Written in the winter of 2010, when I was teaching in the School District of Philadelphia. A lot’s changed since then, not just my profession, but the good work of three and half years of psychotherapy.
I’m not sure if I go to cocktail parties. And it’s not because I don’t want to. I like cocktails, I think; and I also love getting dressed up. And what is a cocktail party more than just a place to show off your personality, charisma, and wit as if those things might be thicker and more substantial than the air into which they are spoken. Hardly. But I guess that’s where I am skilled. I guess that’s why I wrote this . Because I do words. You call it rhetoric as if it’s a bad thing, I call it rhetoric because it stands between us and the animals. Or maybe it’s what stands between you and I.
So, in preparation for these rhetorical cocktail parties, one might want to think about how to answer certain questions. I have a list of good responses, and chances are you’ve heard them before.
“How are you doing, Jonny?”
“Better having seen you.”
Have you gotten that one? I like it; I get it from Dad. And really, it comes from the bottom of my heart – even if its redundant, it’s the truth. Do you believe me?
This whole thing is kind of like preparing for an interview. But instead of trying to impress your future employer, you are really just trying to impress yourself. You are really just trying to get yourself to believe in the image you hope everyone else falls for. And exercise in narcissism.
Besides from the typical, how-are-you?-good interaction, there are a few others that are common. But before we continue, let me stress how absurd that how-are-you-good situation is. How are you? is a question that, perhaps, your best friend, Mom, or even your therapist would exclusively ask you. It’s deep, personal, and intriguing if you’re going to be honest with someone. But we usually aren’t. So, on one hand, you might have asked a question that is simply presumptuous. On the other, you might have assumed your audience is made up of liars.
But, a safer bet, and one that I’m more prepared to answer is the one about your job. And it’s not even asked correctly. It’s not, “What is your job?” It’s “What do you do?” (which is almost as bad as, “How do you do?”) But they want to know what your job is — and they assume your job is all you are. In a society where your profession means more than your personality, where you career identifies you more than your character, and where your job is more important than our faith, it may be beneficial to come up with a way of answering that question. So, I guess I say, I’m a teacher.
But there’s more to it than that.
“I’m a high school teacher.”
“Oh, really!” They always act really excited. I accept the affirmation and resist assuming they are patronizing me.
“What do you teach?”
Ahh… this is it. I have swung and missed on the first question. Answering directly is always a boring method. “Teacher” is such a normal answer. But this one is a bigger target, one not to be missed. So they ask me, and I hesitate. Sometimes I act disinterested. But then, I usually go for a faithful answer. “Parenting.” Now, I don’t teach students to be parents. Well, sometimes I do. But I’m not really try to articulate much, I think I’m just getting a quick laugh. Maybe I want to get a laugh because the reality of my profession is painful. A desk fell on my foot this week — or rather a student pushed it on my foot. I had a balloon as a left foot for about two days. Bummer.
You get the funny Twitter updates — and you might think, I can’t believe that student said that. But the job itself is so much more than just funny stories and quotes that most of us can laugh off. I say it to entertain my friends. But really I say it so that I might get through the day. Or better yet, so that I might learn from my mistakes. Successful teachers don’t have a lot of funny stories — the inexperienced ones have the most amusing ones. So you’ll hear a lot from me, unfortunately.
It’s 8th period on a Friday — the last hour of the last day of the week. I’m frustrated with myself as a teacher because my students grades may reflect on my instruction abilities. So maybe my interest in their academic success is really just a self-interest. They do well, I look good. It breaks my heart. But I tell them, “There are 30 of you in this class and 27 of you are failing!” They can’t believe it. The grave injustice of the matter. The idea that perhaps their disinterest and lack of discipline reflects on their grades. “Yes, believe it or not, showing up to class and doing nothing doesn’t help you.”
I quickly learn that this may not be the most motivational way to begin a class. I’ve had better ones. In this case, like Mount Saint Helen, they erupt. There’s an explosion of profanity, disappointed shouts, and in some cases, just laughter. They can’t believe it. And that erupting volcano doesn’t just made a loud noise, it spews its waste all over the classroom. To the victims of the mountain it was lava and ash; to a teacher at a Philadelphia public high school, it’s a storm of paper balls. I’m astonished by how many there were. And what I do? I hold back. I can’t get mad at their behavior; after all, I’m the adult, they are the children. It was really my fault for beginning the lesson that way.
Lots of it my fault, I think.
In the moment of complete ineffectiveness, though, you wonder about a lot of stuff. You wonder why your administration is less than supportive. You fear your administration and being open with them about problems you have in the classroom because you want to keep your job. Your supposed to do it right. And the fact that I’ve been doing it for two years doesn’t help. In fact, it’s worse because you haven’t gained tenure, so keep your inexperience to yourself and try to get through the days. You’ll find some allies, but they are fair weather for the most part, and sometimes it seems like everyone is doing is better than you. That’s not because that’s the truth, it’s because no one has told you otherwise.
So with autocratic administration, disruptive and disrespectful students (sometimes through no fault of their own), and possibly a curmudgeon-filled staff all around you, you’re left alone. Interdependence is a nice idea; but if one is going to survive, he closes his classroom door, teaches the 30 students in class, rinses, and repeats. You do it because you love teaching. You do it because you love students. You do it because you love yourself.
“What do you do?”
A good answer, after such a speech, might be “What I love.”
But really, “What do I do?”
“In the jungle of urban public education, where you can be eaten by principals, colleagues, students, and their parents; where threats abound all around you; where encouragement and affirmation are oases in a dessert; where your watched and recorded like you are on trial (and sometimes you are); where tests are fudged, and grades are changed; where students are socially promoted; where kids are sent out of their classrooms to prison cells and are forced to swipe a card, walk through a metal detector just to get into the building; where a tiny bit of resolve will get them out of that building; where we follow curriculum set up for the best to punish the worst; where schools are prisons (including the fact that corporations profit from them); where parents are unsupportive; where administrators learn to be like those parents; where cigarette-breaks feel like paradise; where a moment alone is like a thousand years… what do I do, you ask? I survive.”
And wouldn’t it be so much easier to crack a joke?