Saturday, August 20, 2011

The End of the Game Is Before the Game

If you just finished your first week of teaching, you’re probably pretty tired right now. Monday morning – very early Monday morning – will be here very soon, and you can start getting even more tired. While you quickly rest up for the next week, maybe you have grading to do. Maybe you’re not quite ready for the students who will file into your first period class by the dawn’s early light. You should probably read those chapters you assigned in case they do.

It doesn’t look like you’ll be spending the weekend resting and relaxing with your loved ones, lounging around by your pool, reading a great novel while sipping a cool, possibly adult, beverage. You probably won’t take in that My Chemical Romance concert at the Citrus Bowl or see the latest artsy offering at the Enzian.

Maybe the high point of the weekend was that you don’t have to get up at 5 and you can go to the restroom on your own schedule.

The kid(s) who gave you a load of crap on Friday will probably have another load for you on Monday. It’s possible you’ll be both tired and upset when you get home, then more tired and upset on Tuesday, and then you’ll have an after-school meeting on Wednesday that alerts you to some all-new “initiatives” (i.e., flavor-of-the-month institutional missions that add to the stuff you’re already behind in).

You’ll try to stay awake for your daily commute back home, then you’ll try to explain that unique end-of-the-school-day fatigue to that special someone who shares your living quarters. Then it’ll all start over again in a matter of hours. Don’t even try to stay up for the 11 o’clock news to find out the latest atrocity the myopic Legislature has committed against your life’s calling.

Maybe you feel like quitting.

In my first year as a high-school teacher, I certainly did.

My first-period class was mellow and respectful, or maybe they were still half asleep. Second period was bright, but rowdy. The cadre of guys on the right side of the room decided to ignore this new teacher, and when I tried to redirect their attention to things educational, they grew sullen and began to dislike me. I know this, because they told me so later.

Some girls in the middle made me furious with their giggling and constant conversations. I remember saying something really whiny and stupid to them, a great example, by the way of an appeal to pity: “I would never do this to you.” At the end of the year, they apologized in my yearbook and explained that they were just breaking me in.

A guy on the left side of the room couldn’t control his contributions to class, and that’s all I’ll say about that.

When second period was over, I’d walk into the hall and look through a glass wall at my little Nissan pickup, purchased to mark me as resident of the little Colorado rural town to which I had retreated from my former teaching gig, sitting enticingly beneath the oak trees of a sandy parking lot and calling out to me like the Sirens of yore. On some days I almost answered that call.

When colleagues talked to me about what it was like to make the transition from college professor to high-school teacher, I tactfully told them that not only did I not like teaching high school, I hated it. I couldn’t stand it.

At about that time, a guidance counselor told me “Your students really like you” as I walked by her office one day. Without slowing down, I barked over my shoulder, “They sure have a funny way of showing it.”

I had not forgotten Dr. Crook’s wisdom: “You can’t teach’em if you don’t love’m.” But how the heck was I supposed to love students who treated me as an afterthought, as someone who did little more than get in the way of their conversations? Sure, I had grown weary of life as a college professor, but the vast majority of my students there seemed to enjoy my company, maybe even benefit from it. They also laughed at my jokes. My high-school students were too freaking loud to even hear my jokes.

So I missed teaching and being funny.

One day on my commute to work (I lived about half an hour away), I remember arriving at this grim realization: “I have to do this, and die?! That’s not fair!”

My wife and I talked it over and agreed this was no way to go through life. It was probably better, we decided, for me not to spend the rest of my days angry, disappointed, frustrated and tired, especially as a teacher, since teaching was the one thing I didn’t stink at. If I were going to have all those lousy feelings, perhaps it should be as a bartender or an undertaker – something that compensated a fellow for all his misery.

So we set a date: On Wednesday the whatever (it was in September), I’d walk down to my department chair’s room and tell her I would stay long enough for her to find a replacement. The night before, I slept like a baby on Ambien Junior.

On the big morning, I got through my compliant, kind, heavy-lidded first-period class and my playfully brash and antagonistic second period. It was planning period now and it was show time and I was only moments away from answering the call of my little Nissan pickup.

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