How to Survive Student Teaching or How I Met Rob

In the graduate education program: one mooch of a future math teacher who ate whatever food we brought for our own lunches and then said he’d help us with our computer logo if we paid him twenty bucks; one aspiring middle school history teacher who opened a can of tuna during each class. Once, at an otherwise pleasant dinner, he discovered I was twenty-six and single. “Aren’t you worried,” he asked, “that at your age you’ll be so settled in your ways, it will be impossible to find someone to marry you?” One sweet man who spent a few minutes in the chaos that can be a high school classroom and decided to return to the legal profession. Other assorted characters who believed what the university promised: One year for your teaching masters.

In exchange for tuition, I worked as a program assistant with one other woman. The professor in charge of the graduate education department (I’ll call her Dr. Jane), called frequently to say she wouldn’t be in — left us alone to deal with people who hadn’t gotten into the oversubscribed required courses and now had to be told those courses wouldn’t run again until next fall. For anyone doing the math, that’s longer than one year. Any student who had a question about transfer credits, tuition reimbursement, scheduling issues; any professor who needed a different classroom space, a salary adjustment, Dianne and I had one reply: As soon as Dr. Jane comes in, we’ll let her know.

Even on course registration day, Dr. Jane didn’t make it in. Instead, Dianne and I attempted to schedule a few dozen people into overloaded courses via a paper and pen registration system that was the technological equivalent of an abacus. So many angry people. So many demands we could not meet.

We had no control over this mess of a graduate program, of course, but Dianne and I were the (worried, creased, sickly green) faces of it. The only break we took was to run back to the cubicle to call Dr. Jane’s voicemail and ask, again, “When will you be here?”

And so, Rob at first seemed invisible. Uncomplaining. Unassuming. Capable of finding suitable courses. Lucky enough to be able to register for them. It was one of those times in my life when I thought: Thank GOD for people who demand nothing from me.

One night, the graduate students met at a Chinese restaurant. The Tuna Man, the Nice Man, The Mooch, and Rob who, it turned out, with a little alcohol in him, was very funny. Silly even. Irreverent. Hmm, I thought. Wish I could get to know him a little better.

We were assigned to student teach together at Boston College High School, part quality Jesuit education; part 1950’s sitcom where the men call all the women “dear”; part Lord of the Flies. Rob, who had been teaching in a Catholic school for a few years, quickly assimilated. For his doting cooperating teacher, he ran off reams of papers, suggested viable and rigorous additions to the curriculum, covered classes at the last minute in the seamless way only true veterans could. Each afternoon, he climbed into his one door gold TransAm and headed off to lifeguard at a local pool.

Meanwhile, I struggled. When I reported a boy’s rude behavior to the Dean of Discipline, the Dean said, “Do you suppose he has a crush on you?”  My students insisted I needed to add some pastels to my wardrobe. My cooperating teacher left campus completely. And by left completely, I mean he retreated to his home several miles away to write more episodes of The Love Boat and to leave me in a Piggy-like position where, at any moment, I felt someone would surely crush my metaphorical glasses.

Rob’s response to my crisis: Cadbury chocolate bars, mostly melted, in the front seat of the Trans Am. He’d throw open the driver’s side door during a mutual free period, scooch me over and then climb in himself as I unwrapped the foil.

“I can’t do it,” I would say, licking my fingers. “I mean it.”

“Here,” he would say, “Have more.”

Eventually, we got invited out for drinks with the faculty at Amrhein’s Restaurant in Southie. We had a class later that night: Something about the psychology of education. By the time we strolled in, we had all kinds of theories about human behavior.

The next time we received the invitation to join them, Rob had to work at the pool.

“Call in sick,” I said.

And he admitted: “I’ve never done that.”

This called for a serious intervention. “Rob,” I said, “Please. I need you.”

The Trans Am bit the dust just before we finished student teaching, but we had gotten jobs — minor miracles for English and history teachers — and this allowed Rob to buy a new car, one in which a neighborhood cat immediately climbed in to have sex with multiple partners. For the end of the year party, I left a bag of clothes in his backseat and smelled like cat semen for the duration of the celebration.

When we got lonely in our adult lives, we grabbed a bunch of beach towels from the lost and found at yet another pool where Rob lifeguarded part-time, and brought home two puppies from a horsefarm in Dover. Our dogs were the only ones who were not blind or suffering from severe tremors and we had no idea how to be pet owners, but Rob had recently begun dating a veterinarian and this seemed like a good enough plan to us.

