It’s spring break, bitches.
Yesterday I saw a wonderful play written by a woman who worked with my father in television when I was a kid. I’ll call her Evelyn. I haven’t seen Evelyn in almost 30 years.
Embarrassed and through ugly tears, I told her what an inspiration she has always been to me as a writer. Her play was about a high school English teacher. I’m self-centered enough to feel like this is all a big personal kick in the ass from The Universe to yours truly.
Evelyn showed little girl and teenage me that a woman can be a writer. I saw men writing – my father, my stepfather, and the authors of the books I read. My grandma used to tell me with a sigh how she’d longed to be a writer. She was proud of her son through whom she could live her dream, but are our children’s successes ours?
I watched Evelyn during her show, up in the booth, reading glasses on, clearly taking notes. A writer writes. Always. People make excuses and live with regret.
But what about fear? Do I dare? I’ve had such a shit school year. I’ve felt like John Proctor, glibly complaining that “the crazy little children are jangling the keys to the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!” The teacher in Evelyn’s play had just quit her job. It made her fearless. I have no such luxury.
My lives as teacher and writer have become mutually exclusive. I feel like my thoughts and words are owned by my students and their parents now. My self-doubt is like a virus I can’t kick. Is the world being run by people with no sense of humor? Am I just not funny? More and more, I feel I have to push down who I am to do my job. I used to think that what made me unique as a teacher was myself. Sure, I know grammar (maybe I need to review what I know about contractions, eh, GOMI?). I can teach lessons. I can (eventually) grade papers. The difference between my class and someone else’s though is me. Wry, sardonic, sometimes manic, inflexible, sentimental, precise, didactic, often unintentionally pedantic, witty, disorganized, spontaneous, intelligent, forgetful me.
It is impossible to say what I mean!
And to draw out the T.S. Eliot reference:
“I am not Prince Hamlet,/nor was meant to be;/Am an attendant lord, one that will do/To swell a progress, start a scene or two,/Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,/Deferential, glad to be of use,/Politic, cautious, and meticulous;/Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;/At times indeed, almost ridiculous –/ Almost, at times, the Fool”
Forgive my self-indulgence. If my students were to find my blog, the best way to make sure they never read it is to put some actual literature in it, so there you go. I don’t want to be vague, but it’s necessary. It turns out that I am not politic, nor cautious, and certainly not meticulous. All students want is a grade. They don’t want an education, they want a grade. And frankly, that’s all their parents want too. They most decidedly do not want “me.”
One mother wailed, “I can’t believe you gave her such a low score!” (not “I can’t believe she wrote such a bad paper.”)
“She got a B,” I stared at her levelly. “A ‘B’ is a good grade.”
“Ha! Not anymore! It’s so competitive! She’ll never get into college with a B!”
Getting a B was a slap in her face (and it was generous, I assure you – try a little analysis after your quoted passages; it really helps the reader see how your evidence supports your thesis. Also, I recommend topic sentences and paragraph cohesion). She felt free to tell me my assignments are “busywork” and her daughter isn’t “learning anything” from me. If my mother talked to my teacher like that in front of me, I would have been over the moon. “You tell that bitch, Mom!” Ha! Then I’d ditch that a-hole’s class every time I felt like it and tell Mom, “Mrs. Odie was just giving us some bullshit busywork again.” Mom would, of course, excuse my absences.
I’ve spent so much time writing this blog entry. I keep editing and cutting. I can’t say what I want to say. I feel gagged. Shackled. Censored. I am tired. I’d say I became a teacher because I wanted to change the lives of young people, but that would be a lie. I became a teacher because in 1998, I was a college grad with an English degree and I needed a fucking job. In 1998 you needed a college degree and a pulse and you could be a teacher. So I became one.
Somewhere along the line I realized that I DO want to share my passion for critical reading and rhetorical writing with others. I learned to enjoy teenagers, for all their hyperbole (which is the absolute worst thing ever). My colleagues are my best friends. Through the years, I’ve had administrators I respected and others I didn’t. They come and go.
Everything changes. I’m finding my place in this Orwell-Huxley world as both a writer and a teacher. It has to be two different people. Not a writer who teaches or a teacher who writes. A false self and a real one. Or perhaps a splitting. In any event, I have found that in these 6 months I have been too much of the one to be the other.
And that’s got to change.
Evelyn’s influence will not be wasted on me. She deserves better.
Yet, even as I don’t want to be one of those veteran teachers who bitches about “kids today.” I don’t want to be so afraid of having my writing discovered and used against me that I’m too paralyzed to publish a word.
I grow old… I grow old.
I shall drink my Guinness cold.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day from Mrs. O’Die.