The word “family” can be a heavy word. A student with “family problems” can be dealing with an argument with a sibling, abuse, homelessness, or pending deportation. As a single teacher living at a safe distance from my own family, I find that my colleagues have become my family in a way that seems to exist only in communities of workers who are in service industries—firemen, police officers, nurses, etc. My biological family in many ways understands my current life less than my adopted, professional family. Eleven years after I began teaching, my parents still question my decision to teach high school (“Wouldn’t you rather teach little kids?”) and do not understand what I deal with on a daily basis. In that respect, I find part of the necessary safety net for human existence in the virtual arms of my colleagues.
I’ve cried tears of sadness and pain over the miscarriages, divorces, and pending departures of my colleagues. I’ve cried tears of laughter at the jokes and teasing that develop out of shared, emotional experiences.
Go to happy hour with friends from other fields and co-workers willing to talk about topics other than work. (Nondrinkers should exercise, get coffee, smoothies, pedicures, or fly kites with those who have similar interests.)
Attend happy hour on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday to receive the best happy hour specials on a meager salary. Also, weeknight drinking will remind you you are cool despite the lecture on late work you gave in second, third, fifth, and seventh periods. And during after-school tutoring. And to three parents on the phone. And besides, on Mondays you get your week together and Fridays you like to take advantage of the vacant copy room.
Go to happy hour even if you are exhausted. No one should find him or herself smoking alone in a bubble bath out of sheer desperation.
A defiant little child is what I was known to be, and I kept that reputation very well.
I had—and have—what doctors call ADHD, and when I was little I would jump chair to chair in my classroom. Once I wrapped myself in tape like a mummy. And I would occasionally make animal sounds at the teacher and pretend like I didn’t know who did it. I was a clown. Soon it would be nap time and I would catch my ZZZs.
I remember waking up to the glare of the sun through the window. Time for lunch and recess on the concrete court! There was a shed back there where kids would hide and completely disappear! It was my lucky day; no one watched as I went back there.
As only a five year-old would do, I dropped my pants to the ground, lifted my shirt, stuck my finger into my belly button and let out a yellow river.
The Only Thing I’d Ever Taught Was Swimming Lessons:A Journey Through My First Year Teaching Abroad
I didn’t come to Korea to be a teacher. Well, technically I signed a contract saying I’d teach in exchange for a flight over, an apartment, and a monthly salary, but teaching wasn’t why I wanted to come.
Before Korea the only thing I’d ever taught was swimming lessons. I hadn’t even taken an online Teaching English as a Foreign Language course. I couldn’t see myself as a teacher. And I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I wasn’t (and still am not) a certified teacher.
End-of-semester evaluations. I’ve read hundreds of them since I started teaching, but I’ll never get used to them. I know plenty of professors who never read them at all (though I suspect they are lying about this to give the impression of being impervious to student feedback), but I obsess. Evaluations are released to professors the same day final grades are released to students. Back in their hometowns, my students sit in their pajamas in front of their computers, take deep breaths, and click to reveal their final grades. I take a deep breath and click to reveal what 125 students were secretly thinking all semester.
Was I right about this semester? Was it unusually fantastic? Was I in an extraordinarily pleasant, perky, student-satisfying mood every day?
Sometimes, at the end of a class, my fingertips
are hard with chalk as if frostbitten
high on a peak, and the powder of it
snows my hair. I wonder then if this is a quest
I wish to become old in, if already it has aged me.
Saturday mornings I wake up and stare at the homes
outside my door. They seem to grow more distant
near the failing end of each semester. The first
book I ever read, I never told anyone. I did not like
to hear my cousins spell the winters of Narnia.
For when the fairies bring you gold, it is a secret you must keep.
Twenty years I’ve told this secret—not well,
but I have told—turning gold to pale dust
that stings in the throat, an alchemy of poor returns,
a slow descent to the sorry tombs of explanation.
Previously published in SnowApple.
Paul J. Willisis a professor of English at Westmont College and the current poet laureate of Santa Barbara, California. His most recent collections of poetry are Rosing from the Dead (WordFarm, 2009) and Visiting Home (Pecan Grove Press, 2008). He is also the co-editor of the anthology In a Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare (University of Iowa Press, 2005).