GROWING A SPINE, and BALLS, OF STEEL
When a kid gets really mad at you, and this happens especially when an unpleasant report card comes out, or a failed test is returned, he or she may spew into your gut and face, with all the power he or she can muster: “I HATE YOU.” I told a kid on a poetry project once—he’d included only Pink Floyd lyrics---“Your research for this project was too sparse.” He read the critique aloud and shot back, “Your teaching is sparse. You suck.”
What do you do? I used to freeze.
Here’s what I learned to do. I would look into his or her eyes and say evenly, sincerely, “That’s okay. I have friends.”
A gasp from another part of the room: “OH MY GOD, NO YOU DI-N’T!”
“I have friends. I need you to LEARN. I’m here to help you grow academically. Doing the work I assign, to the very best of your ability, is part of that. Let me know if you need help.”
I was, as you might imagine, not called, “easy,” or “nice.”
But most kids liked me okay. And that’s still not the reason you are in teaching. You are in teaching to teach kids stuff. Out of that enterprise, real and wonderful friendships and collegial relationships can happen, and when it does, it’s just fan-fucking-tastic. But this cannot be the GOAL.
You must set reasonable expectations for yourself in your classes: The most reasonable expectations in the world for you are, 1) to teach your curriculum to the very best of your ability; and 2) to get to know your students and try to meet their learning needs to the best of your ability.
Who were your favorite teachers? Who were your least favorite? You can learn from both of sets, and here’s some stuff I learned, and used when I taught. This isn’t really an ode to the best or a take-down of the worst, but rather a reassessment of teachers who made me better, some by being sort of mean and some by being what my friend Gary calls, a person.
Mrs. “I’ll call her” Pills was my second grade teacher, and was easily the meanest teacher I had as a student in public school. She was turning 65 that year and by law had to retire. She told us this through the tiniest lips I’d ever seen, which sat on the palest, powdered face under the darkest red dye job surrounding beady eyes that peered out of cat-eye-iest glasses one could imagine. She wore Chanel-style suits. Perfume. High heels. She made us say “The Lord’s Prayer” every morning. This was 1971, and that was not legal. As I wasn’t of any religion, and only vaguely knew the name “Jesus,” and found him really scary because of those Children’s Bible Stories at my dentist’s office, the implications of this act weren’t clear. “We have said the Lord’s Prayer every morning of my teaching life and we aren’t stopping now!” she decreed. I didn’t know what she was talking about, so I just mumbled along. I remember the glares she gave me, and a Japanese girl named Kimiko because we had no idea what to do.
Mrs. Pills once had us recite “The Purple Cow,” the last two lines of which were, “But I can tell you anyhow/ I’d rather see than be one.” I was good at memorizing rhymes and had an innate sense of rhythm. But I watched as child after child before me recited, “I’d rather see one than be one.” The “see one” was wrong—the rhythm was ruined by it. She smiled. She said, “Very good.” She never corrected them. Not wanting to stand out, I said what they said, though I agonized over it because it was wrong. She pursed her thin, heavily reddened lips. She adjusted her cat-eye glasses. “Next,” she said.
One day we were making mirror-art, stenciling butterflies by folding the paper over and tracing the ditto of the half butterfly, while holding it against the window. I folded it wrong and traced it on the wrong side. The whole exercise was stupid to me. She saw what I’d done, and my eye-roll, and grabbed my wrist, smashed my hand against a window pane, and dug her long, painted nails into my hand, forcing me to trace the butterfly half correctly.
She made us grade each other’s papers. We were seven years old. During the unit on greater than and less than, I was a loser. No idea what the hell those little sideways triangles had to do with anything. While “grading” Ingrid Schaeffer’s math work, Mrs. Pills reached over my shoulder, threw down red X’s and hissed, “You are marking it all wrong,” and I became my mother: I turned to meet her powdery, scented, wrinkled face and spat, “I KNOW that seven is greater than three. Which way does the carrot [sic] point?”
She had me tracked with the slow kids for years afterward. The other key event (to what I’m fairly certain is what happened to me) occurred when she asked us, after “head down on the desk” naptime, to tell us what we dreamed. I couldn’t believe she seriously thought we dreamed in that time, so I shot up my hand and went to the front of the room to tell them a story. I said, “I dreamed we all went to Egypt and were in Tutankhamen’s tomb! Juanita was there,” and I pointed, pausing for effect, “and Carl was a Pharaoh…”
“You’re lying,” Mrs. Pills snapped. “Sit down.”
