THE NIGHT BEFORE THE FIRST DAY
Here is a headless, hand-less, foot-less English teacher purchased from Target. I stare at the brown khakis and white shirt on my bed and wonder how I, accustomed to flannel pajama pants and sweatshirts, will wear the outfit.
I’m here because I stuttered as a child and fell in love with books as a way to avoid interacting with my peers. In fourth grade the teacher put my name on the board for reading No Coins, Please when I should have been working on my multiplication tables. When I cracked the book to find out how many New Yorkers Artie could swindle into buying jars of grape jelly labeled “Attack Jelly” (intended to defend against home invaders the likes of which run rampant in urban jungles like New York City), Mr. Segur forced me to skip recess and stay inside, as if gleaning tips from an entrepreneur like Artie in an air-conditioned teacher-supervised space would deter me from reading in the future.
I’m here because writing poetry gave my teenage self another safe space: the blank page. Growing up with a stutter and a lisp, I got high on writing poetry alone in my bedroom, chair tucked under the doorknob. Manipulating line breaks and decisively playing with the sound of alliterative phrases gave me a kind of dictatorial control I couldn’t find on the playground or on sports fields, or in face-to-face conversations. By ninth grade I had so much poetry on our family’s computer my mom organized the documents into folders and deleted some of the files by accident. When she told me “KEEP OUT,” “KEEP OUT 2,” and “KEEP OUT FINAL” were gone, I ran to my bedroom, lay on my bed, and clutched the second book in Maya Angelou’s autobiographical series.
“I didn’t mean to delete it,” my mom said through my closed door. “I only hit ‘enter.’”
If my mom had read the KEEP OUT files, she knew about the girl who walked on picket fences at night and the boy who cauterized his tongue with a kitchen knife. She knew about “Dark Eyed Angel,” the three-part poem I planned to read at my high school graduation ceremony after the student body voted me to represent them.
I feared my mom wouldn’t understand my ideas. She didn’t understand my love for African-American women’s literature, so how would she understand the symbolism of the weather in my poetry, or the connections I made between the states of my characters’ depraved souls and my middle-class upbringing?
I’m here because the struggle continued in college when I declared an English major and relatives asked what I wanted to do with my English major. Work at a magazine? Open a poetry store and sell poetry? No way, I said. I’d get a typewriter and index cards and write haikus for strangers on street corners before I sold my poetry.
They suggested I look into teaching.
When they did that, when my relatives suggested I exchange my teenage dream of working as a writer for the potential nightmare of spending 180 days with teenagers and teaching nothing, I called them crazy. Then I recalled my favorite teachers – the linguistics professor who tapped the linoleum with bike cleats when he made a good point, the junior English teacher who drummed her nails on the computer monitor as she entered grades, the third grade teacher who wore strawberry ice cream cone earrings – and thought, “I could do that.” I remembered Dr. VanderStaay’s lesson on glottal and fricative consonants, the pulse of pride I felt when Ms. DiBartolo pulled me aside and said I had a knack for writing metaphors that made sense on more than one level, and the morning I asked Mrs. Steele if her ears tasted like ice cream. “I could be like them,” I thought.
So even as I scoffed at the idea of squandering my literary talents by returning to high school and working with people making their way through a time of life I didn’t enjoy much myself, I considered it. I guess I wanted the security of knowing what I’d do for work when I graduated. And maybe part of me wanted to make a difference.
Starting tomorrow, I am a high school English teacher. In the next few months I’ll teach young people how to write solid paragraphs. I’ll assign essays, write questions in the margins of students’ drafts, and facilitate spirited conversations about big ideas. Maybe my ninth grade students will remember my assignments the way I remember dissecting owl scat pellets in fifth grade or reading Romeo & Juliet in ninth grade, with a strange kind of fondness. Maybe they’ll say my assignments are dumb, as dumb making doorstops for other teachers in construction class. Maybe they’ll give me looks of awe as we diagram sentences and hunt for patterns in the English language. Maybe the poetry unit in April will feel like growing sugar crystals on strings in jars. Maybe some of them will think I give magical assignments. Maybe some of them will think I am magic. Yes, yes… I know I’m supposed to pretend I didn’t get into teaching to have an audience, to perform or to entertain, but this journal is the KEEP OUT file of my first year so… I want my students to like me.
I look at the brown pants and white shirt on my bed. I try them on with my brown Rockport shoes. I go to the bathroom and stand on the toilet seat so I can see myself in the mirror. My eyebrows are dark like my father’s, my forehead high like my mother’s. Look at those brown shoes. Look at those eyes. You checkin’ me out?
I am your teacher. You are not checking me out.
I’m about to teach 9th grade English to one hundred and twenty freshmen and advise the newspaper at the school where I did my student teaching. Part of me feels like I’m already at my classroom desk, hands folded at the keyboard, head cocked to the chatter of students gathering outside my door. I see myself reaching up to adjust my collar, gazing at the two concentric semi-circles of desks awaiting students’ arrival. I occasionally pull a pencil from my mug of sharp Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2s and blow on the tip.
What will happen tomorrow? I’m guessing it won’t be as bad as those inspirational teacher movies where students throw paper airplanes and play stereos during class, but it won’t be great either. The Literacy Revolution won’t happen right away. Students might not drool over the syllabus, but they’ll probably sit in their chairs. This is the teacher who wants to be my friend. This is the teacher who is crazy about his marker sets. This is the teacher who needs help with AV cords. This is the teacher who jumps for the handle on the projection screen. This is the teacher who won’t let me sleep. That’s what students do on the first day: judge.
I have seven hours.
I should sleep, but I’m standing on the toilet thinking about what to wear.