At a party recently, I was chatting with my friend about her job. It was fine, she said, everything was fine, but after the wine had stained our tongues purple and someone cracked open the cigarettes, she told me the truth. She hated her job. She felt bored and useless. She made rich people’s lives better—where was the reward in that?
‘I just want to do something that matters,’ she said.
She wanted to become a high-school teacher.
Were she to suggest another career considered both challenging and important, like neurosurgery or bus driving, I might have pointed out her utter lack of training. But my friend lives in New York City, where the teaching crisis has become so grave that they now recruit off the subway.
‘In 20 years, will you remember your second boss’s name?’ one subway ad reads.
It’s part of a whole campaign designed to coax people into a suffering profession that offers little in the way of status or financial benefits—i.e., the noble career. If you want work that matters, become a teacher! No certification needed!
‘I think I could give those kids something,’ she said, ‘you know what I mean?’
I do: I was a teacher once. Twenty-three years old, full of earnestness and swallowed literary ambitions. In fact, under the ‘Goal’ section of my résumé I actually wrote, ‘To inspire young minds.’ I handed out those résumés at job fairs to frumpy women in appliqué sweaters.
‘That’s pretty ambitious,’ they said.
I looked them in the eyes. ‘Yep.’
I was young and arrogant and I’d spent too many nights watching Dead Poets Society drunk. That film made teaching look like a kind of nifty performance space in which the teacher has the leading role, and I imagined myself in the classroom, cracking jokes, scattering Shakespeare like rose petals. Of course, at the end of Dead Poets Society a lead character kills himself. But by the time that part of the movie came around I was usually passed out.
I enrolled in the secondary certification program after discovering my dual degree in English and Liberal Arts was next to powerless in the fight against unemployment. In the teacher prep courses we learned how to construct lesson plans, that we should organize our classroom so that the trashcan doesn’t obstruct the pencil sharpener, and different ways to vary classroom activities to accommodate all learning types.
‘If a student is a tactile learner, maybe you can use clay!’ the instructor suggested.
‘But how?’ asked a woman studying to become a math teacher.
I rolled my eyes through most of it, but what did excite me was the work of a middle-school teacher named Linda Reif, whose book, Seeking Diversity, was a Dangerous Minds-type success story in which she gave students the power to choose what books they read and what papers they wrote. It made sense to me. As a kid I resented being told to read snoozers like Ivanhoe and then write a five-paragraph blah-blah on its light-and-dark imagery. No thanks. In other classes, these kids might be ‘students’—oppressed by the rules, humiliated by the busy work, the book checks, the mandatory number-two pencils. But in my class, they would be artists.
When I landed a job at a high school teaching freshman English, my first assignment to them was simple: Write about something that matters to you.
They stared at me blankly.
‘Do we need to use a number-two pencil on this?’
‘Use whatever you want,’ I said. ‘The only rule here is that we respect each other.’
‘Awesome! Does that mean we can chew gum?’
I got the job two weeks before school started. The position had been given to an older woman who ditched a career on Wall Street for the classroom—but she balked when she saw the salary. I, on the other hand, had been making $5 an hour at a daycare. When the principal pointed cautiously to the number, all I could think was, ‘$24,000? Not bad!’
People complain bitterly about teacher pay, but as a first profession, you could do worse (especially in strong union states like California, where starting salaries can reach into the $30s and $40s). The problem with teaching is the salary cap, which offers little incentive for good teachers to stay in the profession. At 23, I could afford rent and beer on $24,000. But a 20-year veteran making $36,000? I saw single mothers scraping by, husbands shredded to ribbons by a new baby. Unlike other careers that offer promotions and raises, teaching essentially relies on its staff to be altruists. And over the years that begins to make less and less sense. A teacher friend of mine recently told me, ‘I don’t mind the work, but they’re not paying me enough for the humiliation.’
All of which is why most of us quit in the first three years. I didn’t even last that long.
The night before class began I stayed up late worrying. Was I fit to teach these kids? After all, I hadn’t been the best student, using my writing ability as a smokescreen for lazy study. That was part of what drew me to the profession. I wanted to be the kind of teacher I’d always wanted; as I said, I wanted to inspire them. But I didn’t know my synecdoche from my metonymy. I’d never even read Ulysses. What if they found me out?
What I didn’t anticipate was the monotony of their academic inquiry: ‘Can I go to the bathroom?’ ‘Do we need our books today?’ ‘Is this gonna be on the test?’
On the first day of class I was telling them about myself—that I liked theatre, that I sometimes reviewed theatre for the local paper—when a hand shot up. The hand twisted in the air, shook with impatience.
‘Do you have a question?’ I finally asked.
‘What’s theatre?’ he asked.
I couldn’t believe it.
‘Duh,’ said the girl beside him. ‘Theatre is live movies.’
In that moment, I realized something crucial: Those kids were so stupid.