Well, DUH. What on earth was she expecting after a 5-minute nap? I was mortified, in every sense of that word.
Mrs. Pills was important in teaching me who and what I did NOT want to become as a teacher. And so sure was I that she was mean and wrong, I stiffened my spine, I rallied, I grew. I was able to do this because of my upbringing, as I mentioned—learning about the morality of the world on TV, my parents’ talking to me, all that. Mrs. Pills did not understand me or how I learned or how my tiny brain worked. Move on.
YEARS LATER: A COLLEGE PROFESSOR I DID NOT CARE FOR
Speaking of not understanding me, I came to learn that there were plenty of people I didn’t understand. And that’s the way it is. You can’t expect everyone to understand you, or that you will understand everybody. Boy howdy.
My first college theater professor was a drama theorist and teacher of creative dramatics, or using drama with children as an expressive learning tool. I perplexed him, he me. When he lectured, he threw in the phrase “vis à vis” a lot. I never had any idea what he was talking about. I got a C in my first college theater class (which he taught) and thought maybe I should switch to English. (When I spoke to him about it, he suggested that that might not be a bad idea, except that I obviously wasn’t very good at understanding dramatic literature. Fortunately, another theater class (taught by the department head) was more successful for me, so I stayed, and that was the right thing to do.)
Later, because I was interested in teaching drama, I also had to take this professor’s Creative Dramatics class, and I got a C in that, too. Of my first lesson plans, he wrote memorably and utterly unhelpfully, “These lessons have no soul.” That said, he worked hard for community involvement in drama, which I believed in, and to this end I volunteered to teach a few of his Saturday workshops so I could have practice working with young kids. But--and this is an unfortunate theme in my life--I wasn’t really given any guidance. People “trust” me, for whatever reason (I just sound so sure--just a tone of voice, no intention behind it, really, but it scared old Mrs. Pills back there), and when I fail to live up to “expectations,” they shake their heads in disappointment.
Here’s what I tried to learn from this and did not always succeed at holding: We are where we are. (I know: ANOTHER deep, insightful analysis in only two paragraphs!!) Being Disappointed in a young person who is really trying is not helpful. I experienced that unhelpfulness from the aforementioned professor time and again. Yet I have been known to project that very disappointment onto young people because I would not believe they were limited or not quite there yet, when they were just that: in progress. I would have flashbacks to that professor’s face, and I realized I needed to quit doing that. It took a while to learn.
Here’s an aside, as we keep in mind that I was never much more than a disappointment to this professor. I tell about it because we as teachers really cannot know what people’s lives are like; we walk around with the assumption that everyone is “fine” and are shocked, shocked when we later learn the truth, that we don’t know “everything”. I tell the next story because sometimes you just can’t explain. (Remember that Seinfeld episode that opens in the diner with Jerry’s date shaking her head about the apple pie he offers her? and later he does the same thing at her Papi’s pizza place, and it’s funny because we know why he’s shaking his head and ALSO why he can’t tell her? It’s like that.)
My senior year I was chosen to be a sort of Theatre Arts student liaison to the faculty, and it meant once again that I had to work with him, this professor, who was in charge of this program. We had a meeting one afternoon at 4:00 PM, and I was en route and nearly at the stairs of the Performing Arts Building when a woman from one of my education classes, whom I’ll call Doreen, called to me from another quad. As I walked over to her, she seemed to be searching my face, and then she burst into tears. A few years older than I, Doreen came from a poor background, had been married a few years, and now felt stable enough to begin changing her life by going back to college; it was her dream to be an elementary school teacher. (We didn’t have much in common; I think they should be canonized, those folks of the elementary trenches, but I’d rather have my skin removed from my body with tweezers, to paraphrase a friend of mine, than to teach tiny people.) That afternoon Doreen had been to a follow-up OB-GYN appointment and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She would have to have a complete hysterectomy. I was the first person she had seen whom she knew since that appointment, and I also have one of those faces people tell things to. (I’m asked for directions by New York tourists an average three times a week.) We walked over to an open field, to a bench, where she talked to me about her hopes, dreams of children, plans, fears of telling her husband, who would never consider adoption. She was imagining the end of her marriage if not the end of her life. I comforted her as best I could, given that I really hadn’t had much life experience up to that point. Around 5 or 5:30, she was calm enough for me to leave her. She hugged me and thanked me, and I really hoped I helped. (I don’t think I even saw her again.) I found myself standing there, looking out over campus trees and lawn, and trying to remember what I had been doing. I couldn’t. Did I have any plans? No, I could go home and do homework.
