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pat on the back
When I was in fifth grade, we had to write an essay about a personal hero. When I went home that day and sat at my mom’s counter—I picture her slapping the tortilla masa between her hands before laying it on the comal—I was excited to tell her who I had chosen.

“We have to write about someone in our lives; it can be someone famous or dead or whoever,” I told her in a rush of breath. “And I’m going to write about you.”

“Why,” she asked, half turned from the stove, looking at me.

“Well,” I stuttered, not sure how to handle such a simple question. “Because you’re my hero. Because you cook and clean and raised me and Tony and Andy and take care of Daddy and all of us and everything.”

“I do that because I’m supposed to,” she told me, her words heavy and cold. I felt my neck freeze up the way it does when I’m shamed. “I chose to be a mom, so I’m only doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”

My mom has never been one to accept praise for being a mom. She does not believe in the glorification of motherhood. When I’ve tried to laud the hardships, tried to extol her many actions as those only a “Super Mom” could do, she has stopped me with a stare and a gesture of her hand, shooing away my compliments. Because in the end, because she accepted the decision of everything being a mother entails, she does not allow any pedestals to be erected in her honor.

***

It’s a dangerous thing to become self-congratulatory at any moment in your career.

When I taught high school, I thought I was the shit. I was the new, young teacher on campus, and surely those old teachers who’d been around a while didn’t understand what those kids were going through, didn’t understand the jokes being told right in front of their faces, didn’t understand that they had to know 2Pac and Juanes to know those kids. But I did.

I played up the gory parts in Macbeth and The Odyssey and laughed when the kids made jokes about drugs and sex. I even dressed like them, though I tricked myself into thinking that I was showing them a classy way to be hot.

I’d taken over four different classes that had gone through three different teachers already. I’d taken them over four days before first semester finals. Over Christmas break, I’d cleaned out my room and muscled leftover bookshelves into the classroom all by myself. One of the principals had commented that I’d “hit the ground running,” which I interpreted as “You are the shit.”

Looking back, I am really only embarrassed by my career as a high school teacher. There I was, this gullible little girl trying so hard to be this badass, “dressed up” in the tackiest clothes, laughing at jokes I didn’t understand until years later, patting myself on the back for tearing up a stuffed bear when I re-enacted Beowulf while my students sat stoned and pregnant in the classroom I’d so carefully organized.

As soon as I started congratulating myself on what a great teacher I was, though, my work ethic began to fail. I played games on my phone during faculty meetings, gossiped about my co-workers, and generally turned into a mediocre teacher who was more interested in reading the jokes on the faculty message board than helping my students analyze poems.

I employed a dose or five of Pink Floyd’s “dark sarcasm,” routinely answering student questions with catty responses, insincere and hoping they knew it.

I sat back in my brand new classroom furniture—because I’d become friends with the secretary, see—and surveyed my classroom, so neatly put together. I never even noticed that the student working so diligently on vocabulary flashcards in the corner was actually coloring a page out of a coloring book.

Never even noticed the students were whispering about my clothes right in front of me.

Never even noticed that my classroom was littered with food wrappers and torn-up Literature books.

Never even noticed that money was missing from my wallet and supplies from my desk.

Because I thought I’d become the perfect teacher and had complete control of my classroom. A teacher who was the shit would never get stuff stolen from her, would never have to deal with libel and slander, would never have students laugh in her face. A teacher who was the shit would never take ten years to realize these things had happened to her instead of in spite of her.

Yet there I was, going home every day, content with the teacher I was, because someone had told me I was great at it one semester a long, long time ago.

***

I once knew a teacher who seemed so in love with adulation she never even bothered to learn how to spell my name correctly.

Others had told her how awesome she was because she had such a large family and had such an interesting and adventurous life outside of her academic career, and so it probably wasn’t a big deal to her that my name was constantly misspelled on every correspondence she sent me.

But it was a big deal to me.

When I received her feedback telling me that I basically wasn’t a very good student, the first thing I noticed was my name. And then all of the errors in her writing. How it looked like she’d just dashed it off—the critiques of my work—in between her glorious adventures and successes.

It looked like she couldn’t be bothered to even know my name much less take the time to proofread her messages much less take the time to find a different way to explain to me whatever it was she was trying to tell me because I obviously wasn’t getting it the first second third fourth fifth times she wrote me the exact same commentary.

Joann JoAnn Jo Ann Joanne Jonna JoAnna Joanna is not my name.

But I could tell she smiled the widest for those who slobbered all over her, for those who came up to her after class time and thanked her profusely for her discussion, for those who fell all over themselves trying to reassure her that she was still the best most awesome super mom/teacher/writer/adventurer extraordinaire there ever was.