We have more than fifty years combined experience in the classroom now, but being together with a bottle of anything still makes us as silly as that night many years ago when we first sat next to each other in the Chinese restaurant.

Rob saved me once, long ago. And his friendship has saved me several times since: When my father died, my mother said, “You take good care of her when she gets back to Boston.” She had no idea that she had just given an assignment to the world’s most conscientious student. We spent every Friday night of 1991 together because of that. For my birthday, he took me to restaurants that he claimed were just around the corner. My birthday is in January. An hour into our trek, my limbs frozen, we would still be laughing, heads down to resist the windchill. Our dogs grew old and died six weeks apart. Our relationships changed. We moved several times. We found new jobs.

We don’t see each other as often these days. But sometime this weekend, I’ll hear from him. It’s the beginning of the school year: he hasn’t missed one yet. We’ll complain about colleagues or schedules or mandates like DDM’s, MCAS, the new eval process, the mooches and kind men and Lord of the Flies characters still hovering in the halls of certain institutions. We’ll remind one another how many years (not many now) we have until we retire.

Rob, I’ll say. Remember all the chocolate you had to feed me?

He’ll say, You know I didn’t miss a day of teaching last year, don’t you? That never, not once did I call in sick.

And I’ll be thinking: We definitely need to spend more time together.

 

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So Long, Seniors: Twenty Years of Goodbyes

1222044_news__students_throw_mortarboards_-_july_14__-large_transth3h5bemkyhxfkdcxjgxv7c8h33cqspnmpifi37zqx8How impossible summer seemed when I was a kid. Climbing off the bus on the last day, heading down the lane towards our house, I couldn’t believe another year had ended and that what stretched before me were nights and nights and days and days of no school. That kind of freedom paralyzed me. Along our lane, laurel bloomed, deer flies swarmed, the brook ran, invisible beneath the skunk cabbage. In the pastures, cows found shade. In the fields, corn sprouted flimsy as new grass. Unlike my own children, I had no camps to attend, no friends with pools in which to float away my afternoons. We had no vacations planned; no jobs off the farm awaited me. I had a calf to get ready for fair season. My father would no doubt need someone to rake hay or finish milking so he could bale hay before the rain started.

But the list of things that would disappear for a few weeks: homework, early mornings, lunch table awkwardness, rote practice with long division and sentence diagramming — my God. What to do with the kind of joy I felt?

Today is the first day of summer vacation, too. Twenty years of teaching are behind me. I still look forward to summer, but not with the same joy, nor with the same paralysis, either. For someone who hated school as much as I did, the only surprise for me now is how much I love teaching. And how much, in so many ways, I dread June.

My friend Blake graduated from UNH the year before I did. During the final few weeks of his time there, we gathered, probably at a table beneath the low ceiling of the Catnip Pub, and Blake talked about what it felt like to be finishing up. “It’s not that I worry about seeing all of you,” he said. “I know we’ll keep in touch, but I’ll miss all those other people you pass on campus every day: the guy who lived across from you freshman year or the kids from the study groups we had for anatomy. I’ll miss the community, you know what I mean?” We said we did, but we didn’t. Not really. Not until it happened to us: that all those people who had been part of our world were suddenly in places that we were not. And for teachers, it happens at the end of every year.

We’ll come visit, they say, and they do. Always wonderful to see them (even if they’re off to South Africa and Prague and Barcelona for a year abroad or to Thailand for an internship or to China to teach poetry and I am exactly where they left me a few years before). But I no longer see them in context. They aren’t the students who gather in front of my desk during directed study anymore to show me pictures of the puppy they’re getting or to collaborate on a giant list entitled: Why Florida Brings the USA Down. They will never gather at the door just before the bell and show me how they intend to dance at the prom that night. We won’t meet to discuss “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been” or to do Friday read-arounds from our weekly writing warm ups. They aren’t in the class that makes more allusions to pop culture than literature or the one that randomly brings in cakes to share. Those communities have dispersed permanently. They’ve joined other groups, and I have, too.

Oh sure, we re-connect on social media. That’s a modern day bonus. Some of my former students are in their 40’s now, but in their faces, I still catch a glimpse of the teenagers they used to be and I remember stepping in between one of them and a kid who arrived outside my classroom door to fight him about some long-forgotten girl, or getting my car rear-ended by one when we were out looking for prom venues and laughing so hard, I couldn’t get out to examine the (minor) damage, or hearing one of them tell me about the girl he’d asked to the prom who, all these years later, is his wife.