The next morning in the hall of the Performing Arts Building, the professor said something cryptic to me about the importance of keeping appointments . . . and I remembered. What could I say? He didn’t ask what happened. He instead accused me in this sort of back-handed way. I apologized. “Something came up,” I said lamely. I’d realized in a New York second how ludicrous it would sound, “I ran into my friend Doreen who was just diagnosed with cancer...” and with my history of disappointing him, frankly I’d given up caring what he thought.
Here’s the point: I remember all this. It’s all part of the lessons. I didn’t like him much. He didn’t think much of me. And yet we each had our successes and mattered to other people, and that’s the way it is.
SETTING GOOD EXPECTATIONS: ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
What is it you want your kids to learn? You’ve taken the classes, for what they were worth, you have a job assignment, and now you need to reflect: What exactly is it you expect of your students? To reinforce: I mean this in two ways: 1) academically, and 2) personally. What do you expect of yourself? I mean this in two ways: 1) instructionally, and 2) personally. The month before you embark on the job is as good a place as any to reflect on this. Whatever my failings and whatever college did not prepare me for, I did have an idea of those expectations.
I want to take a moment here to thank two teachers whom I loved, and both of whom had a particular moment in which they shone golden for me in terms of student expectations.
MIDDLE SCHOOL: MRS. SARVER/VOWELL
Mrs. Sarver was a home economics (still called that then) teacher at Luxe Middle School. To set the scene of this anecdote: I was in eighth grade, struggling with Algebra I and tired a lot because I was always in a play, learning lines and rehearsing after school. Home Ec was first period (back then we rotated from Fine Arts to Industrial Arts to Home Ec throughout the year.) In Mrs. Sarver’s class one day, we were supposed to be doing embroidery, but I was sneaking in my algebra homework under the table because, as usual, I had fallen asleep before I’d finished, and Adam called me out: “Lisa, are you doing algebra when you are supposed to be doing your project?”
I shot embroidery needle points out of my eyes at him, and blushed as Mrs. Sarver—wait, I mean Mrs. Vowell--walked over. (My eighth grade year Mrs. Sarver turned into Mrs. Vowell, by which change students are always thrown; I also learned about divorce and remarriage through this, and it then began to dawn on me that teachers had, uh, LIVES outside the building, so thanks again, Mrs. V.) She leaned down to me and I waited for the public humiliation. Very quietly and sincerely, as if I were a real person, she asked, “Do you need to finish your homework?” I nodded. “Go ahead and finish. I’ll let you take the embroidery hoop home tonight and you can finish the project for homework. But this shouldn’t become a habit,” she said simply. Well let me tell you, I made the most gorgeously embroidered 3” Lucy Van Pelt you’ve ever seen (and my friend Jean has her framed and sitting on a shelf to this day). I also never again took advantage of Mrs. Vowell or any other teacher . . . if I could help it. Her kindness was not condescending, but rather, it was generous: and stunning in its effectiveness.
COLLEGE: FELICE PROCTOR
Good Example Two is Felice, my costume design professor in college. (She even looked a little like Mrs. Vowell--both had angular olive faces but soft (not heavy) forms; and looked chic in slacks.) I was ill one morning, slept in, and realized I’d missed a test. Panicked, I found my directory and called Felice’s office. Now, keep in mind the previous prof I’d had during my first year, and you may then imagine the response I was expecting. I waited for a condescending sneer, the sigh into the receiver, an exasperated rustle of a calendar. Felice said, “I’m sorry you’re sick. Just come by when you feel better and you can take the test then.”
That was it.
