Monday, January 26, 2009

Stand and Reconsider

“I really think I was born to teach.” – Homer Simpson

You’ve heard the old saying “Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach gym.” But what about those who can sort of teach but didn’t find a full-time job after two years, gave up on it, and never looked back? I guess they become over-educated corporate worker bees before making a brief detour into SAHM territory, blogging the night away to keep their old spark from dying of malnourishment. Oh, by the way, I’m talking about myself.

That’s right. I was an aspiring high school English teacher. And I was reasonably good at it. Um, I think. I mean . . . I was no Jaime Escalante of Stand and Deliver. I wasn’t Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds or even Jack Black in School of Rock. As a student teacher (and later a substitute teacher and tutor), there wasn’t much opportunity to develop my own curriculum. It was all about the textbooks, vocabulary words, and spelling tests. But I was still able to spin some creative lesson plans out of some lackluster material, helping the kids memorize what they were supposed to memorize. It was great fun.

And it was exhausting. The hardest I’ve ever worked in my life. The hours are relentless; up before dawn, grading papers late into the night, on your feet all day trying to keep teenagers interested in material that sometimes bores you to tears yourself. I am incredibly shy by nature, but I’ve worked hard to overcome it as an adult. The stage fright I’d have before each class was intense, peaking at shrill anxiety and nose-diving into deep worried sadness. I couldn’t eat, so I’d just drink cup after cup of weak tea in the faculty room.

But then the kids would show up to class and it would just work somehow. I’d ride that anxiety like a toboggan, keep my shoulders back, breathe, and use its power for good. It was about acting, really. You’re a personality. For the most part, the kids tolerated my quirkiness with begrudging, eye-rolling fondness. Some of them even adored me. Some of them suspected I was full of shit. (And they were probably right. But the amazing thing was how I was actually able to filter out the negativity and truly not care. I have never been able to do that in any other context.)

As the weeks went by and my confidence increased, I started to believe I loved teaching! And maybe I really did. Or maybe it was just the sleep deprivation talking. But despite all the exhausting work involved, I felt so lucky to be avoiding “the office,” so glad to be doing something hands-on and meaningful. I remember attending my aspiring yuppie friends’ wine tasting party, listening to them all talk about their office jobs and feeling so thankful that I got to spend my days with teenagers instead, flying by the seat of my hippie skirt.

But really – and this is a hard thing to admit, but here we go – I think I just loved the second chance at high school. I was 24, which isn’t that much older than a high schooler when you think about it. I was young enough to share their pop culture, but old enough to be just slightly more impressive than a peer. I had a little fan club of cool kids in my 11th grade classes. They’d give me their short stories to read. They’d tell me when a show was coming up that I might want to see. I maintained professional boundaries, but I have to admit I was way more excited to be accepted by their little group than I should have been. Ugh. How embarrassing.

When my student teaching assignment ended at that school, I went on to subbing. Nobody’s going to tell you that they loved being a substitute high school teacher, and I won’t either. But still, there was something exhilarating about the job. The pure challenge of it. Facing a room full of hostile boredom or hormone-fueled chaos, and somehow turning it around. Actually getting the little darlings engaged in their vocabulary lesson with some creative spontaneity. Out-smart-assing the smart-asses. I truly hated all the ramped-up performance anxiety I’d feel beforehand, but I could always beat it once class began. And beating it was such an incredible high.

Tutoring was even better. I spent the summer working with kids who needed to retake their English classes, providing a one-on-one summer school of sorts. One family even paid me extra to drive out to their son’s summer camp and tutor him there. That fall, I tutored for Philadelphia Futures, helping kids get inspired to write well about subjects they cared about. That’s where I had my proudest professional moment, defending one of my students against a bitter teacher who gave her a D simply for writing about racism she experienced on a family vacation. (“This doesn’t follow the assignment! It was supposed to be a narrative essay!” Um, yes. It is a narrative essay about her experience with racism! *smacks forehead*). So, I went through the assignment line-by-line and proved to the teacher how the paper did, in fact, follow the instructions. She changed the grade and didn’t give us any trouble after that.

Meanwhile, I was patching together an income with temping and teaching an occasional writing class at a local junior college, still looking for a full-time teaching job. I filled out dozens of applications a week, went to job fairs, clumsily tried to network my way into something. But it just wasn’t happening for me. The job market was saturated with high school English teachers at the time (which became frighteningly clear at the job fairs). It seemed the way to get a job was to pick one school and just sub there faithfully until somebody died. No thank you.

I’ve always wondered, too, if maybe I was just too wacky for anyone to seriously consider hiring me. I was so offbeat-looking in those days, growing out my dyed-black hair, trying to tame my quirky-postmodern-librarian look into a conservative little suit. I could never quite pull it off. And, of course, there was my ever-present social anxiety. I’d been able to work off its energy in the classroom, but you can’t really parlay anxiety into delightful wackiness when there’s a row of school administrators frowning across a table at you. And without an outlet, that anxiety just sort of sizzles around your neck and shakes your voice a little. They can smell it on you. Combine that with no full-time classroom experience, and it doesn’t add up to success. At least, it didn’t for me.

It was a sad relief to finally decide not to pursue a teaching career after all. No more stage fright. No more working around the clock to the point of exhaustion. No more surfing a classroom’s volatile energy or watching students get so bored they start drawing on themselves. Time to find a plain old office job where I could hang up some “Life in Hell” cartoons, sit at a desk and work in peace, come home and watch TV at the end of the day. Nothing wrong with that. Right?

During this time, I had a recurring dream in which I’d been selected to be an astronaut. But at the last minute, the space expedition gets cancelled. In the dream I’m always relieved to have avoided going up in space after all, glad to be among the safe and familiar. But at the same time, in the dream I find myself wondering what it would have been like, knowing I could have met the challenge, feeling a little ashamed not to have that chance to prove myself.


DGB said...

I've always wanted to teach. Someday I just might.

kommishonerjenny said...

I totally remember that anxiety from teaching (also union organizing- why would a person with social anxiety undertake a job knocking on doors 12 hours a day? I ask you.).

The last paragraph is oddly funny to me because my mom applied when they opened up a spot to send a teacher into space on the Challenger. She had to pull her application because she found out she was pregnant with my brother.

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