The Chinese Fire Drill

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Why I Became a Teacher

This is the hallway where I've spent three
quarters of my teaching career.  Sometimes
I wonder if the EXIT sign should have a "?" on
When I was 17, I was called down to my guidance counselor's office on a January morning during my senior year in high school. When I saw the crestfallen look on Mrs. Romas's face (she was a high school friend of my mom's, and had always felt like I was an adopted kid of her own), I knew that, whatever she wanted to talk about, it wasn't going to be good.

It wasn't.

Becoming a Bad Student

During my freshman year, I was an honors student. In fact, throughout grade and middle school, I had been nearly exemplary. But, the grind of the seven period day; the routine of sit, listen, fight off sleep, and complete pointless busywork; and the pressure to fit in and woo girls was changing me. By the end of my first year in high school, I was making “C's” and “D's.” My sophomore year was the first year I went without an “A,” and, by my junior year, I had decided NOT to write my English research paper because I'd calculated my grades for the semester and determined that I could pass with a “D” and avoid doing it. It's kind of funny that said calculations were correct considering that math was the particular subject that REALLY put my in trouble.

My Math Woes

I had taken Algebra as a freshman, and I loved it SO much that I thought I'd repeat it my sophomore year (okay, I didn't decide that, per se...). After finally passing that excruciating nightmare, I moved on to Algebra's fun-filled sequel: Geometry. The results were the same: I flunked as a junior, was repeating as a senior, and I was flunking it again. I sort of cared...sort of. But I was more concerned about a love-triangle I'd gotten myself into with two very attractive blond girls, and I was also more interested in working the closing shift at McDonald's so I could make those $50 payments on my 1975 Buick Skyhawk (a once cream-colored beauty that by then sported a dull gray front fender because I'd wrecked it...twice, actually).

So, here was the damage by that morning in Mrs. Romas's office: My cumulative GPA was an astounding 1.6. I was ranked 117th in my class (that's the bottom 17% for those of you keeping score at home), and because of those aforementioned math classes, I didn't have enough math credits to graduate. And THAT, in the end, was the only statistic that really mattered that morning. I didn't have the math credits; there was no time left to make them up; and I wasn't going to leave Owen Valley High School with a diploma.

Getting Out and Moving On

Phase one of the damage-control that came from this was to graduate...somehow, any way that I possibly could. First, I dropped Geometry, switched to “checkbook” math, so I could save my grade for the spring semester. Simultaneously, I enrolled in a correspondence course through neighboring Indiana University to make up for the bomb I'd dropped in the fall semester. Then, strangely enough, I started caring about my other classes, too. Suddenly, I was getting all of my work finished; I was using my study-hall time more effectively; and I quit the McDonald's job so I could get some sleep. I don't know how much I brought up my GPA or my class rank once high school ended. I never checked; I just didn't want to know.

But I graduated, and I could move on.

Becoming a Teacher

When I signed up for classes at Vincennes University, I at first decided to be athletic trainer. I was an equipment nerd for the football team, I liked sports, and it seemed like it'd be a cool and fun way to make a living. But, as I thought more about it that summer after graduation, I realized that I was a little too squeamish for the job. It turned out that I wasn't comfortable looking a joints bent the wrong way or bones sticking out through an athlete's thigh. Obviously, I needed another option.

While I mowed fairways that summer, I kept thinking about what happened to me in school. Why did I turn out to be such an awful student? Why did I not care? Where the hell was my head?

I realize now, all these years later, that most of the blame lies with me. I was ultimately responsible for my own success, and life wasn't obligated to please me or entertain me. In the end, the work was mine to do, and I didn't do it. But, in the summer of 1987, while I pulled that seven-gang mower set behind the old '58 Ford tractor I sat upon, I wasn't ready to accept that kind of blame. I still wanted to be a victim...a victim of the system. With that mentality coursing through my head, I decided that the reason I'd blown high school was because my teachers were (with some very notable exceptions) boring, unmotivated, and nearly as apathetic as I was. The day was too long, and the work was too pointless. I also started thinking about all of the things I would have done if I had been the teacher.

Gradually, as the summer progressed, I could sense where my mind was taking me. So, when I returned to Vincennes, to formally sign up for classes, I settled on English.

The Prestigious Ass-Chewing

But, one more episode had to happen before I could say that I had been completely transformed. During that visit, I sat down with the chairman of the humanities department, a one Mr. P. Phillip Pierpont, so we would could set up my first semester schedule.

“Let me have a copy of this young man's transcripts,” he told his secretary.

“Oh shit,” I thought to myself. As he glanced over the document, I saw his face harden. My parents and my girlfriend (whom I later married) were with me at the time, so I'm sure he was trying to figure out how he was going to dress me down in front of that audience. Finally, he settled for the blunt approach.

“What the hell is this?” he asked, tossing my transcripts to me over his desk.

From there, it only got worse. I was wasting his time; I had no business going to college; this was my last chance; etcetera, etcetera... I sobbed all the way home, humiliated.

Becoming A New Student

That first year of college? I finished the first semester with a 3.4, just missing the Dean's List, and I made it the second half of the year with a 3.6. When I returned to the same office in front of the same man a year later to sign up for my second year classes, he had no idea I was same boy he'd chewed into bits.

“You're going to have a hell of tough day on Thursday,” he said looking at my schedule. “But I think someone like you will be able to handle that.” He shook my hand, and was clearly impressed with both my grades and my demeanor.

I would graduate from VU, Cum Laude. Then, I would leave Indiana State with a 3.6, and I would eventually return to Terre Haute to earn my MA in English with a 3.9. Even though I know very well what it's like to be an honors student and what if feels like to impress instructors and score brownie-points by the bucket, I will never forget what it felt like to be a failure.

Entering My 20th Year

In the last few years, the changes in education on the state and federal level; the changes that have taken place at my own school; and major changes in my personal life have all left me bewildered. The sense of mission and purpose that once drove everything I did has lately been replaced with host of new feelings...most of them bad. And now I'm getting ready to start my 20th year as a high school teacher. Instead of going into this watershed moment with the sense of confidence that I always assumed I'd have, I'm plagued with doubt and fear. Consequently, this blog (which I awkwardly stated last year in fits and starts for no clear reason or purpose other than to vent) is shaping into a chronicle of this seminal year in my career. I have changed, the system has changed, and I go into this year wanting to find out if the good teacher who was shaped by the experiences I described above is still inside me. And I also go into this year wondering if I can adapt and fit in to this new world of public education.


Jenni Wells said...

This was such a fascinating read. You are the most sincere, understanding teacher that I have ever had the privilege of knowing. Thank you and good luck.

Jama said...

This is why you're my favorite, most honest teaching example. This is why English will always remain completely perfect in my eyes. This is why when I think back to teachers who were honest, for the good or bad, I think of you!