Almost every day, I bookmark a website, email myself an article, or highlight a passage in a book with my students in mind. I outline lecture notes and jot conversation starters in the page margins of whatever I’m reading. I craft engaging questions and anticipate my students’ reactions.
The only thing is, I have no students.
I haven’t set foot in a classroom—and no one has called me Ms. Jones—in six months.
I’m not, according to my tax returns, a teacher. According to those tax returns, I’m not even employed.
Even so, I know which day on the syllabus I want to squeeze in a new text, and I know exactly how I want to incorporate a song I heard on the radio into our class discussion about postmodernism.
Why am I constantly aware of my imaginary students? Students with faces, even, and names? Becca, whose ponytail is hidden beneath a camouflage cap, who wears furry boots with Nike gym shorts. Andrew, whose dark eyebrows make him appear perpetually skeptical. Natalia, the volleyball player who towers more than a foot above me when she approaches my podium.
Who are these people?
What Sister Mary Clarence Taught Me About Being a Magical Teacher (or “This Is No Longer a Bird Course. The Bird Has Flown”: The Importance of Coming Out from Behind the Teaching Pulpit)
This week, for the first time in my five-year teaching career, I came out to my students as a gay man.
One of my goals for the year was to model for my students what it means to live a readerly and writerly life. Writing a blog accomplishes the latter. Writing with my students does the same. So as we began writing personal narratives on “overcoming adversity,” I did the same activities they did to come up with one of my own.
“Pencils up!” I said. We were poised for the freewriting challenge.
“…and begin!” I used my freshly sharpened Ticonderoga No. 2, to begin the journey. And suddenly, I stopped. I had forgotten to turn off the LCD projector. My writing was displayed for the whole world—the middle school classroom in which I teach—to see.
“Mr. Shinn! Keep writing!” a student yelled from the corner of the classroom.
So I wrote. And at some point during my freewriting challenge the words coming out… came out.
Ninety-five percent of those who read this poem
will experience a sense of wonder. The other
five percent are wondering how to arrive
at this statistic. For evidence is what is needed.
Otherwise the poem will never gain accreditation,
and no one will want to attend. We could ask
for a show of hands, but some of the readers are related
to the poet, and nothing surprises them anymore.
If the poem is read aloud, carefully trained monitors
could be placed in the audience to count
the number of mouths agape in stupefaction
or in slumber. How many persons are leaning
forward, eager for the next word? This is an angle
our monitors can quietly measure, pulling
from their back pockets a gathering hush
of collapsible wooden protractors.
If I was to steal Officer Gene’s parking security golf cart and hit highway 32, how far could I get?
Take your time working through your 11:48 dump in the faculty restroom next door, Mrs. Zimmerman. You left your salmon on defrost in the microwave for sixteen minutes.
I need thirty-five seconds to heat up two slices of cold pizza.
Did I humiliate Melisa with that sarcastic comment this morning?
You aren’t supposed to be in the teacher’s lounge, Kyle. It’s my friggin’ twenty-minute lunch “hour” and your dead dog story is harshing my turkey-cheddar buzz and, well, I can’t concentrate on my Hawaii Blast Capri Sun when you’re in here.
Is everyone else in here just pretending they’re great at this?
Every quarter, I swear that I’m going to quit teaching the personal essay.
Every quarter I teach it again.
I’m an adjunct college instructor not just at a community college—“junior” colleges, they used to call them: colleges designed for high-school dropouts, single parents, out-of-work mechanics and millworkers and refugees of all kinds, all this mixed together with four or five bright-eyed, motivated, Running Start high-school-students (they show up having actually bought the books, the idiots, and they actually lean forward in their seats ready to learn, charmingly unaware that they’re about to get a real education, through their classmates, in what life looks like when you don’t get an education)—but at an extension site of the community college. Our extension-site campus is so small—tucked here in the inner corner of the wet, forested Olympic Peninsula—that it’s just one building, and not even a full building. The top floor stands empty; the basement was a former morgue. We utilize the four rooms on the ground floor, plus an eight-person computer lab, and an office where Maggie sits. She’s the friendly registrar / office manager / janitor / computer technician / car mechanic / maintenance worker. She also fills in as an instructor when a faculty member is sick.
We offer four classes: English composition, English literature, basic math, and political science. We used to offer history, I’m told, but it was cut for budgetary reasons. So was biology, physics, advanced math, philosophy, sociology, accounting, chemistry, and environmental science. All the tenured faculty were moved to the main campus, and the top floor was shuttered. I’m told the floor is haunted by the ghosts of people from around the turn of the century, but whenever I heard chairs being dragged around up there, or desks being moved, I know it’s merely the ghosts of the former professors, and the ghostly hopes of a lost generation of students, vanished into ghostly budgets.
But I digress.
What Ron Clark Taught Me about Being a Magical Teacher (or “Make It Happen: The Importance of Making Memories”)
The Essential 55.
It was the first teaching book I ever bought and was written by him. The American Teacher Awards Teacher of the Year, Ron Clark.
Yes, I watch the American Teacher Awards.
Yes, I was only a junior in high school.
I’ve known since I was little I wanted to be a teacher. When I was seven, I made my own whiteboard out of a white lap-desk and Crayola markers I got for Christmas. It didn’t take long before I was lecturing my stuffed animals on the importance of learning. (My teddy bear was the most out of control student.)
In fourth grade I got a real whiteboard and never looked back.
I look at him and he looks at me. His shirt says, “F–k the Police” next to a picture of a gun. Literally. The u, the c, they’re dashes on the shirt. And it’s funny because I read the shirt as if I didn’t know that “–” stood for those letters. F and K the Police I hear in my mind.
He stands in front of me with a smirk. The assignment sits on the desk in front of me, and he seems proud.
“The gun on your shirt… not so appropriate for school,” I say in front of him and his friends.
“It’s not like I’m gonna rip it off and start shooting people. It’s a gun on a shirt, bro. Don’t worry about it.”
Ahab had his white whale; I have Melissa.
Melissa is seventeen, headed (probably) to the University of Texas and is, by all accounts, wonderful. She wears jeans with stitched designs and cardigans with little woven flourishes. She’s on the executive committee of the Service Club. She makes straight A’s and takes AP tests.
But she can’t write.
His father had died. Cancer. Lung, stomach, bone, blood. Where was it not?
Reached too late.
Mom is surviving. Nothing new. Eleven year-old sister—Patrícia as pronounced in her native español—and a brother too young to remember his father. She was to perform in the choir in twenty minutes. Tenemos solo la esperanza. Ahora, eres el hombre, Oscar.
He surveyed the room with narrow eyes. He was distant then, revisiting someplace that was simpler. Eight o’clock bells and a drowsiness steeped in blocks of text.
“I don’t remember any of my classes here… except this one.”
What is underneath the covers of books?
What sticks? What persists?
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.