There’s a pseudo-famous short story, usually called something like “The World’s Shortest Short Story" or even “The World’s Shortest Horror Story,” that is so short that I can re-print it here in its entirety:
“The last person on earth sat alone in a room.
There was a knock at the door.”
No one knows the writer, but I wish I did, because I would pay this person some seriously righteous homage. I love this story. How can you not? The ambiguity allows for so many questions, so many interpretations.
Why is this person the last man on earth? Was there some nuclear apocalypse? Who’s coming to the door? Is this person coming to save him? Kill him? Is there even another person at the door, or has the guy gone insane, after being alone for so long?
Me, I prefer a more optimistic interpretation—namely, that the story is about making human connections. I always believed the guy in the story wasn’t really the last person on earth; he just felt so lonely and isolated that he believed he was all alone in the world. But now someone else is knocking at his door, reaching out to him, breaking his isolation.
I show my students this story every year, to illustrate not only ambiguity but also reading strategies, such as inferencing, questioning, and even connecting. In fact, I can connect personally to this story.
The “World’s Shortest Short Story,” you see, reminds me of my first year teaching high school. Why? Because basically, for about six months of that first year, I was that man from the story, the last man on earth, all alone.
Oh, I wasn’t really alone, naturally. But teaching, by its very nature, can be a very isolating job. Some try to put a positive spin on it, say you have a lot of “autonomy.” But really the job can be very insulated and isolated.
“Now, hold on!” the non-teacher might counter. “How can you complain about large class sizes and then turn around and say you’re too ‘isolated’?” Ah, touché…but when I say “isolated,” I’m not talking about a complete lack of human contact. I’m talking about the lack of meaningful interaction with peers, other adults, folks who actually share your pain and can help you get through it.
Don’t get me wrong: my first year teaching high school, I had some great colleagues, and when I went to them for help, I always got it. But they couldn’t help me every minute of every day. Most of the time, just dealing with their own classes, their own separate universes, took up all of their energies.
And all I knew about these other universes is that good things seemed to be happening there. Meanwhile, my own universe seemed ready to collapse in on itself any second and form a black hole.
So, take the natural isolation that comes with the teaching territory, and heap on the feelings of anxiety from believing you’re not only the worst teacher in the building, but quite possibly the worst that’s ever lived—and, yeah, you might feel like the last person on earth, too.
So what sustained me during that first year? What brought me some small degree of comfort, made it possible to keep showing up? Simple: stories.
And no, by “stories,” I don’t mean To Kill a Mockingbird or Catcher in the Rye (even though they did buoy me up plenty of times). I’m talking about the stories other teachers told me about their first years.
I’m not sure when or why I decided to ask other teachers about their own first-year experiences, but I talked to pretty much every teacher I knew that year. Not for advice, necessarily, but for anecdotes. And the more people I asked, the clearer two truths became:
(1) “Man, some of these teachers have some really crappy first years!” and
(2) “They want to tell me these stories. Even the really bad stories. And they’re laughing as they tell them. Somehow, they’re proud of these stories.”
Ultimately, their stories eased my mind. And it’s not just because “misery loves company,” although that probably had something to do with it. And it wasn’t just this egocentric schadenfreudic reaction, where I found comfort in knowing someone else had it worse—although, who are we kidding?, that didn’t hurt, either. But I think it was something else: these stories helped me so much because they were my knock at the door.
That’s right: the knock. The knock that told me I wasn’t alone in the universe. The knock that made me realize, “You mean someone else has felt what I’m feeling? Someone else has been overwhelmed by the work, the students, the doubt?” The knock that convinced me, almost against my better judgment, to keep going with this crazy teaching thing. The knock that ultimately saved my career.
You know, I’ve seen some websites made up entirely of rejection letters—the premise being that if you’re an aspiring writer discouraged by all the rejection letters you’ve received, and you see that everyone gets rejection letters, maybe you won’t feel so discouraged any more. In fact, maybe you’ll feel a sense of community with all of these people.
I have yet to find a place like that on the Internet for first-year teachers—a place where they could retreat to when they’re feeling low and read stories from people who have lived to tell the tale. Maybe this can be that place.
So, to any teachers out there who might read this: Why not send in a few of your stories from the trenches? Maybe some new teacher will read them. Maybe you’ll inspire that new teacher to go to work the next day. But mostly, maybe you'll help him realize he’s not alone in the universe.