Written by Rosemarie Johnston //
This morning the 360 sunrise and birds chirping woke me up before my alarm set at 6:30 am for the school day. Often, I’m still shocked at this peaceful setting and this unexpected place in which I’ve come to live.
As a little girl, I dreamed about living in the middle of nowhere with trees and sky all around. I also dreamed of being a teacher just like my mom. But, there are lots of places to go teach; in fact, every town in America, of every size, has teachers. As a college senior, I remember praying, “Lord, I want you to use my life to serve the world.” That was a dangerous prayer.
When I came to Baggs, WY, I had never driven in snow, seen -30 degree weather, shot a gun, eased my vehicle through a herd of sheep, or taught a day in my life, but I felt like it was the right thing to do. As a wide-eyed 22-year-old, I was the only candidate they interviewed for my position, a rare combination of science and English. I came to my school, as many new teachers do, all fired up with ideas and ambition. But, I quickly realized that strategies you learn for classes of thirty aren’t as necessary for classes of six. Sometimes you might just need to keep those six, who’ve been with each other more over the last seven years than with their own siblings, from killing each other.
I also realized that some of the things I thought all students needed weren’t what Baggs students actually needed. For example, recycling is hip, but in this part of the country, land is livelihood. An ancient green bumper sticker on one of my eighth grade student’s trucks says it best: “To a rancher, every day is Earth Day.” The House on Mango Street is still a huge favorite of mine, but to kids with more stars than neighbors and moms who want to belong to their dads, it didn’t quite hit the mark.
More than anything I brought my rural students from the “big city,” I’ve learned that it’s best to just enter quietly into their world and learn what I can from them. I have read more papers about unforgettable elk hunts than I can count and learned how to show rabbits with the best of them. Although I may still drive a Corolla, the fact that I haven’t been called a “city girl” in over a year and a half, is a huge compliment. And no, I have never gone off the road in the winter. I still can’t shoot very well or ride a horse, but I’m working on it.
One thing that I’ve found true no matter which class I’m teaching is that all students just want someone to see inside them. Bad or unruly behavior when it occurs is just a mask, after all. I spend the vast majority of my day in the trenches of middle school, battling to show kids how reading can change their worlds and writing can let them change the world. But most of all, I want kids to know that I believe in them and in their dreams. Dreams of kids from Baggs, Wyoming may look different than dreams of kids from Portland, Oregon, but the dreamers are more alike than they’ll ever know. Teaching has shown me the frailty that we all carry inside us, yet at the same time the resilience of the human spirit.
Whether it’s while freewriting, responding to Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, or playing Human Hungry Hippo at weekly Young Life club, I want all my kids to know that they are of value. Although teaching (especially middle school) can be a very thankless job, the glimmers of goodness I catch each day keep me coming back with a smile.
Rose Johnston is seventh of nine children and was raised primarily near Portland, OR. She has always loved reading, and especially classics that no one else was interested in. She attended Wheaton College and took my degree in English and secondary education. After graduating, she started teaching middle school science and English in the tiny town of Baggs, WY, population 440, elevation 6,200 ft. Since then, she has been moved into teaching English full time. About fifteen months ago, she also started a Young Life group that meets weekly and ministers to middle schoolers.