Synecdoche

photoWhen I was young and foolish and in my first years of teaching English, I wore a labcoat and a fez to work every Monday.

I wasn’t really making a statement, just stretching my iconoclastic wings as I did my best to reach an audience of teenagers with the message of why words and ideas were so important in our lives.

About five years in, I applied for a job at a tiny private school just outside of Portland, and they asked, as a part of the interview process, that I send in an object that symbolized me as a teacher. Without hesitating, I sent in my labcoat.

Of course I stuffed the pockets with a mélange of teaching materials: a copy of Frankenstein, some of the handouts I used to teach vocabulary, photos of my classes learning and playing. Sure that was cheating a bit, but I figured that the novelty of the labcoat might buy me some slack.

Last week, when some playful banter about wearing a fez crossed my Twitter feed, I thought about that experience again. When I taught it was easy for me to choose an object that represented the greater whole of who I was as a teacher. In that labcoat was a synecdoche of who I was as a professional, at least the professional I thought myself to be at twenty-eight.

For folks who aren’t literature or philosophy majors (read: almost all the sensible people reading this post), a synecdoche is a small part that represents the whole. A common example is using “hands” to refer to the sailors on a ship.

When I think of synecdoche, I think William Blake:

To see the World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

As easy as it was for me to imagine I’d found a synecdoche for myself as a teacher, I’m not sure I could come up with something so concrete for who I am as a principal.

It’s not that one job is more important than another, though push come to shove everyone remembers her favorite teacher; nobody can name her favorite principal. No, it’s just that my job as a site administrator is dizzyingly diverse.

I might start my day focused on visiting classrooms and then find myself rounding up a stray dog, covering a math class, or climbing into an attic to survey the damage caused by rodents.

And no one wants rat droppings as a synecdoche.

I know some things I wouldn’t choose: a tie (which is a costume, not a summary of who I am), a staff shirt (which is a symbol, but of my school family, not just of me), or a laptop (which I carry with me as I visit classes, but is a tool, nothing more, nothing less).

mugPushed to it, the closest thing I can come up with is my mug. Handmade and given to me by a ceramics teacher (and self professed gadfly), it reminds me that many of the best conversations I have with my staff come over a cup of coffee. At least twice a year I invite every teacher to join me for a cup of joe, usually in small prep period groups, when we can just talk.

Parents too connect with me over coffee, when my monthly Mornings with the Principal see steaming cups in our hands and questions and answers fly.

The kids? Well, you won’t catch me offering java to the youngsters, but they have always been kind to me when, sliding into or out of a student desk as I hang out in their classrooms, my walkie talkie catches on the seat and I spill coffee everywhere. Would that this was rare.

And so, as I type this post, my mug half full at my elbow, I’d offer this challenge to anyone who would care to think about it: What is a synecdoche of who you are as an educator? If you were to box up one artifact that told who you were, what would it be?

It’s your world. What’s your grain of sand?

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