yeah, we tease him a lot, ’cause we’ve got him on the spot (welcome back)

Good God, Ms. Lavelle. Please do NOT become a high school teacher.  Please. He was from the South, and so his “God” had two syllables. (When he taught me to read poetry aloud in college, he did so with an Alabama accent. I still sound like a Southerner each time I read Those Winter Sundays to my students.)  He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples as he pleaded with me.  Trust me, he said.

There were plenty of reasons for him to say it, reasons that I could not possibly understand until I became a teacher.  Low pay, of course.  Long hours that often include nights and weekends.  Abusive parents.  Abusive students.  Inadvertent and even involuntary increased bladder control.

So I put it out of my mind.  I mean, I was going to be a college professor, anyway.  Write a best-seller (of literary merit, of course).  And I’d have cabin (a converted schoolhouse, actually) in rural New Hampshire or Vermont (even better) where I’d spend my summers, alone.  Writing.  And walking a dog. A very big dog.

Teaching high school was never part of the plan.  And that’s what I tell my seniors (who think they’ve got it all figured out, as I did at seventeen) on the second day of school.  I read a letter that I’ve written to them about how all kinds of things in my life have not gone according to plan. (I edited it last night because, of course, there have been plenty of events over the past year that, apparently, didn’t receive the “plan” memo).

But this August, I’m entering my eleventh year as a high school teacher.  And for the first time ever, I think I’m embracing (stomaching?) the reality that I am, in fact, a teacher.  And that maybe, it makes me even a little bit lucky (gasp!).

I read an article recently that made a good argument for teaching high school with a degree that was once reserved for college teachers (and by “reserved,” I mean that those of us who went on to get an MFA in Creative Writing had no real intention of teaching high school).  The article did a fine job of convincing me that I was not “wasting” my degree, and even made me a little relieved that I’m not teaching college (so, thank you, Mr. Nick Ripatrazone). But, I have to say (and perhaps it’s because I’m a bit soft), there are so many other (and different) reasons why I teach those darling adolescents.

Here are this week’s reasons (and by that I mean they have all happened in the past week):

  • One of the greatest kids on the planet referred to me as his “favorite person.”  No, not his favorite teacher.  His favorite person.
  • In our new “teachers’ lounge,” I opened the refrigerator to find a plastic container with my name on it.  A handwritten note said, “Here’s to the start of another wonderful year!”  Inside was a pile of chocolatey buttery goodness, from the same mom who often provides me with salty dill pretzels.
  • In class today (the very first day), one girl said, “Well that’s because you’re a good teacher,” and she didn’t intend for it to be a compliment, just a statement.  (Trust me, if you knew her, you would know she’s not the kind to give compliments — which just makes it an even better compliment.)
  • A former student sent me a text message that was a direct quote from my blog.
  • I’ve been at the same school long enough to meet the third (and fourth) sibling in one family.
  • I left work with a free pizza, and then my next-door-teacher friend (I’m in 24, she’s in 25) sent me a text message to find out about my afternoon trip to the mechanic.  Then I sent her a message to tell her that avocadoes were on sale for $.59.
  • A recent graduate let me know that he ended a tweet with #holdencaulfield.  (I mean, that’s enough right there.)

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m sure there will be still plenty of times, especially in social situations, when I say, I teach high school, and almost forget to leave out the “just” in between “I” and “teach.” Or I’ll want to punctuate the sentence with:  Really, I’m a writer!  I promise!  Read my blog!

But I’m a teacher. Truly. It’s what (who?) I am.


me and chaucer down by the schoolyard

I hate British Literature.

Well, for the most part, anyway.  There are things I can tolerate, such as Coleridge and Wordsworth, and very few things that I love, such as the Irish (Who doesn’t love the Irish?  They’re not really British, anyway, are they?), T.S. Eliot (and he’s really American), John Keats, (and his Grecian urns and nightingales) and Hamlet (just Hamlet, himself).

