When I first started teaching, a favorite Latin professor told me that she didn’t think I was at all cut out for the job. “I can’t say I can imagine you laboring in the camps” she said.
I’ve been in the camps for three years now, laboring.
In the beginning, it was torture. I hated the stage acting. I hated the sense of imminent doom and crisis that hung over my classroom. I hated the anxious Sundays with the acid stomach, physically dreading the idea of the next morning. And, honestly, I hated the kids, too.
I gritted my teeth. Smoked like a chimney. Looked terrible. Drank coffee and beer to excess. Got fat. Got really skinny. Got through it mentally kicking and screaming like a 4 year old child.
No one tells you when you start something how difficult it will be and how horrible it will feel. Actually, they do tell you those things, though maybe not in so many words. Problem is that you just don’t believe them. In my early 20s, cocksure, in love with the erroneous myth of my own success, I had no doubt it would be ten times easier for me than for anyone else.
It’s one thing, though, to imagine and another to be. Go to sleep one day and you’re 21 and a student and everyone’s talking about acceptance and paradigm shifts and the renaissance of the human spirit. Wake up the next and you’re full time in Special Ed and the principal’s yelling at you for messing up the academic testing report, like you’re some little snot-nosed, 20-something fuck up and not the Summa cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa, President of the League of Concerned Queer Young Democrats for Justice in Palestine prodigy you were two months ago. It’s one thing to imagine docile, eager kids who appreciate your efforts and want to learn automatically. It’s another thing to try to teach a 6’4”, 200 lbs., 17 year old male with arms like tree trunks who can’t read and hates you for reminding him of that fact whenever you try to get him through basic phonics.
Whether you intend to or not, you’ll resent someone for that. You’ll resent a kid for calling you a faggot. You’ll resent him for acting like a nutcase, throwing staplers and cussing you out. You’ll resent him for ruining a lesson it took you 4 hours to plan. You’ll resent him for not saying “please” and “thank you”.
Public schools are like that. They’re emotional battlegrounds. There’s a reason why there are about 5 billion television shows and movies set in American public high schools: it’s because what goes on in them is more interesting than what goes on in the rest of the world. You’re there for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and there’s never down-time, never meditation hour. Every emotion, every sense gets heightened. Time elongates: the kids pull it like a rubber band, to breaking point on bad days, easing up on it on good ones. Every day, there are about 3000 crises. Every hour, there’s something that’s gone horribly wrong. And you really don’t have any time to gracefully segue from one to the other. On your feet, in the moment, that’s how you do it, at least if you’re like me: still green.
Last month was maybe the first month that I felt that I really liked this job. We let out for Christmas break and I had a dozen kids who were reading things at a different grade level from what they could six months ago. We let out for Christmas break and I had kids who thanked me for what we did in class. A couple coffee mugs, wrapped on the desk. A couple thank you notes in the box. A nod and “Have a good vacation, Mister” on the way out.
What makes people like a job? Possibilities: good money, competent boss, pleasant working environment, sense of fulfillment, flexible work hours, decent vacation time. Some of these come with the territory of what I do every day; some definitely don’t.
Seems like my entire generation of people, everyone who came up during the last decade and the first part of this one, has gotten damn good at eating shit and carrying on as if it’s chocolate cake. You go along with the ten unpaid internships, you hustle your way through 15% unemployment, you take what comes.
And I do, too. I’m not a naturally good teacher. I never was. I probably never will be. But I can fake the calm and make up the deficits with what I know works. And if I do that, maybe one day “laboring in the camps” won’t feel so much like labor.