A bird’s nest was wedged between a brick wall and metal scaffolding just above the front entrance to my school. noticed it last year — my first year teaching — when I walked up to the front doors, took a deep breath to compose myself, looked up at the building I’d call home for the next 10 months and spotted a small family of sparrows singing their morning melodies into the air.
One of the birds cocked its head in my direction. Being as nervous as I was, I whispered to it, desperate to have someone —anyone — to talk to.
“Hello,” I said.
It chirped back, as if on cue. I smiled. My first friend.
From then on, before every good day and bad day, I glanced up at the nest and whispered “good morning” to the family of birds.
The first school day of October, when I wasn’t entirely sure I’d survive to see Christmas, I mentally vented my fears and frustrations to my winged mentors. Their chirps helped me trudge on to December.
In March, with state exams looming just weeks away, I telepathically told them how much I worried certain students weren’t grasping the concepts.
By June, when state test results had come back and I was given the news that not one of my students had failed, those birds had become as much a part of the school to me as the students and staff within. They were my confidantes, my therapists, my feathery good-luck charms.
At the start of this school year, I strolled down the blocks toward the school with a confidence my first-year self would have envied, with a calmness I would not have believed I could possess.
I looked forward to the new year, to the improvements I’d make to my first week (having learned the hard way last year what not to do), to the fresh batch of middle school personalities I’d encounter and to wishing a good morning to the birds I’d grown to love.
Only they weren’t there.
The entire scaffolding surrounding the building last year had been removed. I halted. I stared. The birds had been evicted.
I walked into the building and up to my classroom feeling disappointed. I had a new classroom on a new floor with a new set of students, and now my bird’s nest had vanished.
Absolutely nothing was the same as last year.
But maybe that was OK. The ELA teacher in me saw the birds as a potential symbol for my growth. I had formed the habit of venting to them early on, when my own family had worried I brought nothing home but bad news. As the months came and went, my imaginary conversations with the sparrows changed, too, from hopeless to not so bad to optimistic.
Those sparrows listened exceptionally well and requested nothing in return. In their own small way, they kept me going long enough until I found what I needed within myself to do the job well.
Now, when I encounter the first-year teachers in my school and overhear their worries, concerns and complaints, I offer the “bird approach.” I listen. So far, it looks like it’s helped them a bit.
And as for me, hey, there’s a rat I always see scampering by the trains in the mornings. If and when bad days come this year, maybe I’ll chat her up.
The Bird Whisperer is a pseudonym for a second-year ELA teacher at a Bronx middle school.