“We chased our pleasures here
Dug our treasures there
But can you still recall
The time we cried?
Break on through to the other side
Break on through to the other side”
“Break on Through” by The Doors and Jim Morrison
It’s often interesting to have the opportunity to experience a certain dynamic from two “opposing” sides. I was a kid who enjoyed school. In fact it was fairly easy for me. Thus, I was an indifferent student with few study skills. Much of the time I was daydreaming and looking out the window or doorway, watching the clock, watching my classmates, passing notes, doing homework, etc. Most of the time I did my homework but sometimes it was a hurried job during homeroom. I didn’t like waiting until homeroom because one of the girls gave us soap opera updates from the day before and I wanted to hear the update.
High school was definitely more demanding than elementary or middle schools. In middle school we had to choose a second language to study. I chose French and didn’t like it very much though I had an aptitude for it. It was a breeze during three years of middle school and became slightly more difficult in high school. Ninth grade math wasn’t bad but then came geometry in tenth grade. Holy cow, I was out to lunch. Somehow I missed a key concept right from the start and wouldn’t you know the teachers were working to rule that year and weren’t allowed to help us during planning time or after school. I was far too shy to admit to a peer that I didn’t understand the math so I remained clueless much of the year and pulled in the worst grades of my life. I was passing but not accustomed to seeing the numbers that came back on my tests.
Living in New York State, we students were subject to Regent’s exams each year. It was my good fortune that a bunch of kids who lived downstate stole a few different exams so I didn’t have to take the geometry exam that year. Seriously, why couldn’t they also have stolen the French exam? Over the years teachers sometimes commented to me that it was too bad I didn’t apply myself more. So? I was content.
Now I was a well-behaved sort. That doesn’t mean I was immune to a good joke or prank. And I was always ready with a wise crack. But I was never sent to the principal’s office. I’m sure I broke some minor rules along the way. I never skipped a class or talked back to a teacher. I was far from perfect. But I actually thought about the stuff I was learning in between daydreaming about boys, sports, parties, not necessarily in that order. I did well enough to be inducted into the National Honor Society and to graduate in the top quarter of my class.
In college I continued my indifferent manner of study. As much as I liked high school I liked college even more. There was a vast array of courses to take and I soon settled in to more serious study of English and Spanish. What I would do upon graduation I had no clue. I didn’t want to teach. My mother was a career teacher and she worked awfully hard. I was not adverse to hard work since I often maintained two jobs in order to pay for my college education. I didn’t want to teach, nope.
Entered an MBA program right out of college. Enjoyed Business Law, Marketing, Labor Relations, and even Accounting. That mathematics thing caught up to me and I poorly navigated my way through Finance, Statistics, and Economics. Expensive mistake was the MBA program. And thus, I worked at a bank for almost seven years until fate intervened and I broke and tore all the ligaments in my right ankle. I was out of work for several weeks because I had a screw holding my tibia and fibula together at the ankle and couldn’t put weight on it. By the time the cast was off I was enrolled in night school at SUNY Albany to become…a teacher! It was the best decision I ever made.
This grad program I liked a great deal. The education courses were boring. The best way to learn to do something is to do it. Therefore, when it came time to quit the bank so I could student teach I was ecstatic. December 31, 1989, was the date of my emancipation.
Speed ahead two years and I was preparing to teach at the high school from which I graduated. At that time there were far more teachers than job openings. There were 160 applicants for two English teaching positions. I was thankful to get my chance. I knew it would be tough work, I knew much would be expected of me, I knew I was up to the task.
Since I had grown up in the community and attended the same school, I knew more about the kids and parents than the average new teacher. Be that as it may, I was not at all prepared for the treatment of teachers by some of the community—that includes students, parents, administrators.
I developed a reputation for being able to handle difficult kids…kids who acted out, had emotional problems, kids that other teachers didn’t want disrupting their classes. I’d honed those skills after years of teaching tennis to kids. It was pretty easy to me. Treat them the way you wish to be treated, have clear expectations and consequences, be fair. I had expectations for behavior and had few problems over the years. I handled many of the discipline problems myself so when I did contact a guidance counselor or an administrator, they took me seriously.
During the twenty five years that I taught I observed behaviors changing. Kids were more likely to be disrespectful. I was called more than my fair share of names, spat upon, tested in many ways. I seldom felt the need to call parents unless behavior was egregious. I called one student’s mother to ask for her assistance in helping me to understand why her son spoke rudely and disrespectfully to me. Her response, “Well, what do you want ME to do?” For a rare moment I was speechless. Then I said, “Thank you for taking the time to listen. Have a nice day.”
Parents spoke condescendingly to me during meetings about their child. Inevitably I would ask if they were teachers or studied education. Nope. If I corrected a student’s behavior I might hear, “My father/mother/uncle/grandparent is an attorney.” My reply, “he/she/they went to school for one more year than I did. What’s your point?” I put up with community outrage at how easy our jobs were. We walked in at 7:30 and left at 2:07. I was an English teacher. Lots of prep work, lots of papers to grade. I’m not complaining, just telling it as it was. One semester I taught three sections of writing classes. Out of a possible enrollment of 90 students, I had 87 in those three sections. Add to it another 50 or so between my other two classes. I graded papers every weekend, every morning before school, every afternoon after school. Add to it an average of college recommendations for at least twelve students. Students applied to multiple schools and some essays had to be specifically tailored to the school. My process of writing a recommendation took about 2 1/2 hours all told for one recommendation.
Do you know how many students I spoke with about trying harder? The same darn thing said to me? Dozens. Some understood. Others would wait until college until they understood, much like me.
You know what? I loved my job. I loved my kids. I loved sharing my passion for reading and writing. Even though seeing a situation from the other side of the desk was daunting, it was very rewarding. I’m very thankful for those teachers who helped shape me. They know. I made sure to reach out as an adult and tell them. It’s humbling.
I’d decided early on that I wouldn’t let the entitled ruin my gig. It was mine, all mine. I knew what I was doing. I loved it.
N.B. for the umpteenth time this piece morphed into something different than I intended to write. Any mistakes are mine.