Saturday, September 20, 2014

How Being A Teacher Kind of Made Me Crazy (But Taught Me A Lot About Adulthood)


Approximately one million years ago, I taught high school. Yes. That's correct. I was licensed by the state of Minnesota to teach Spanish to grades 7-12.

Was I good at this? Probably. I wasn't good at Spanish; it was a subject I could handle but it wasn't one I loved. I wasn't a natural at it, which might explain why I had a lot of empathy for kids who didn't love it or even hated it.

Most people don't understand their own language as a system with rules in the first place, so learning a foreign language is like having to take two classes at once, for some kids.

ANYWAY.

There I was, teaching six classes per day, with one prep and one hour of computer lab supervision. I was 24 years old and newly married. I didn't have children. I didn't have a mortgage. I made 700+ bucks every two weeks. My husband was still finishing his undergraduate degree in Physics.

I wore khaki skirts and boring shirts. I tried to wear white so the chalk dust wouldn't mess up my outfits. I got up every morning and ate a bowl of cereal while  my stomach roiled  in anticipation of whatever bullshit would get thrown at me during the day: a fire drill, a kid who wouldn't shut up, a faculty meeting where we all had to pray out loud (it was a private religious school), some long-ass voicemail from some irate parent about my grading policy or how I'd given her kid detention and she didn't want to have to pick him up late (by the way: fuck you, lady, from here in the future).

The problems of teaching are not anything like the problems of writing, though both are highly creative and require quite a bit of mental sweat (teaching involves physical sweat, as well). Yet I liked the problems of teaching. I like taking a group of people and a mass of data and trying to figure out how to download that data to the people in a way that's artful.

What I didn't like was being An Adult. I didn't like the idea that I was now looked at as some Eternal Killjoy. That when I walked into the bathroom to pee, all the girls shushed up quiet like I was going to hit them with a fucking ruler. (Also, there was no faculty bathroom. Which is TERRIBLE.)

I loved my students, though. I loved how inclined they were to derail any sort of academic inclinations I had. Thus my job was deflecting their efforts to derail the learning. This involved trickery and deceit and manipulation on a level that I came to admire, from both sides. I imagined them, 7 periods a day, doing their worst to every instructor in the building. I shouldn't have been on their side, but I was. It was sort of charming, this Resistance To Learn. I enjoyed thwarting them back; it was a fun game,

I hated their parents, however. I mean, some of them were nice: "How can we help you? Do you need any classroom supplies?" And some of them told me that their kids liked me, so that felt good. But a lot of them were pricks. Busy, hovery, annoying pricks. One couple didn't care about their daughter's grade, but how she was coming along in her "faith journey with Christ" (answer: how the fuck should I know, I teach verb conjugations). One woman tried to get me to change her son's grade - a solid 29% for all four quarters - by asking me to stay late on a Friday night, and then showing up late (poor tactic, lady: fuck you from here in the future, as well).

So this is a problem. You are on Team Adult. And you hate it. You hate the uniform, you hate the mission, you hate the rules and the yelling and the sending kids out of the room for being interrupting idiots and you hate the other faculty, who are clearly happy busting everyone's balls for a meager wage while you find it demeaning and horrifying.

Where this put me, I guess, after I quit and decided to become a writer (literally, this was the plan, nothing more elaborate than that), was in a position to loathe authority. Loathe established notions of adulthood. Loathe the idea of "saving" people. Loathe the prospect of being a role model.

Because while I was competent at my job, I wasn't a role model. I ate bad food, I was lazy on weekends. I watched TV while I graded papers and I smoked cigarettes on the way home from school (never on the way to school, that shit reeks and everyone would have known in a second) and I didn't give a shit if our school teams won and I was way too tired to care about how I was influencing anyone, which I doubt I was. I worked like a damn dog, really long days, and by the time our much-touted long vacations rolled around, I was usually sick as a damn dog, too.

So fast forward, over a decade later. I'm now a teacher, at a school for writing. It doesn't meet every day. It doesn't have homework. My students all WANT to be there. And I teach what I love, which is writing (not English - how in the hell do you relate to people who don't love to read? I could never do that).

I don't smoke anymore. (Much.) I still watch tons of TV. I have my own kid, who I sometimes know what to do with and sometimes I don't. I swear a lot and don't feel bad about it. I wear whatever I want, I don't own pumps or a trenchcoat and I believe in nothing supernatural and I feel pretty good about life. Even though a lot of the time, I don't have a clue about what I'm doing and what's going on.

Adults, teachers: does anyone really know what's going on around here? Or are those just people who THINK they do? Pretenders, hoping that there's some kind of guideline or guardrail to grab? That's how I feel. I just turned 40 and that's how I feel: still clueless and uncertain as ever.

The lie we tell kids is that we've got it dialed, under control, fully comprehended, this insane life on earth we lead. This is a lie you unlearn as you come of age. Sometimes slowly, sometimes all at once. But finding out that the inmates really run the asylum is definitely a hallmark of adolescence.

I know; I was an inmate in charge once myself.

5 comments:

  1. It's funny--you just assume that teachers feel that authority and enjoy every second of it, but that isn't always the case, I guess! It seems like it would be harder teaching in the same school you once attended. The teacher would sympathize too much with the students in that case! I can say that I knew more than a few teachers who went to school with every intention of teaching and quit as soon as they got out there. It's really a LOT harder than people realize.

    ReplyDelete
  2. For new teachers, especially, it's all about Faking Til You Make It! But I think every year is a new group of kids that present new challenges and whatever, so you really have to just jump in it and see what happens before you can feel any sort of mastery over the thing.

    I also wouldn't trust a teacher who claimed to always know what to do or how to do it. That kind of certainty is a red flag for a person with a closed-off mind.

    I really hope I never have to teach public school again. The amount of meddling bureaucracy that these professionals contend with, with so little pay, and for which they are expected to constantly do more with less? No thank you. The vow of poverty I'm taking as an author is preferable to that one.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Oh Carrie Mesrobian. Who knew we had so much more in common than writing YA and drooling over Daryl on Walking Dead? I too was a teacher who marveled that I of all people was put in a position of authority. I marveled as I watched a student jump out of my classroom window (it was on the first story, but still, it was weird/awesome/crazy to behold.) I marveled as I somehow got roped into being the freshmen cheerleading squad sponsor (me--the girl who once hated cheerleaders!) I sobbed a lot the first year. And all subsequent years I laughed. What the hell else can you do?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Former teacher here, too. I was a college instructor at, um, 22, when I had NO IDEA WHAT THE HELL I WAS DOING--not as a teacher, and certainly not as a writer. I think 37-yr-old me would probably kick 22-yr-old me's ass.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'm so glad to hear you voice the myth that adults have ANYTHING figured out. All my life I've felt like when I reach a certain age, then, THEN, all will be clear and I will have attained enlightenment or at least have a sturdy retirement plan in place. As if someday-I-will-be-a-real-grown-up. And the longer I live, the further that age gets pushed back and the more I realize that no one has the first clue.

    ReplyDelete