If one loves language, if one loves its power and beauty, isn’t it pretty stupid to spend all of one’s time reading writing that butchers it? That steamrolls it, shoots it a hundred times, hacks it to pieces with machetes, and then napalms it? And wouldn’t it destroy one’s spirit to repeatedly subject it to this torture?
By this torture, I mean this torture:
“Anyone who has seen or not seen a building can always enjoy looking at one.”
“Our bodies enable us to get out of bed every morning, build ancient pyramids, or even watch our children play a game of soccer.”
“When art was first exposed to the world, it was used to portray the significance of the Roman Catholic Church and slowly evolved to a tool to recapture events and emotions of the artist.”
After a couple years of teaching writing to first-year college students, I began to doubt my fitness for my job. It was far and away the best job I’d ever had, but at the end of every semester I had to fight the urge to quit. Sometimes it was the glacial pace of faculty meetings that got to me. One can only tolerate so much discussion of Program Learning Outcomes, Program Assessment Practices, and the results of the Assessment Committee’s Assessment of Program Assessment Practices, before one wants to start an ad-hoc committee to banish faculty meetings forever. But mostly what got to me were the papers I had to grade. By the time I handed them back, they’d be splattered with wine or whiskey and creased and torn from my throwing them across the room.
My girlfriend Karen says I dwell too much on the negative. I should try my best to help my students, and I should be proud of any little good that comes of it, even if that little good is just that I feel I’ve done my best. This is called “Success Beyond Success.” It’s about focusing on the things you can control and leaving the rest of the world to do what it will do whether you try to control it or not. She learned it at Communication College. I don’t really know what that is, but she works at Google, and they sent her there.
Karen reminds me that I like teaching. I like talking about stories and essays and trying to explain exactly why I love a piece of writing. I like hearing what other people think about it. But it’s hard not to be disappointed when you look up from the book and see people texting under their desks or nodding off, or, on some days, glaring at you like the sound of your voice is driving them slowly but inexorably insane and they’ll probably have to cut out your larynx to get that sound out of their heads.
After my fourth year of teaching, I finally quit and moved to L.A. I was just starting to worry about how to make a living when I learned about a job at a private Jewish middle school. I am Jewish, but I’m not very good at it, and I had little interest in teaching middle school. From what little I remember of seventh and eighth grade, I spent most of my time applying acne cream and masturbating. But I needed a job.
On the morning of my interview, standing nervously in my only suit in the cramped middle school office, I plastered a smile on my face and vowed to keep it there for as long as it took. Students bustled in one after another, begging the receptionist to staple their papers for them. When she finally got around to me, without returning my smile she handed me a thick folder and told me I should fill out the application.
I scanned the forms while students whirled around me and bumped me with their backpacks. Why were they all so short? How do you talk to someone that short? Why, when they have your resume, do employers still need you to copy out your entire work history on their form?
I negotiated with myself: I’d stay, but I would not fill out my damn work history. Sometimes you have to draw a line in the sand.
The form had a box for me to fill in my minimum salary. I had no idea how much this job paid. I wrote down “50K.” Papa’s got expenses.
The receptionist said to me, “You’re still here? You should go to your class.”
“OK,” I said. “Where is it?”
With a sigh she dropped her pen and led me down the hall and opened a door. There were banners on the walls. Paper streamers. Posters with words on them in upbeat font. About fifteen kids sat scattered along the back of the room at individual desks. I squeezed into an empty one and listened as the teacher talked about the huge increase in income disparity in the U.S. “If you use the Washington Monument as a scale,” she said, “the average CEO’s pay is at the very tip-top, and the average worker’s pay is only 14 inches off the ground.”
When she introduced me, I stood up and made my way through the desks to the front of the room. “So,” I said, “since you all have been talking about immigration, today I thought we’d talk about the ethical issues that come up in the immigration debate.” You all? Ever since I lived in Arkansas and people constantly said to me, “You’re not from around here, are ya,” when I get nervous I start talking like I’m from Arkansas.
The kids stared blankly at me for a few minutes, but once we defined “ethics,” and talked about real-life ethical questions, they seemed to perk up. In no time they were talking to each other, getting in little arguments about what was right and wrong. I was thrilled. None of my college classes ever went this well. I bounced from one group to another, smiling, interjecting, joking, answering questions while grimacing thoughtfully. I even rested an ass cheek on one of the desks, affecting casualness, until I noticed a swath of my hairy leg showing between black sock and slacks. I stood up.
Things started to go wrong. The discussion became an argument. The talk became shouting, and quickly the class descended into chaos, with kids leaning over their desks, getting up in each other’s faces. The noise was deafening. It was like a prison riot. I watched paralyzed, half-expecting someone to lob a burning roll of toilet paper at me.
Finally I shouted, “Everybody, be quiet!”
Then the teacher shouted, “Everybody, be quiet!” and everyone was quiet.
At the end of class, the principal introduced herself to me. She was younger than any principal I’d ever seen, but it was clear she was in charge. She told me I’d be having lunch with a few students, the assistant principal, and the rabbi. The rabbi was not an old guy with a beard, but a youngish woman with wet looking curls.
