“I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” – Mark Twain
“It was a Saturday night at Taft, slumped over in the common room of the dorm like a warm jello, I realized that this teaching life would kill me. I had taught three classes that morning, during parents weekend— sweating like a maniac fool, shaking hands and schmoozing hyperbole for two hours, smiling till my face hurt, explicating, tap-dancing on the invisible stage, and entertaining in all that teacherly-ness. One parent requested a meeting with me after the classes ended at 11:45AM in the office. I rushed back from classes straightening a suddenly asphyxiating tie and tucking my pants into my underwear accidentally (it seems you become your pupils as much as they become you…). Suddenly, I found myself in danger of missing the bus to the basketball game that I would be coaching. I ran back to my dorm apartment, slapped together a peanut butter sandwich, threw on some clothes and began powerwalking up the hill to get to the All-Star yellow school bus that would take me to the game (and turn my brains to mushy scrambled eggs).
“As I watched the players warming up for the game in dilapidated uniforms that never really fit anyone, it would have seemed like an opportune time to grade those essays on Things Fall Apart that were a week late. However, it was never really a true consideration, given a couple of things: #1) I would have immediately been drilled in the head by five basketballs due to the metallic finality of Murphy’s Law. #2) The contortions of teenage boys shooting half court shots would distract me, and I’d get through a paragraph or two before resignation. #3) I was so exhausted from being on duty the night previous, staying up late to patrol the hallways of CPT3 for wayward teenage boys till 1AM that I could barely read the sign directing me to the gym without going cross-eyed. So instead, I sat in The Kent School’s gray rubber floored gym, that was always a bit too cold, with concrete walls and white and blue paint in a metal folding chair, a block of ice floating in an artic sea. The gym had been built in the seventies and undergone a series of attempts at updates that called the expression “putting lipstick on a pig” to mind. By 2019, the pig was ready for matrimony. The two parents that sat in the crowd seemed sedate on their cellphones, and similarly resigned to the betrothal.
“After the game, we couldn’t leave because the Varsity team we had travelled with were in the process of losing a contested game that wasn’t all that close. On the way back in the dark, rattley bus, I watched the movie Interstellar for the ninth time, as I continually glanced over at the Varsity coaches, huddled over a laptop and muttering to each other about what had gone wrong and why. It made me wonder why I wasn’t more committed, that is, until I glanced over and saw my own assistant coach playing “Crazy Rings” on his iPhone, with a wry smile on his face, glowing in the light of his phone. As I settled back into the movie, I wondered why he wasn’t more discrete in hiding his childish gaming from the players sitting behind him while simultaneously feeling the jealousy of those who can live in innocent delight and professional purposefulness at the same time. The puzzle perplexed me for a short time until I fell asleep, just as we pulled up to the school.
“My family had all gone to sleep by the time I got home. Left in the warming oven was the crackly remains of leftover spaghetti that had once been delicious but now was barely competitive with the B grade ARA fettuccini and tilapia that wafted its odors up the stairwell to the dormitory from the cafeteria on the first floor of the giant main building. I elected for the spaghetti, as the dining hall seemed so far away, and facing the crowd seemed unmanageable. As I crunched down my sad spaghetti meal watching The Office season 6 for the third time, I looked up to realize that I was late for duty. The residential head, Sharon Huff, had already been on my case about punctuality and had reported me to the administration about previous infractions of time, evidence of a lack of a commitment to human sacrifice. I had already had several sit-down meetings, regarded by sad, curious eyes that seemed to say, “What the hell is wrong with this guy? Maybe we should check him for pink claws. He sure seems like the runt of the litter.” I stumbled down the stairs and bolted to the “Duty Office” where the on-duty representative sat quietly watching irrelevant college football, and casually handed over a sign in sheet for the evening with impressive indifference. I sprinted back up the stairs only to discover Jasper Peppers, the “administrator on duty,” peeking into the common area. With a giant grin that seemed to be swallowing his entire face, he pleasantly asked how my day was going and how things were looking on the hallway, all the time writing reports of my incompetence in his head. After some forced pleasantries about nothing, I heaved my collapse onto a couch in the common room that was stained and burned and smelled like biological soy sauce.
“When the boys came in to sign in for the evening, they chased each other down the hallways, threw garbage in the bin like they were shooting basketballs and generally expressed the vibrance of youth. I murmured in response and tried to be human, unsuccessfully. I wondered mutely how I would stay up till 2AM that morning to make sure their unformed decision-making didn’t kill them. In a dissociative and zombified state there was little chance. If a water buffalo had been shambling down the hallways smoking a crack pipe, I would have chalked it up to hallucination and returned to staring at the rotting carpet.”
It is some wonder what we expect of our teachers today. This is a picture of the life of a private school instructor that parents pay hundreds of thousands to contract. I’m told public school is worse (one media teacher in Beverly, MA often complained she couldn’t even remember the names of her 400 some-odd students!!). Often, young teachers are given the rhetoric of “wearing a lot of hats” or “this life is not for everyone” or worse yet, given nothing at all but examples of self-sacrifice and despair. One famous teacher held up for display, Chris O’Neil, went straight from the birth of a son to coach a football game (as an assistant coach, no less). Yes, tough as nails, and that’s admirable, but what kind of instruction is the teacher in the above tableau capable of, drooling his or her way through the day? Teachers often complain about it only to be placated by bottom line seeking administration, all the while the educational experienced ironically sinks in the name of teacher commitment.
But it is the ironies painted above that have inspired me to seek other avenues for educating the youth. We can do better than that. We can acknowledge the energy of intellectuals as a valuable commodity for the young. We can refuse to allow bureaucracy to determine the future of our children. We can create an atmosphere of catharsis, not exhaustion. Together we can rethink broken educational institutions. The alternatives are as infinite as the possibilities contained in a young mind.