The myth of teaching is that kids never forget you. That may be true for a handful of students. Instead, I discovered I was lucky if some remembered my name at all. A typical scene from the first month:
‘Miss? Yo, Miss! Over here.’ It was Tyrone, a gargantuan basketball player wearing something fashionable on his head resembling underwear.
‘My name is Miss Hepola,’ I gently corrected him.
He blushed. ‘Aww, that’s too hard to say.’
‘It’s not, really. It’s easy to say. Hep-uh-lah.’
‘Can I just call you Miss H?’ he asked.
‘That’s fine. Now, what do you need?’
‘Uh, I forgot.’ He stared into space. ‘Oh wait, Miss…shoot. What’s your name again?’
‘Miss Hepola. Hepola. Hep-uh-lah.’
‘Right, right, Miss H. What’s a glossary?’
Surely it was a kind of learned helplessness, a strategy to get attention. Could anybody be this dumb? After all, I went through college terrified to speak up in group discussions because I thought my opinions about literature and politics didn’t sound as good as everyone else’s. But these kids spoke without a filter, like drunken babies.
‘Hey miss, in juvie they told us they was 51 states. Is that still true?’
‘I’m sorry,’ I responded, ‘Could you repeat the question and tell me your crime?’
I knew they couldn’t have been complete idiots, because when they wanted something—to leave class early, to be excused for tardiness or late homework—their edges magically sharpened. And though Romeo & Juliet never fired their imagination, the suggestion of my private life left them tantalized.
‘Do you have a boyfriend?’
‘How old are you?’
‘Do you like to party?’
I ignored them to the best of my ability, offering a Mona Lisa smile that made them even crazier. Every once in a while, I slipped.
‘Do you like the Beastie Boys?’
‘Oh yeah, I saw them in concert once.’
‘Dude, I told you she partied!’
As promised, I allowed them a certain autonomy in what they read and wrote. In return, they selected Goosebumps and Seventeen magazine and wrote hideous by-rote essays like ‘My Most Embarrassing Moment,’ which usually involved silly, not-that-embarrassing things like toilet paper stuck to their shoe. Every class had a handful of bright spots—motivated kids I would have kissed if it weren’t for the lawsuits. They read books on their own and turned in searching, honest essays about their lives. Maybe too honest. One kid wrote about doing ecstasy. Another wrote about finding his father hanging in the living room. The one who’d been in juvie turned in a grisly post-millennial poem about demons slitting the throats of virgins.
‘What is this?’ I asked him, setting the piece on a desk between us.
‘It’s the truth,’ he said.
Well I hadn’t expected that. Eventually I backed off the personal stuff. Once they opened up, I realized I didn’t want to see what was inside. They confessed to me about sex, about drugs, about abuse, but I wasn’t their therapist. ‘Man, you’re gonna get me in trouble!’ I told them. As it turns out—despite what I’d previously thought—I wasn’t much of a rebel.
Instead, I was a ‘cool teacher,’ much to my public dismay and secret delight. I was the one students called at home, the one they complained to about how other teachers never smile, never laugh.
‘I don’t want to hear it,’ I told them. But I did. Something about teaching brought out a desperate need in me to be admired. I think it’s because, as a teacher, you are the object of so much hostility. You are hated for being an authority figure, for simply being there. All I wanted was to inspire young minds. Instead, I was like a cop.
So when a kid skipped gym and hid inside my classroom—‘Miss H won’t mind. She’s cool.’—inevitably, I let it slide.
But you make sacrifices to be a cool teacher. Often, you sacrifice the friendship of your colleagues, who quite rightly feel you have chosen your students over them. You sacrifice the emotional distance that helps teachers keep a classroom afloat. Most troubling for me was that I sacrificed nuts-and-bolts English language instruction. My students could turn cereal boxes into poems when they left my class. But could any of them write a thesis statement?
I quit at the end of the semester. A newspaper offered me a job, and I took the advice I’d been giving my students: Do what you love. Six years later, I have never regretted the decision, but I often mourn it. I am still moved by those ads that suggest how essential teachers are. I get misty when Oprah salutes ‘teachers who changed our lives.’ But all these extravagant heart-tuggers fail to mention how hard and unrewarding it can be. Or that some poor sucker has to teach Health.
On my last day teaching, one of my students approached my desk. He was short and round and wore glasses. The kids called him ‘Stumpy.’ He often lingered after class, asking for reading suggestions. He wasn’t the sharpest kid, but a few of his poems showed promise, and I had told him so.
‘Did I tell you I entered a poetry contest?’ he asked.
‘No, you didn’t. That’s great.’ Part of me felt the year had been a wash, but it warmed me to think I had inspired him.
‘I won,’ he said. ‘Do you want to see the note they wrote me?’
He handed me a piece of paper that read: ‘Congradultaions! We are writting to anounce that your poem ‘Oh, Mockingbird’ won our poetry contist.’
He’d obviously typed it up himself, hoping to impress me.
‘Keep writing,’ I told him.
‘I will,’ he said, and smiled.
For a minute, I thought I was going to cry. He couldn’t spell for shit.