These memories are fun, but they are also the reason why I refuse to look at yearbooks: Because they seem to capture all the hope teenagers have that they are on the cusp of becoming who we were really meant to be, that life will only get better. That optimism, that naivete, is my undoing. I can’t explain it anymore than I can explain my aversion to the Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade. Perhaps it’s that, at least in the case of yearbooks, I don’t like knowing what’s ahead when once upon a time, we were all filled with such promise.

Sometimes, I think I see my former students in the halls. A familiar posture. A similar profile. A hair color. A shirt I recognize. But no. They won’t be here again peering into their lockers or climbing the stairs to the science pod. They have moved on, exactly as we are all meant to do.

This year, my own daughter’s image might haunt the halls of her high school, a community she also left this June with the attendant pomp and circumstance. She is so excited for what’s ahead, so ready to be done with high school. And I? I’ll be here, of course, exactly where she left me except in a very different world.

Weekend Write In: The Real World is Obviously Overrrated

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And this is me, preparing to read the latest batch of fiction from my students (who are actually wonderful people who make me love my job).

Twenty years ago, one of my students wrote a story about a kid who is bored at his new job in the women’s clothing section of a large department store. We had talked about putting protagonists into a position where they had to make a moral decision. For this protagonist, a person who considered himself one of the good guys, it was whether or not to call store security when he witnessed an older, clearly disadvantaged person shoplifting. The story received a coveted Gold Award from the National Council of Teachers of English. In the letter of congratulations, the contest coordinator made a special point to note that the hardest thing for any young writer to do is to write a short story.

Until that moment, I hadn’t really thought about it, but two decades later, those prophetic words stalk me and my students. No matter the models, no matter the warnings, no matter the conferences, young writers turn out — let’s call them rough — pieces of short fiction. Why? Because, for the most part, they want nothing to do with the real world and/or anything that actually happens to people in it.

Take this week, for example. In our Stranger Comes to Town unit, we read a Bo Caldwell story called “When Children Are Present.” It is about what happens when a young man starts working at a daycare and a child dies under mysterious circumstances. We spent a day outlining situations in which a person’s gender might complicate a plot. What happens when a woman takes over as small town volunteer fire chief and someone is killed in a house fire? Is she judged more harshly than the previous male chief would have been? What happens when a peeping Tom disturbs a peaceful, friendly neighborhood. Does the middle aged, unmarried man whose sole passion is fostering cats draw unfair attention?

We read A and P by John Updike. How many of you have been bored at work? I ask. Every hands goes up. Okay, I continue. Now think: what kind of a stranger could come in a disrupt the day? Someone suggests that a 60 year old man gets a job in the teenaged clothing store that she works in. I feel a dangerous glimmer of hope.

I worry that Cheever’s Good-bye My Brother will not appeal to them, but they come in very excited to discuss it. They cite powerful passages. They respond animatedly to the characters. Everyone understands that the blacksheep of the family might, indeed, be a stranger. In fact, many of them know this firsthand. The odd uncle who finally shows up for Thanksgiving. The cousin who dropped out of school and has been living out of dumpsters in New York City despite the family’s wealth.

We draw maps of a setting and describe what kinds of lives exist in it. Several quiet minutes pass as students envision the placement of playgrounds, stadiums, salt marshes. They use color pencils and markers, label all kinds of things. Next, they put these aside and create one paperdoll with some kind of history, a brief description. We tape these to the board and raffle them off. “Take this character,” I say, “and put him or her into your setting. What happens?”

When, finally, it is time to write, they tap away on their keys. Based on their Character Goes on a Journey stories, I am on red alert. Plots for those stories mostly derived from one of three places: The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones or Clue. But surely my comments and their grades will remind them: real world, real world, real world.

Anyone need help getting started? I ask. A hand shoots up. I glance down at the graphic organizer she’s sketched in her notebook. In the center circle, in all caps: SUPERHERO.

Now, I have two choices and both of them spell failure not for my student, but for me. Do I remind her how difficult it is to create an ENTIRE world and make your reader believe it, thereby crushing her creative impulse? Or do I offer my useless advice and then set her free to write a story that, despite my most optimistic hopes, will fail miserably?

Actually, I can do neither because her question is: What is a really cool way a superhero might come by her powers?

What can I say? My own imagination is just not that vivid.

