If you’ve seen the movie Ironman (2008), you’ve already probably got the reference–after becoming an improbable, impossibly cool superhero who saves humanity in spite of himself, the multimillionaire Tony Stark is required to deny any allegations of being the-man-behind-the-suit at a packed press conference. He is expected to preserve his personal identity and slink quietly away with his secret, as we’ve seen Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, and Clark Kent do time and time again. But, at the last moment of the film, Tony decides to do things his own way. As cameras flash and he starts with “The truth is…” Tony pauses thoughtfully. Then, he throws a curveball that flouts every superhero’s most sacred rule. He just goes ahead and says it:
“I am Ironman.” And fin.
That line is the perfect punctuation to a film that is masterful in many ways, principally as a character study of Tony “Ironman” Stark. It’s also the line that I’ve started to use as a metaphor for my new role as a teacher in the Communications department at the local high school in the community where I live.
For my whole teaching career thus far, I’ve been more or less harboring a secret identity. Long commutes drew very clear boundaries of space between work and home. Especially in my first couple years of teaching, I found a sense of safety in the fact that my teacher self was completely separated from my “mild alter ego.” As a beginning teacher, the sheer effort of creating and maintaining the role of in-control, assertive expert from 8am to 4pm was exhausting. There was a heavy aspect of performance to my hours in the classroom, where I was still doing the interior work of convincing myself that I could handle the authority I’d been given. I was trying on the suit, as it were. I, like Ironman, accomplished things both heroic and occasionally haphazard. But I was very content to leave the mask at work, whether the day’s outcome had been good or bad. I could always escape to a place where nobody knew me as Ms. H.
Around my third year of teaching, I started becoming much more confident and comfortable in the classroom. My teacher identity had become less and less of a disguise, and more of a natural extension of who I was. Just as Tony Stark tinkers with his suit in his basement lab, I was constantly modifying my mannerisms to more exactly reflect the kind of teacher that I found myself becoming. My classroom demeanor, still assertive, became more organic and playful while remaining smart. I grew immensely in confidence and professionalism, and not just during teaching hours. Before I knew it, I started to actually wish for a teaching situation where I was no longer an import. I wanted to know the impact of being an active part of the community where I taught. My flight patterns were becoming more complex and reliable, and I felt ready to take credit for them.
Here, at the cusp of my fifth year, this wish has been granted as I try out, for the first time, living and working in the same community. I will see my students at the grocery store, the gas station, and at the Memorial Day parade. I will have colleagues and parents living just a few doors down. I will wave at familiar faces when I go out exercising. Most of all, I will do what I do best as a teacher of reading, writing, and thinking–I’m here, and I’m excited about it. I’m ready to let the full gamut of my reputation as a teacher flow into my “real” life. I get to be a leader in my own city, and impact it positively and visibly. I get to share a sense of community with my students.
And, anyway, like Tony Stark, I’m ready to own up:
I am Ironman.