What Did You Learn in School Today?

NOTE: I ask all of you who work or have worked in the field of education to read this post all the way to the end if you start to read it at all. You won’t know where I’m headed with this until the last paragraph. The story I’m about to tell is about me and my own experience in trying to do a job for which I had astonishingly little aptitude. It’s not about education or America’s public schools in general.

The worst year of my life was the school year 1974-75, the year I spent as a high school English teacher. I’m not sure anyone has ever lived who was less suited to high school teaching than I. I wonder about a few things to this day:

  • How I ever thought teaching high school was a good idea for me;
  • How anyone, having talked to me about high school, could have hired me as a teacher;
  • How I ever made it through that long, long year; and
  • How, 20 years later, I could have thought I might try to go back for more—although that’s a story for another day.

The fundamental problem, which should have been obvious to me from the beginning, was that I had hated high school as a student. Hated it, and not just a little. I hated it with stomach-churning resentment so strong that just entering the building would sometimes make me physically ill.

Nonetheless I somehow thought that on the other side of the desk, my outlook and attitude would change. I was an intern (what used to be called a “student teacher”) during my last semester of college in the spring of 1968. Student teaching was a lot of work, but it was pretty much a given that, having completed it, you would end up with an A for 12 college credits. I ended up with a C for those 12 credits. So much for the old GPA. In truth, the C was probably a gift.

If I hadn’t figured out any other way that I was barking up the wrong tree that whole semester, I might have known on the day I stood at the window with the school’s principal as we looked out on the student smoking area. My generation had gone wild during the years I was in college. The generation of our parents wasn’t prepared to accept or even acknowledge the extent of the change that had occurred. So, when I saw one kid pass a wad of bills to another kid who passed back a brown paper package, I knew I was witnessing a drug deal. I turned to the principal and asked him what the school was doing about its obvious drug problem.

The principal was incensed and huffily told me that there were no drugs in his high school, thank you very much. Right, I thought. I later learned that by 1971 that school (with the same principal) was videotaping these transactions so that parents could be called in to watch. There was really no other way to get parents’ attention, because in those days parental instinct went along these lines: “You’re accusing my kid of using drugs? I’ll have your damn job for this!”

I daresay that if the principal remembered me at all by that time he was settling down parents by showing them videotapes (“So, Mr. Smith, why do you think that lunch bag is worth $40?”) it was only to recall that I had been insolent and insubordinate. Hell, I probably had been.

What always wound me up about high schools is their nearly obsessive devotion to conventional thought, expression and behavior. Such devotion, I think, is the reason why school administrators so often get it wrong when dealing with students who behave unconventionally. Hardly a year goes by, for example, without media picking up a story about students who have been expelled for what they’ve written in a student newspaper (e.g., support for gay student rights) or said in class (e.g., opposition to a war) or worn to school (e.g., armbands for whatever cause). Sometimes the same brand of idiocy gets a teacher fired for teaching. Anna Quindlen tells such a story in the current issue of Newsweek.

By the time I ended up teaching high school in the fall of 1974, I had done four years in the military and completed an M.A. The job was there, and I really had nothing else to do with myself. I figured it couldn’t be any more unpleasant than the military, but I hadn’t figured on the squirmy relentlessness of the kids. I also hadn’t figured on the cynical sloth of the English department chairman, the bullying stupidity of one assistant principal, the exhausted resignation of the other, and the flat-footed authoritarianism of the principal (a career changer who, when under pressure, seemed to think he was still a cop).

Certain moments of irony weren’t lost on me, however, despite my unhappiness. I was, for example, required to teach The Catcher in the Rye, a book of which the mere possession 10 or 12 years before had netted me a finger-pointing lecture on morality.

The short version of the story of my year as a teacher is that five minutes into home room on the first day, I knew I had made a horrific mistake. I white-knuckled it through the remaining 179 days of the school year, and left without regret when it was over. By way of specifics, I got through the year by drinking too much, taking too many “sick and tired” days, doing the minimum possible amount of work, and whining like a two-year-old.

What has stayed with me from that year, however, is a small collection of good stories and a bottomless admiration for those who teach well.

2 Replies to “What Did You Learn in School Today?”

  1. I can really empathize with you. I taught public school as an orchestra director for 12 years and then had my own private teaching studio for 7 more. I left public school teaching, burnt out due to several of the things you mention: blockheaded administrators, constrictive and engraved-in-stone curriculums, dealing with parents, and many other things you don’t mention.

    I saw many teachers who were less suited to the classroom than you describe yourself as being. Why they were there, I cannot say, but several of them were making a career of it! Can you imagine marking the years until retirement in a job you are not suited for and absolutely hate? Can you imagine what this kind of teacher is doing to the students?

    But it’s not just education; there are many — too many — who trap themselves into a job they hate just because they don’t have the insight to see how it is crushing their souls, the imagination to see themselves in a more-suited job, and the initiative to do something about it.

    Now, if we were to trade horror-stories, let me tell you about the 18 months I spent with a rapacious, unethical corporation…

  2. Mike,

    Some time I’ll tell the story of my years as a closing agent for a your-kneecaps-are-your-collateral mortgage lender headquartered in Boston. This was capitalism with a delicate Cosa Nostra seasoning.

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