Still the English Teacher by Patty Sisco
Before I became a school counselor, I was an English teacher for ninth through twelfth grade. When I graduated high school in the 60s, career choices were limited for daughters of working class parents: I could be a nurse (I hated the sight of blood); a secretary (boring – and those typewriter keys ruined my nails); or a teacher (OK, I had some good teachers. I liked school. That sounded good.) Having few options was both good and bad. I didn’t have to slog through a lot of research exploring all the marvelous opportunities the world offered me, because the world didn’t offer me much. It’s no coincidence that many of my girlfriends also went to college and became teachers. Consequently, our country’s schools have burst at the seams with female Boomer teachers for decades, and I was happy to be among them. Unfortunately, though, a subsequent teacher shortage has ensued, as most college grads today would rather drive a nail through their big toes than face a classroom overloaded with teens whose undeveloped frontal lobes, unrelenting hormones, and devotion to electronic devices supersede even the slightest inclination to read Moby Dick for fun.
I cruised along at North Texas State University, majoring in English with teacher certification, and in three and a half years I was a fully certified secondary instructor of English and French in the state of Texas. That’s right…French. I minored in French in Texas, where Spanish is overtaking English at warp speed. Fortunately, though, nobody ever asked me to teach French. Trying to communicate with Parisians when I travelled there a few years after graduation convinced me that I could probably teach Calculus just as expertly, even though I barely got through Algebra 2.
Imparting knowledge to 130 or so teens a day is NEVER boring, so, as one who has never tolerated the humdrum, I took to teaching like a rat to a nibble of cheddar. I ate it up. I loved thinking of unique ways to lure my unwitting students into the delicious web of literature and writing. However, teen scholars in my 70s classrooms were in many ways very different from those I encountered in the late 80’s, when I went back to teaching English following a stint as a junior high counselor, and then a stay-at-home mom. In the 70’s, a call home got quick results if a student even thought about misbehaving, so discipline wasn’t a huge issue for me then, though I was only five years older than my students when I started teaching. In 1985, when I returned to the classroom, I was shocked at the change in my students’ attitudes over the next five and a half years. I taught juniors and seniors, some in advanced English, who differed dramatically from my former students. They seemed to be less interested in school, less interested in reading, and more interested in MTV and voicing their opinions openly. Or was I the one who had changed? Whatever it was, my knack for running a disciplined and orderly classroom had completely exited my toolbox, taking with it my punctilious bookkeeping skills.
Part of the reason, I’m sure, for my rather frazzled approach was that this time around I had three kids at home, and advanced high school English was so demanding, it was all I could do to stay a step ahead of my students, who now had cable TV and video games in their repertoire of entertainment options, rendering Wordsworth irrelevant. Aside from working harder to create engaging, stimulating lessons, I took home mounds of essays and tests to grade. Focusing on the need to produce writers who could compose a coherent paragraph, I made my job ten times harder for myself by requiring my students to keep a daily journal that I always graded shortly before the end of each grading period. I would post a usually mundane topic on the board every day for students to expound upon while I took care of a few housekeeping chores at the beginning of the class period. Most of the students dawdled and groaned about putting their thoughts on paper, but a few were really into it. Every six weeks I carried those bulky spiral notebooks home in gigantic containers, terror and dread accompanying me as I eyeballed the looming grading deadline that still haunts me. Even today I have occasional dreams that I have postponed all my grading, my dining room table collapsing under mounds of papers and notebooks, when I suddenly realize that grades are due in an hour, and I haven’t entered a single grade in my gradebook.
I had a love-hate relationship with those journals. They had taken on a life of their own. I wanted to read and comment on everything my students wrote, but there simply weren’t enough hours in a day to do that. Most wrote about typical teen concerns – boyfriends, sports, after-school jobs, parents’ lack of understanding or outright stupidity, friendships, extracurricular activities, and so on. Most of the students wrote pretty mundane stuff, considering their journals a chore. It was easy to skim over their narratives. Some of them, though, were co surprisingly forthright and emotional that the counselor in me was drawn to the compelling stories that were filled with anger, fear, sadness, elation, sincerity.
I was sad for Allison, a slightly overweight introvert, who wrote pages and pages filled with loneliness and longing for a boy I knew she’d never even talk to; proud for David, an immigrant whose work ethic and desire to go to college were paying off in scholarship offers; and I laughed out loud at Bert’s hilariously clever quips, even though I knew his parents’ recent divorce was gnawing at him. But I was worried sick about Jeff. I gathered from his journal hints that his mother was alcoholic and usually absent, and indeed his sporadic attendance reflected a lack of parental supervision. What I gradually learned about him, through his very nebulous narrative, was that he was meeting well-to-do older men who were using him for sex for a short period of time and then tossing him aside. He would meet them in parks and other popular gathering places, having no idea who they were, frequently going home with them. Occasionally, he would miss a few days of school and write later that he had accompanied an older man on a luxurious vacation where he had consumed so much alcohol and/or cocaine, he had crashed for a few days afterward till he had sobered up. This was at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and I was terrified for him. He was dreadfully conflicted. He knew his behavior was extremely risky, but the draw of money and excitement continued to pull him in.