Lunch was in another classroom, where some desks were arranged in a circle. The kids got pizza, but I got a salad with a scoop of tuna salad on top. Tuna salad is an odd thing to just hand someone for lunch, especially when you know he’ll be spending the rest of the day talking pretty closely to people.
I opened up the napkin the rabbi handed me and found two little plastic forks tucked inside. I looked at the salad: big pieces of lettuce, thick slices of cumber and tomato. It was clearly the kind of salad that requires a knife. And I had these two plastic forks. Was this some weird interview mind fuck? Was I being videotaped? As I wondered this, the kids began firing their questions at me.
“What do you think makes for a great middle school teacher?”
“How will you adjust to teaching middle school after teaching college students?”
“What’s your position on extra credit?”
“How might you handle working with students of different abilities from various backgrounds?”
I stuffed a Texas-sized leaf of lettuce in my mouth only to have it catch in my throat as I tried to answer a question. It was stuck there, and they’d given me no water.
“Where did you grow up?”
“Are you married?”
“What kind of car do you drive?”
The assistant principal asked me if I had questions for the students. I didn’t, and I couldn’t think of anything, so I fired their questions back to them.
“What do you think makes for a good middle school teacher?”
After lunch, I was given a fifteen-minute break, which I spent on the playground, staring longingly through the chain-link fence at my car.
Then, my meeting with the principal:
“So, how did you feel the class went?”
“I thought it went pretty well,” I said. “They participated more than my college students ever did.”
Her mouth said, “Uh-huh,” but her face said, “Nuh-uh.” Then her mouth said, “Can I tell you what I thought?”
“I thought you had pretty good rapport with the class, you had a creative and interesting lesson plan. But –”
“I know, I sort of lost control at the end,” I said.
“Yes. And, you lost a few students. They shut down, started staring at the floor. One of them put her head on the desk.”
She elaborated further on my shortcomings in the classroom, my lack of experience with this age group, my need — if I worked there — to read up on middle school pedagogy over the summer. She asked me why I wanted to work there.
I said, “Well, I’m not sure that I do.” A true statement, but I followed it up with some serious bullshit. I told her how disheartening teaching writing to college freshmen could be, how it seemed too late to reach many students, and how I thought I could make a great difference in the lives of middle schoolers, how I could use my humor and empathy to really touch them. I stopped talking when I realized I sounded like a pedophile.
After that meeting, I waited in the upper school office for the assistant head of the school. There was a kid waiting next to me, a hipster in training with tight pants and Twilight hair checking out some record he’d pulled from his messenger bag. A guy walked out from the back. He looked like a gym teacher, with gray buzz cut, goatee, white polo shirt, and black pants. He said to the kid, “Vinyl? Sweet!” and I decided I didn’t like him, and therefore he must be the assistant head of school.
He led me back to his office, sat me down at his round table, and asked me the same questions the principal asked me. He asked me if I had any questions for him.
“Well,” I said, “nobody’s mentioned anything about pay.”
“Oh, no!” he practically leaped back in his chair. “It’s way too soon for that. Pay is based on experience and education, and that’s something we talk about much later. Much later!” He leaned over the table, conspiratorially, “It’s a good thing you asked me that, and not the Head of School. Any other questions?”
Yes. Does being the assistant head of school make you feel like a big man, or just like an assistant to a big man?
When he was done making me uncomfortable, the assistant head escorted me back to the waiting room to await my meeting with the head of school, the Emperor to the assistant’s Vader. I stewed in my seat. How uncouth of me, asking about money when applying for a job.
I waited for 45 minutes, long enough to decide that I didn’t want to teach at this school. I texted Karen, “can i just leave?” She texted back, “no.” There were negative vibrations all around me. No doubt some came from the 405 freeway, which was in spitting distance and backed up to hell on both sides. But plenty came from the school itself.
Finally, I asked the receptionist if the head of school was in his office. She left and another lady came back in her place.
“I’m sorry, but he had a family emergency and he had to leave.”
Thank God! I take back all the negative things I thought about You. You totally exist!
I raced back to the middle school office to meet with the teachers who’d be my colleagues. They asked me the same questions the others asked me. They asked me if I had any questions for them. At this point, with my mind made up and my grin a rictus from this long day, all I could do was turn all of their questions back on them:
“Why do you want to work with middle school students?” I asked.
“How do you think it’s different from high school?”
“Do you want a glass of water?”
When it was over, I didn’t stop by the office to turn in my application, which I hadn’t filled out anyway. It didn’t seem important. What was important was that I take off my coat and pull my shirttails out of my pants. The sky was blue. Dappled sunlight fell through the trees that ringed the parking lot. On my way home, I crossed a bridge over the clogged freeway and felt strangely ecstatic. Why? I still had no job, no prospects. But I’d shown up when I said I would, and I stayed until the end. It wasn’t exactly success in worldly terms. But who cares about the world? This here was success beyond success.