an at-risk school in California—one of the most socially diverse schools in the one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the most culturally diverse state in the Great American Melting Pot. The cries of the politicians to teachers like me are like the high pitched shrieks of giant man-eating vampire bats out for our blood. In fact, the bureaucrats are almost as deafening as the students.

Teach writing! No, no, wait, teach standards. Sure we’ll get you books. Never mind books, you can use copies. So what if your copy budget just got reduced to a thousand copies a month. (But that’s less than six copies per student.) Make class sets. Or better yet, pay for the copies yourself! Why aren’t your test scores higher? You must need more education. (But we have more education than teachers in almost any other state in the union!) That’s right—more education or you’re fired.

Of course the students make it worth it. Kind of.

Why are we learning Beowulf? To learn honor? Does that mean I can’t cheat on my book report? The final is on what? When did you tell us this? I must have been asleep—is there any way you could repeat all that for me? Could you at least accept my paper? I know its nine weeks late. That’s okay—my mom will make the principal change my grade.

It’s dizzying. It’s maddening. It has nothing to do with what I signed on for. That’s why, ever-so-slightly, I changed the rules of enlistment. This year, during two lunch hours a week, I teach knitting. (I also teach crochet, but no amount of turning cartwheels in front of the classroom has convinced the students that there is a difference. As far as they’re concerned there is knitting with two needles and knitting with one hook. It’s all good.)

For forty minutes a day, two days a week, the bleating of the bureaucrats and the stubbornness of the students recedes. The students want to learn yarn craft. Their mothers, grandmothers, sisters and friends know how to manipulate yarn and hook or needle—finally, a teacher at school is giving them something worthwhile to keep. A scarf forms from busy fingers immediately—they know that they have accomplished something just by watching it grow. They admire each other’s work without reservation—there is no embarrassment in succeeding at knitting, no stigma, no mortifying academic successes to hide and, surprisingly there is no gender discrimination. Boys and girls both learn how to knit and crochet. The social outcast who knows how to knit finally has something in common with the cheerleader who comes in to learn, and the special education student, stumbling through her first stitches has no problem asking the honors student for help. Students give handmade gifts, and are praised to the skies by friends, family members—even teachers. And teachers are impressed by their tenacity, their skill, and their selflessness. Nobody cheats on his knitting homework. Nobody pretends mistakes are the instructor’s fault. For once, students don’t take suggestions for improvement personally—they take them as they have always been meant, as helpful hints in improving a useful skill. For two lunches a week, I am an eager teacher, and students are grateful to learn from me. I drink in their gratitude like a flower under a porch drinks in sunlight. I have given them knowledge that they love. This is what I signed on for.

The politicians will never know, nor care what I do during lunch hours in my classroom, which is good, because they never belonged in education anyway. I will continue to knit during staff meetings and accept the good natured ribbing of my colleagues because I know the truth of my craft.

My yarn is my lifeline, connecting me to my students when I had almost let go. Two days a week I run frantically around my room, passing on a love of knitting because passing on a love of books, and of writing has become almost impossible in my profession. So I don’t teach English anymore. Not really. I teach students. And my students and my yarn are saving my love of teaching, one stitch at a time.

Authored by Shannon McClellan

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