At first, his journal entries had been vague, dropping clues he hoped I would put together. His accounts became explicit, though, after I wrote in his journal, “Jeff, I am worried about you. I’m here if you want to talk.” Obviously, he needed someone confide in, but I felt so out of my league, I was frustrated that I didn’t know how to help. This was a time when gay teachers were afraid to come out of the closet, and even though I knew some of my colleagues were gay, there was no way I would have approached them for advice. Then one day, I asked him to stay after school to talk about his abysmal English grade, not because he wasn’t smart, but because he was seldom in class. I told him I was worried about these encounters with strangers, that I wanted him to know that I cared, and I asked if there was anything I could do to stop him on this path to destruction. He made it clear that his mother had no idea of his activities, and that even if she had known, she wouldn’t have cared. He assured me that he was very careful, and that he wanted to stop, but these men paid attention to him and made him feel important. And then, not long afterward, he simply quit going to school. A few years later, to my surprise, he called me at school, wanting me to know he had finally realized how risky his behavior was and had gotten his GED, had a good job, was attending college classes, and that he had been living with a partner near his own age, in a stable relationship, for over a year.
“And (I hesitated) you’re healthy?”
“Yes, I’m fine. I get tested regularly, but I feel confident I’ll be ok. I just wanted to tell you that your words stayed with me and turned me around. I knew you were disappointed when I quit, and I just felt obligated to tell you how much you influenced me. During that time, you were the only person who cared. You saved me.” I was stunned. I had felt so helpless with Jeff – so unable to express the empathic words he needed. It was then I realized that all those hours spent on those damnable journals was time well-spent.
Another one my students was Steven, a blonde, blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked senior whose cherubic appearance totally belied his unpleasant attitude of unearned entitlement. He was the son of a very well-known local physician, and his indolent demeanor annoyed me no end. He usually slept in class, was absent more than present, and when he did choose to grace the chair with his privileged derriere, he chose to ignore my questions, or when pushed, answered with a smirk and a shrug. He spent the entire school year on the precipice of failure, and his lackadaisical attitude toward passing my English class, a required step to earning his diploma, combined with his snarky, condescending attitude, made me secretly hope that he would take a misstep and learn that being rich didn’t necessarily equal success. The daily journal was a major test grade each grading period, given the fact that the students had to write in it every day, and Steven usually chose not to write in it or submit it to me at all, even though it was a relatively easy way to earn an “A”.
At the end of the school year, teaching Senior English is a beating. Parents and students who haven’t seemed to care the previous eight months, suddenly become acutely invested in every single assignment that makes up the final grade for that required credit. It’s stressful, to say the least, knowing the grade you assign could mean the difference between an elated student graduating in May with his classmates or sullenly slinking into summer school registration having learned the lesson of a lifetime. To be honest, very few of my students put in so little effort that they didn’t graduate, and I was always willing to offer those hanging on by their fingertips the opportunity to bring up their grades. But they had to ask for clemency, and Steven never did. I wasn’t surprised, a few days short of graduation, as I churned through those massive piles of spirals I had fetched from the plastic tub in the back of my Chevy Suburban, to discover that, once again, Steven had not submitted his journal, even though he had a failing grade. When I brought this to his attention the next day, he innocently claimed he had turned one in, but going through all 125 of them, one by one, that night, the phantom journal was not to be found. He subsequently did well enough on his final exam (the kid wasn’t dumb) to bring his final grade up to 68, 2 points shy of the 70 needed to pass, and therein my dilemma took shape. Teachers were discouraged by administration from allowing a student to fail for the year with a 68 or 69. I even talked to his Vice Principal about it, and his advice was, “If he’s going to fail, you should lower that grade to 67, because in all likelihood, a 68 will result in his parents visiting the Superintendent, and we’ll all end up having to eat crow.” So, gritting my teeth, my brain screaming at me that I was just enabling his egregiously irresponsible behavior, I raised his final exam grade enough to boost his yearly grade to 70.
A few months later, graduation forgotten and summer vacation refueling my tank, I was driving my kids to their summer activities when my 8-year-old daughter, sitting in the rarely occupied third seat of the Suburban, said, “Mommy, what is this book?”
“What book, Adrienne?”
“This book that has some writing in it. It has a name on it. Steven somebody.”
I almost veered off the road. It was Steven’s journal that had slipped beneath the seat. He had indeed turned it in. You know those old cartoons of the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other, both telling you what you should and shouldn’t do? Thank God the angel won, and I got to keep my job. I guarantee that if I had lowered Steven’s grade, causing him not to graduate, I would have burned that journal that very day and never mouthed a word to a soul about it. Shortly thereafter, I came to the conclusion that teaching English had worn me down to an exhausted nub. I applied for a counseling job that summer and never taught English again.
I was invited recently to my ex-students’ 30-year reunion and was amazed at how many told me they had actually enjoyed my English class. Obviously, they had been drinking. To my further surprise, one of them, now a psychologist whom I embarrassingly didn’t remember, approached me with tears in her eyes. She told me I had started her on a journey she still travelled – keeping a journal every day. Astoundingly, she had kept all her high school journals as well. I was shocked. Where do you put that many spiral notebooks? But I was also honored that she credited me with a lifelong habit that had played a vital role in the self-actualized woman she had become. I told her, “Those journals are treasure. Read back through them, and you’ll see you have a book on your hands. Write it!” Still the English teacher after all these years.