This is a lesson in positive expectations. Not that my other prof had negative expectations, necessarily; rather, I’m sure he thought of himself as challenging his students, pushing them to be real university thinkers, thereby proving that Theatre Arts is not for sissies. I don’t know. I only know that I remember nothing or next to nothing from his actual classes, whereas I studied embroidery and costume design (subjects in which I could not imagine being much interested) with zeal and real commitment.
This is also about trust. When a student does not feel trusted--to study, to know when she’s too ill to go in, to do his or her best--the student will not succeed. (I’m not talking about foolishly misplaced trust: Trusting a callow student teacher to perform like a pro is like trusting someone who likes planes to be a pilot the first time up in the air. That’s the worst feeling I’ve known--teaching solo, not piloting.) When I taught, I tried very hard to take for granted (there’s a paradox) that all my students would be as interested as I was in my subject, would do their best, and would be honest with me. I had varying degrees of success.
ARE MY EXPECTATIONS SHOWING?
One year stands out: I was thrown, at the last academic minute, an 11th grade English class to teach. The kids in that class--you just couldn’t pay them to do any work. American literature, which was the focus, was never my bag, and I was staying just a step ahead of the kids. I tried to do creative stuff--a nature journal à la Thoreau, listening to the Rolling Stones and the Chieftains perform “The Long Black Veil” after we’d read Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil” (to reinforce the manifestation of sin theme), that sort of thing. Most of these kids were barely passing, no matter what I did. I wasn’t being a good teacher. I wasn’t connecting. Even the read-around free-for-all I allowed them when we did The Catcher in the Rye seemed to fall flat, though they enjoyed hearing me read “fuck.” So, a bust, I surmised. Was I just too negative? I shook each failure off, one day at a time, tried to move forward. Sigh.
And yet. Toward the end of the course, one girl came up to me as I was filing the day’s classwork and the kids were waiting for the bell. Shawna was very pretty, with chestnut hair, a sort of blank expression, nice smile. At this moment, she looked disturbed. I said, “Yes, hon, what did you need?”
She said, so earnestly it startled me, “I love learning now.” I didn’t know what she meant, and my face must have betrayed that. “I mean, I love learning now. This class...I mean, I have never loved school. And I can’t wait to get here. And, I mean, I’ve wasted 17 years of my life. I’m getting married...he’s in the Army...and I’ll be moving to California....” She looked at me as for an answer to a mystery.
I laughed. “That’s wonderful! I mean, isn’t that great? Listen, my dad dropped out of high school at 16 and joined the Air Force. He’s been a meatcutter for 35 years, and he has just started really getting into reading. He loves it. I just gave him A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle...it’s a kid’s book...and he was just crazy about it. What I mean,” I managed to clarify, “is that learning never stops. You are just starting.” She smiled, not quite believing me, but maybe. (NOTE: I don’t know the end of that story. I don’t know the ends of most of my stories, as in, “And years later...” and you will just have to get used to it. I have.) (P.S. My dad, now in his 70s, only recently read Jane Eyre. I asked what he thought. “What a book,” he said, astonished, and with such tenderness. Isn’t that wonderful?)
Years later, I was waiting for a friend in a restaurant, and one of the kids from that same class was a manager there. He obviously recognized me, and I could only stare. Years had gone by, as I say, and I blanked when trying to place how I knew him. How to convey how miserable I had been the whole time I was teaching that American Lit class, and how I knew, despite The Girl Who Learned, that I had failed? It was a class that made me sweat every morning, and for the sake of my mental health, I had managed, as we do, to block out the whole experience. Well this manager, Tommy, grabbed me and hugged me, and introduced me to the hostess, to a waitress, to a waiter. He rattled on about some class he’d had me in: his junior year...Thoreau...and it finally came back. He exclaimed, “You were the best teacher I ever had! I always tell people, if you don’t love learning when you start Miss O’Hara’s class, you will love it after that, or there is something wrong with you.” I could only cringe even as I thanked him. Now I am just plain grateful.
NO, REALLY, HOW AM I DOING?
My friends in the theater know this: Actors never know how they do. I’ve done performances that left me empty, and people would come back stage in tears. I’ve felt brilliant other times, and my cast mates would sort of look at me at intermission and say, “Are you feeling okay?” All actors are like this. Teachers are like this, too, because teaching is also a performance. Five shows a day, you book the room, remember? Feeling lousy from a sleepless night? The kids still need you to be excited and coherent about misplaced modifiers. A friend passed away and you only just heard? You still have to finish Act III of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s showtime, folks. I’ll say it till I’m hoarse: “Putting on a show” is not insincere: It’s discipline.