In her book The Discovery of Poetry, Frances Mayes says that no matter how inexperienced kids are, they are capable of writing good poems, a philosophy I have total faith in. Kids stun  — and I mean STUN — me every year with the poems they create. But most things that stun me about fiction have been that numbing kind of stun that comes from a really bad stubbed toe. The searing pain and then the wretched throbbing. The anger you feel towards that stupidly placed piece of furniture, your own lack of grace. God, you need something to punch.

Since I can’t do this, when I start reading another fantasy piece in a heartlessly tall pile of stories, I write a list of all the new words the writer has invented at the bottom of the first page. Only the author knows if these are places, people, tribes who survived the apocalypse, days of the week.

Other stories, I just collect for future Ripley’s Believe it or Not plot device games I might or might not play someday.

For example: The story where a girl invites a stranger to a concert her younger sister desperately wanted to attend so the younger sister gets her revenge by asking out a boy the older sister likes. Eventually, they even marry, and then — wait for it — she discovers he’s their long-lost brother.

The superhero came by her powers by falling on her face during marching band practice. Sniffing pavement, it turns out, makes one invincible. And maybe the story itself didn’t quite come together, but I can applaud the real gem here: a marching band superhero fired up by asphalt. In a fiction writing class full of young people on ridiculously artificial deadlines, this is considered a good day.

Now, I could end this blog entry with a line like Joyce’s: Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger. It would fit.

Or I could just end it the way young fiction writers do, no matter how many times you beg them not to: And then, I woke up.

 

Tell Us Something We Don’t Know About You

He could have been modeled after Alex Keaton, Michael J. Fox’s character in Family Ties. A shorter than average young Republican who roamed the halls of UNH’s business school toe-walking in his Docksiders. At a dorm party, when I told him what my major was, he snorted. “English?” He said this the way some other soul who never stumbles into anything might say: You stepped in dogshit. “What are you going to do with that? Teach?”

I snorted right back at him. “No,” I said. It was not a lie. I had no earthly idea of pursuing that profession. I wanted to be a writer, but had no idea how one went about that, so I just moved off towards the garbage pail of spiked punch. He wanted to be an actor: he confessed this after a few more glasses of this particular poison, but he thought it too impractical. I shrugged. What do you say to someone who feels forced to make that decision? We were nineteen years old.

He became an international businessman. I’m sure he’s very happy. I did become a teacher, of course, and despite the anxiety a new school year inspires in me, I’m pretty sure once again: I’m happier than he is.

I don’t resent his long-ago derision (Okay, I do, but it was the 80s. Who didn’t want to make a soulless billion or two?). But I do remember it often.

The next few months, for example, the memory will surface as the seniors in my school (and in my house!)apply for college admission. By the time we set the clocks back, I will have met with a succession of apprehensive young people wielding what they hope will be the college essay that convinces their heart’s desire school to fall in love with them. They will follow me into my room every morning as I unlock the door and take off my coat, knock on my door during lunch, hunt me down during my prep period, write their names on my whiteboard during study, find me after school just as I’m digging my keys out to lock the place up. “Do you have a second?” they will ask, their parents will ask, their guidance counselors will ask.

Some will need a pre-writing conference. They will sit with me to brainstorm ideas. Many of these students will be kids I have never met before, but they will confess vulnerabilities, delineate their failures, share with me descriptions of vacation homes, grandparents’ hands, how it feels to be powerless in the face of tragedy. I’ll ask probing questions: I’ll have to. But they will answer. They will do the work of fleshing out an idea with someone who is almost a total stranger.

Some will slide an early draft across my desk and then sit quietly as I read it. Out of the corner of my eye, I’ll note how their hands are clasped; I’ll hear them sigh; I’ll feel the desk move as they jiggle a leg.  I won’t necessarily look at the writing at this point, but at the ideas. Where is the energy? What’s this really about? More discussion follows. They discover something they’d forgotten. The general idea becomes a specific memory. We’re not brainstorming anymore; instead, they’re telling stories.

They’ll come to me with essays their parents suggested they write, things that don’t sound like them at all. They’ll come to me after the professional their parents hired to help them has finished his work. “Where are you in here?” I’ll ask, and often, we’ll start over.

They’ll email me late at night: One last question. How’s this look? What if I added this?

They’ll drop by so I can double check the spelling, their use of apostrophes.

“I really want to get into Brown/Middlebury/UMass Dartmouth/a nursing program/my mother’s alma mater, etc,” they’ll say, imagining I’m holding the magic lamp in my hand instead of their laptop.