By the end of my time in the educational environment, she had only this to say to me, after a long line of catty remarks:

Well, you read well.

***

A teacher storms into her classroom, furiously passing back senior research papers, telling everyone their efforts were unappreciated. She tosses mine on my desk, the 87 at the top of the paper looking timid and weak, and says, “That was a gift. That would never get a B at Baylor,” and it slides onto the ground.

A teacher talks about how small she is and how she’s broken up a fight of big, gangster-seeming boys all by herself.

A teacher refuses to read a student’s paper in class, because while it’s the best he’s read of all the final exams, it’s “too long” to share with others. Why, it took half his grading time just to read this one paper, and this is supposed to be his easy class.

A teacher sits in a group of other teachers and eventually is the only one talking. About herself. And how she uses puppets in her class of underprivileged students, about how she covers for her minority students when the big, bad, white principal comes to observe because no one else Cares with a capital “C.”

A teacher thinks he is better than the book, better than his administrators and colleagues. Thinks he is better. Thinks she is better. Thinks he works too much, gets paid too little. Thinks he took over the Science Club or the wrestling team or took a bus of kids out of the ghetto to the museum that one afternoon and no one even bothered to help him herd the mass of manner-less orphans through the exhibits, how he deserves a medal for what he does day in and day out, like a pediatric surgeon saving the lives of tiny, premature babies.

But that doctor gets paid enough to make it worth it.

A teacher plays on a loop the video of that one guy saying what he makes as a teacher after a rude dinner guest has the audacity to ask what he makes. Because that teacher thinks she’s the shit.

***

I am sitting at my parents’ lake house the day after Mother’s Day, watching the rain fall into the lake, each drop disappearing from grey sky into grey water, staring out of the window that hangs over the cliff, while the greatest teacher I forget about everyday puts on her makeup in the other room. She has been cleaning all morning, while I’ve only thrown a store-bought tortilla into the oven and barely warmed it for her for breakfast. I wash the dishes, too, but it’s only a raindrop in the lake of her work: vacuuming, scrubbing sinks, mopping floors, washing sheets, putting things back after the whirlwind of five grandsons, one niece, two sons, a daughter, and two dogs has blown through what was supposed to be a weekend getaway house. She packs up clothes and food to take back to the city house, where there will be more work to do. But this woman who chose to be a mother works tirelessly and without frustration, without pointing out to anyone how much of a load she’s bearing, without acceptance of my feeble offer of help, without pointing out to an admiring audience each and every one of her praiseworthy successes as a mom, wife, and person. She packs a lunch to take back to the city for anyone who might show up to the house hungry, because she is only doing what she is supposed to be doing.

Jo Anna Gaona Albiar enjoys a good pair of cowboy boots, Texas country music, classic rock, planting flowers, driving across Texas to visit her family, painting (walls), and eating pasta from Olive Garden. Her writing career began when she tried out a Memoir class at Texas Tech University where she received a Master’s in English and fell in love with telling all of her secrets in a secretive way. She teaches English, mostly research papers, and reads trash.  She used to teach high school students and now teaches college students, which is very different but almost the same. Teaching was pegged as her calling when she was five years old by both her mother and her piano teacher. If you knew her personally, you might not warm up to her very easily; but if you saw her in a classroom, you’d want to be her friend. That must mean she loves it.

Comments

11 Comments

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  1. cathywarner #
    December 3, 2012

    Beautifully written and so powerfully true. Thank you.

    • Jo Anna #
      December 3, 2012

      Thanks, Cathy! This is the first piece of writing I created since graduating. It was lurking there under the surface, just waiting to be written.

  2. December 3, 2012

    So musical and wonderfully paced and heartbreaking-gorgeous writing.

    • Jo Anna #
      December 3, 2012

      Thank you for the kind words, Sheryl!

  3. December 3, 2012

    Thanks, Jo Anna.

    • Jo Anna #
      December 3, 2012

      No, no. Thank YOU, David!

      • December 4, 2012

        You’re probably right. I *did* take the time to read your essay even though I could have been coming up with a new meme or building a birdhouse.

  4. clarkdp #
    December 3, 2012

    Jo Anna,
    Thanks for this beautiful essay–So good to be reading your words again.
    D

    • Jo Anna #
      December 3, 2012

      You’re so kind, Dr. David! It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything. I thank Derek for getting me out of the hole!

  5. December 9, 2012

    Jo Anna. You are the shit.

    • Jo Anna #
      January 12, 2013

      Haha, thanks, Betsy!

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