And sometimes, it’s dumb luck.
Lest you think I have only celebratory things to say about my teaching, I do not. One kid wrote an essay for his final exam about how I was the worst teacher he had ever had, that I was trying to brainwash him. Sure it was emotionally devastating, but my real trouble with that essay was that he didn’t answer the essay question (which involved using literary examples from the semester to talk about a theme), and if I gave him half credit, he’d get a B- on the exam; if I gave him no credit he’d get a C. Did I really want his parents questioning why their A-student son had gotten a C on his final exam? No, I did not. Half credit it is! That settled, I tried to consider his criticisms objectively. Maybe I pushed my agenda of celebrating multicultural literature a little too zealously, maybe I lectured too much, maybe I didn’t have as high an IQ has he did. I’m sure I didn’t. And consider this: He knew that he could write such an essay/letter to me, and that I could take it. Food for thought, even if it was a cowardly jerk who was trying to feed me.
[FUN MOMENT: At the beginning of the next school year, I saw this student in the hallway. “Good morning, Brad,” I said. He FROZE. I kept walking, smiling. I love being a grown up.]
I’ve had many students who had higher IQs than I have. Many. My only rejoinder is that I know more than they do about at least some things. And I also know that some people (especially professors in Education Departments at Universities) think that no kid is a jerk, that there are no bad kids, you only have to find a way to reach them, it’s your fault. Ahem. Those people have never really taught school.
You learn how to spot one of the Future Murderers of America, as one of my colleagues did. This kid was menacing, glowering, subtly yet consistently disruptive (with a parade of strategically placed coughs, gas explosions, pen-clickings, mumblings), but nothing you could write him up for. He did just enough work to eke out a diploma. And sure enough, the September after graduation, my colleague came into the English Department office holding the local paper’s front page over her head. “Didn’t I tell you that he would kill somebody? Double homicide.”
It’s not usually that dramatic, but when it is--as with the young man, Cho, who gunned down 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech in 2006 and then took his own life--I have no doubt that more than one teacher at his former high school nodded. And I have no doubt that they had tried. And tried. I’ve had kids--and this is a small but ugly minority of kids--for whom no amount of cajoling, helping, yelling, tutoring, guidance conferencing, phone calls home, or transferring was going to head him or her off at the pass, away from the path to self-destruction. You can only hope they don’t take anyone else with them. It’s not a question of giving up; it’s a question of choosing your battles and not squandering your limited resources.
You must remember, Young Teacher, in your Expectations List: There are other kids, nice kids, kids in need, right there, too, being quiet. As a young teacher I would stretch out to reach the squeaky wheels, the lost causes, when one very lovely child pointed out to me, “You spend all your time helping Kenny and I don’t get any help just because I behave.”
There’s a sick kind of ego trip in the idea of “saving” someone. I don’t like it. It’s not that I shirk the responsibility, but what I learned is this: Extend the branch to every kid. Make them meet you part way. Don’t be afraid of their failing. (I feel as if I’m channeling Bette Davis in Now, Voyager: “I’m not afraid of you anymore. I’m not afraid!”) Fear of failure--any fear--isn’t ultimately useful in teaching. It’s good to want to succeed, but better to do it out of love, or desire to express something, rather than out of fear. Their lives are not your entire responsibility.
And by the way, to say it is “not our fault” is not to say we don’t care or try. Let’s be realistic: When I get a kid in 10th grade, he or she has been on Earth for 15 years. Fifteen. Years. He or she has a history, ten past years of schooling, about which I know nothing and couldn’t change if I did. Let’s do one of those hideous “mindfulness” cult clichés: “It is what it is. Kids are where they are.” This is where I come in: Enter, Miss O’Hara. I’ll do the best I can. (You want to fire me because they fail a standardized test that year? And I just met them? Are you JOKING?) New teachers think, “I hope they like me!” Experienced teachers know, “I have friends; I’m here to teach.” NOTE to the Love-starved Educator, here’s an irony: Kids invariably actually like the latter kind of teacher. NK. But they’ll be happy to play you for a sucker when it suits them. Kisses.
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