But I loathe Dickens (I mean, you want to talk about bleak).  And please don’t make me read anything by the Bronte gals (sorry, Jane).  I know, I know.  How can I call myself an English teacher?  It’s sacrilegious.

And here’s the rub:  I teach English IV, senior English.  Traditionally, English IV is British Literature.  And it’s no different at the school where I teach.  But for the last five years, I’ve taken some liberties.  (Okay, a lot of liberties.)  Let’s be honest.  It’s hard to get the kids interested in something if I’m not intereted in it (and with some of my struggling students, it’s hard to get them interested in anything).  I’ve covered Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon so that I can justify covering Yuself Komunyakaa and Brian Turner and Tim O’Brien.  And, really, I had no true justification for asking my darlings to read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (except that Dave Eggers speaks English) last year, but a lot of them actually read it.  One even came into the classroom the morning after he finished it and said, “This is the best book I’ve ever read.”  I swear.

This year, though, we are implementing the Common Core curriculum, and so I have decided, finally, to come to terms with the literary canon and embrace the Brits.

And what is my first unit?  The Canterbury Tales.  Awesome.  I hated it in high school (sorry, Mr. Baker) and have since avoided Chaucer like the . . . well, yes.  Like the plague. But I do remember being awestruck when I stood before his tomb in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.  And maybe I even felt a little guilty for it; if I had never appreciated him in the first place, then was my reverence some sort of writerly obligation, something I felt I was supposed to feel just because he was Chaucer?  Just because he was . . . old?

I can tell you right now that answer is not going to fly when my sixth period class starts asking, “Why are we reading this? It’s not even in English.”  They’re going to want an answer. A real answer.  And, as their teacher, I owe them one.

But these kids also know me well enough to expect some kind of honest explanation.  The students I have this year as seniors I also had as freshmen.  Two-thirds of them had me as their English teacher during their sophomore year, too.  We’re close.  Really close.  (There are about five or six of them that I eat lunch with every day in my classroom, or outside, if I have lunch duty.  We solve the world’s problems, share each other’s potato chips and rice krispie treats and veggie straws, and celebrate each other’s birthdays.)

This is both good and bad (but more good than bad, I think); it’s good in the sense that I know what I’ll be up against during sixth period every day.  They’re disliked (to put it mildly).  And it’s partially their fault (but only partially).  There will be around thirty of them,  including the one who sometimes forgets I’m not his mother and yells at me like I am (he’ll apologize later; he always does), and the one that I can count on to stand in front of the class and read The Wife of Bath’s Tale in a feminine and terrible British accent; there will be the one that tries to be a big man (though he’s no bigger than I am) and we’ll go nose-to-nose each day, but we’ll end up on the same side; there will be the one I look to for commiseration, and he’ll roll his eyes at his friends’ antics because he understands.  Completely.  And the girls, oh, what those poor girls will have to tolerate (all four of them).

It’s bad in the sense that I’m going to laugh a lot (when I’m not crying).  I always say that I’d be a much more effective teacher if I didn’t laugh so much.  But, God, teenagers are way too funny.

So I’ve given myself a relatively tall order for the start of the school year; not only do I need to put aside my own propensities and put forth the effort to find the true value (and I know it exists) of The Canterbury Tales, but I also need to attempt to convince a large group of twenty-first century adolescents of its worth, and maybe even more importantly, of its relevance.

The latter, of course, is a much more daunting task.  And to be completely honest, I have no idea, yet, how I’m going to tackle it.  But I know that it will have to involve performance.  Actors, costumes, and props.  A soundtrack, maybe (I’m banking on mostly rap and country).  The thing with teaching is that it’s all trial and error.  All of it.  And that’s not just for each unit or each lesson plan — it’s for each period, each day.  What worked yesterday might not work today.  What worked first period might not work third.  So you just have keep trying until you figure out what does work.  Even if that means you have to dress yourself as the Wife of Bath and project your own terrible British accent.

Whew.  I’m sweating already.  And it’s not even August.