When we last left... I had picked up a desk.
Once again, it was my first year teaching high school, my first day in front of the students by myself. I had a fourth period class of recalcitrant students who really put the "sophomoric" in "sophomore." Three minutes into this first class, with no one paying attention, I picked up a desk and let it drop-- you know, just to make a noise, to get the focus on me. In the process, an empty can Canada Dry ginger ale, resting inside the desk, fell on to the floor.
In a way, my plan worked: the kids stopped talking. But I knew, even then, I shouldn't have done it. A novice move, definitely. I was going for this "new sheriff in town" vibe, but I let them see me sweat.
Still, let's make one thing absolutely clear: at its maximum, the desk was maybe two inches off the floor.
That was November 2000. About a year later, I learned two things about that day, from a colleague who had talked to some of my former students:
(1) Time and spotty memory combined to make me stronger—and crazier—than I actually am. According to the student version of that day, I actually threw the desk. And I threw it across the room.
Now, I can assure everyone out there in Internet-land that in no way did that happen. I did not throw said desk. I picked up the desk. I dropped the desk. It fell maybe two inches. In the process, a Canada Dry can fell and went clink-clink-clink on the floor. That is it.
(2) In the brief seconds of silence following the Desk Incident, something happened, something that would color my entire first year of high school teaching. For it was during those seconds that about seven or eight students-- boys, for the most part-- decided they were going to make the rest of my year abso-freakin'-lutely miserable.
Now, some may say I’m exaggerating. In truth, they never threatened me or stalked me or assaulted me. They never stole anything from me, nor did they ever deface any of my personal property with illustrations of genitalia. They weren’t criminals, after all; they were just tenth graders.
So, over the next nine months, these tenth graders will talk. They’ll talk back, too, but mostly they’ll just talk. When I give them work, they’ll talk through the instructions and then accuse me of not telling them what they're supposed to do. They’ll talk as they do the assignments and finish the work as quickly as they can so they can get back to talking.
They'll talk about the weekend that just passed, and they'll talk about the weekend coming up. They'll talk in code, too, using slang and initials so I won't really know what they're talking about. They’ll talk about how stupid the stories we're reading are, how boring class is. They'll ask to see a movie; when I show one, they'll determine it's boring and talk right through it. ("This is stupid. Can we watch 'Dude, Where's My Car?'") But I honestly don’t think they think this insults me. It’s just talk, after all.
Oh, and they’ll laugh, too. A lot of loud and hearty laughter, mostly from the boys—all at inappropriate things, of course. For example, the boys will steal the scented lotions from the girls, squirt it on their own hands, and then laugh about how it looks like semen. They’ll make farting noises, and they’ll laugh about that. Even better: they’ll actually fart, and they’ll laugh about that even more. If something sexual comes up in the literature, that's comedic gold: they can stretch that material for about two weeks.
They’ll be smart about it, though; they’ll never do anything so egregious that it truly merits getting someone like the vice-principal involved. The purpose, see, is not to attract attention to themselves; the purpose is to break me down.
And they’ll just about do it, too. Over the next nine months, they’ll drive me just up to the brink. They’ll make me seriously consider flushing my whole dream of being a teacher—the one thing I knew I could do better than anything. They will just about break me down.
You have to know a few things: I have been teaching English for twelve years now; I’ve taught college, adult ed, and high school; I regard teaching as perhaps the most important and most noble profession that exists; and my first year teaching high school, I absolutely hated it.
Hated everything about it, as a matter of fact. I hated the hours: waking up inhumanly early after staying up late preparing the night before. I hated the never-ending paperload, and I really hated seeing how quickly the essays I spent a weekend correcting would end up in the trash can. I hated “re-creating the wheel” every day, trying to come up with ways to fill up the interminable forty-five minute class period. I hated watching a “can’t miss” activity, one that I painstakingly created, bomb before my eyes. Many, many times, I felt like a comedian, fumbling around on stage, dying—and I hated that feeling.
And to be honest, and I know this sounds horrible, but for most of that first year, I think a part of me—a really, really big part—actually hated that particular fourth period class. I don't think I hated the students as individuals-- that's pretty harsh, I know-- but I sure hated going into that classroom everyday. I sure hated how they wouldn’t stop talking and complaining about everything we did. I hated how I couldn’t get the kids to respect me, how I had no classroom management, and how every one in the room knew it.
I hated what the job was doing to me and my relationships. I hated hearing myself unload, once again, another “woe is me” speech on my wife. I hated seeing my general “Mr. Optimist Prime” personality rot away, as I slowly became someone I didn’t recognize, Sir Cynicism, complete with a new philosophy of “Why am I working harder than anyone else? Screw it!” I hated that guy. And I hated how, on more than one occasion, this job brought a thirty-year-old man to tears. (And I’m not waxing dramatically here; I’m talking about actual salty discharge coming out of my eyes.)
You get the idea. As I intimated earlier, hundreds of times that year, I thought about quitting. And if I didn’t have two small children to support, I probably would have.
But I didn't. I'm still here, doing my thing, and actually enjoying it now. Those fourth period kids didn't break me down after all. Not because I made some major breakthrough with them. The summer came, that's all. The class ended. And when I came back next year, with a brand new bunch, I was a savvier, calmer, more experienced. Just all-around better.
Yesterday, I began with a Shawshank Redemption reference, and I have another one now: at one point in the film, Red (Morgan Freeman) says that geology is the study of "pressure and time." Well, I could say the same about high school teaching: a lot of pressures come with the job, but in time, you figure out the strategies to deal with them. You get better. But it does take time.
You know, for the past hundred years or so, the unflappable Casey Kasem has signed off his broadcasts with the same advice: "Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars." I actually have very similar advice for first-year teachers: "Keep your desks on the ground, and just hold on till next year."