Websites, how-to manuals, advise them to tell the admissions office something they can’t know from the rest of the application, something not listed in their resume. The essay prompts ask them to describe a failure, or what defines them, or the place they feel most content. And guess what happens? They do. They write down things they won’t show their parents – things they don’t want their peers to see. They take the kind of risks they can’t take in essays of literary criticism or informative papers for any school subject. And they hand them to me.

My days will have little time for planning, correcting, overseeing make-up work, socializing with colleagues. Instead, I will sit at my desk with their essays in my hand, and I will ask myself: “Who am I that I get to do this?”

You’ve most likely jetted all over the world; I’ve sat behind my desk. But, my god, the worlds I have seen from there, the glimpses I have had into people’s lives, those invitations that humble me, that make me grateful for where I ended up.

So how about you, Mr. International Businessman? What can you tell us that we don’t already know about you? Perhaps it begins with that dream you once had of being on stage? If you wanted to figure it out, I could help you, once the early application deadline has passed, that is.

The Longest Sunday Night

In my first back-to-school anxiety dream, we have two days left in the year and the seniors must complete a research paper so that I can use the data for my evaluation. I sign out the computers by using a stick to scratch their names onto the side of the machines. This isn’t very efficient, I’m thinking, but, in my panic, no other option presents itself. We only have two days! No time to worry about school property!

So goes the longest Sunday night of a teacher’s existence: August.

The thing is: I like my job. Love it, really. (The part of it, at least, that happens with my students. The state and federal mandates, the superintendent’s vision, the new superintendent’s vision, the principal’s goals, the new principal’s goals, the principal’s revised goals — those I can do without.) But on the cusp of completing my second decade in the classroom, I still sleep poorly every Sunday night and the entire month of August.

One year, I sat at my desk in Burlington after Day One, which used to be (blissfully) a half day where we met briefly with each of our five classes and then sent them home to cover books while we prepared our classrooms and lined up at the mimeograph. So great was my dread, that I walked down the hallway to my friend Kathy’s room seeking solace.

“What’s the matter?” she said. She sat at her desk, peering up at me over her reading glasses, her hand marking her spot on the newspaper article she had been reading, as calm as if this was the final day in June.

“Do you ever think you just can’t do it?” I asked. “That there’s just too much material to get through even though you’ve done it before?”

The two of us taught British Literature which covered roughly nine hundred years.

“No,” she said. “Never.” The she returned to her reading.

Kathy was not, is not, cold. In fact, during the ten years that I taught in Burlington, she was my confidante and mentor. But she was experienced at teaching (and, possibly, at denying a few of the things that cause any human beings some discomfort).

Once upon a time, I had a job where nothing was required of me, where I sought to fill my days with some activity that made me look as if I was busy because there really was no work to be done. It was my first real job. I got to take the T to work and go shopping in Downtown Crossing during my lunch break. I had to buy nice shoes to tuck underneath my empty desk for eight hours a day before I slipped out of them and into my sneakers for the walk back to North Station.

“How was your day?” my roommates would ask, and I would have no response.

Sunday nights, however, were still torture. How could I go back there and pretend to be busy? For how many more hours could I stare at my blank cubicle walls, a folder of old memos opened before me in case anyone peeked over the partiction at me? What if, god forbid, we had something to celebrate and got summoned to a mandatory Sunshine Party? I started calling into work sick on Mondays, a pattern that became recognizable to my not very observant boss (who also did nothing, but who didn’t seem to fret about it). When he asked me to explain myself, what could I say: I can’t bear it here? I can’t stomach how little purpose so many hours of my day have? I had a business card!! Someone had to teach me how to put calls on hold on a phone that never rang! So I told him I really was sick and, when he asked me to bring him a doctor’s note as proof, I somehow produced one. It should have read: Diagnosis — Acute Lack of Purpose.

But those days of idleness exist now only in the museum of myself.

As I have said, this September marks year twenty in the classroom for me and it is a busy place. My August nightmares never come true and those first day (or so) jitters don’t haunt me any longer. Perhaps some of my younger, more overwhelmed colleagues view me the way I viewed Kathy that day, with fear that I was alone in the universe, with envy.

But these days, I understand why Kathy could stare down those first hours of the school year, could squelch the panic that threatened to suck up the final joys of summer: she wasn’t thinking about teaching the way I was — with seating charts and lesson plans and revised tests. Instead, she was thinking about teaching the way English should be taught. She was looking forward to discussing great literature with great kids.

Because, despite my night terrors, that is — and I am very grateful for it — the job that fills my very busy days.