18 WEEKS TO GO
Senior year of high school is particularly interesting. Seniors at the school are allowed to wear college sweatshirts, and what college you wear tells everybody what kind of person you are. If you've got a Boulder sweatshirt on, you're fun and go to a lot of parties. Harvard means you're smart and that you're going to be successful. Berkeley means you care about the world and are going to make a difference. The problem is, anyone can buy these sweatshirts. For forty-dollars, you can prospectively attend Harvard, even if your GPA is 2.9, and you haven't read a book since the 4th grade. And it makes sense - they're only 17 or 18 and haven't had a chance to establish who they really are. Instead, they've got to project and pretend that they're somebody - even if that somebody isn't completely figured out.
In an inconspicuous conversation with someone about teaching, they remarked how unhappy I must be. They talked about how awful the kids were and how frustrating it must be; "I bet you hate it."
I thought for a moment, a bit surprised, and responded with a simple "No."
Sometimes I glance inside the rooms of other teachers and see only monsters. From a distance they look full of disdain and lack of personality. It looks like they don't care about the class, each other, or anything. But when you look at your own class - you see people. Maybe they don't care about the content of that particular class, but they're still people, and they're usually interesting in their own right. It's not evident every day, but they do hold a deep and sincere redemptive value. Over the course of the year, you see hints of their dreams, their sufferings, hopes, and failures. You see the kid that looks like they're got it all figured out crying, or a kid writes about how they're scared of going to college because they don't think they can make it.
But on a bad day, when the world tilts against them, they can snap at anyone. That's when you remember that even if they're not a bad person; they're still just a kid. They don't really know how to control themselves. That's when someone calls their classmate a name or slanders some poor kid in another class. They tell me off for asking them to read 10 pages of a text that was written 2500 years ago, calling it "Stupid." When you call them on it, they usually retracts the comment, realizing he's about to get in trouble. And if I write them a detention, they hold it against me. I'm the new focus of frustration, and angst, and injustice in the world. Because I'm the authority.
And that's what I want to leave behind.
My first year, the Department Chair said the hardest part of the job for her was giving up trying to be unconditionally kind. Our whole relationship with this group of 160 people is based on conditions: If you are quiet, we'll watch a movie. If you talk, we'll take a quiz.
It's an odd aspect of the job, similar to becoming a manager among peers. I began teaching when I was only 23. That year, I was voted "Most Likely to be Mistaken for a Student." I got it the following year, and am on the way to a Three-peat.
Deep inside my psychosis, I'm aware that the kids are good. Inside, I still believe people are generally good, but I feel this slowly slipping away. I can't trust the students. Not, at least, in a wholesale sort of way. Today, during daily prayer, a girl was talking loudly to somebody. Mr. Williams stood at the end of the hall, giving a cold stare. When the prayer ended, he hurried down the hall and stopped her, telling her how disrespectful it was. "I wasn't even talking! I swear!"
My second year, I took a kid's phone because he was texting. He promised and swore he wasn't texting. "Okay, just get it after class." Five minutes later, he got a text which lit up the screen showing he'd sent 7 texts in the past 30 minutes. Son of a gun. When I told him after class, he got real upset about how I invaded his privacy. I just told him it was really disappointing that he was the kind of person that lied straight to my face. Sad thing is that years later, I can still see his face. You forget some of them - but not this kid.
It's the little lies and the endless attempts to gain petty wants. "Where'd we leave off?" I ask, about a eight page essay we'd started the day before. "We finished," is always the inevitable response. ("Great, time to take the quiz." That usually brings people back to honesty.)
As a student I understood the reason. The essay was pointless to him, written by a guy that died before the world he understands ever came to be. The thing is that I'd probably agree with them from time to time, if only their arguments weren't made every time.
My ability to trust is slowly being chipped away.
I understand the current appeal of ultra-conservative religion - the most intolerant mullahs and the the most divisive pastors. They're pushed to be so damned religious in black & white terms because the rest of the world is just so bad and selfish. Even if it's just for show, at least it's a way to take a stand.
Rather than being the person told they're told to be, they shove off in their own ark, to show God, and more importantly, others - that they aren't like the rest. To be "Holy," I suppose, which really just means "Set apart."
I find it hard during prayer to keep everyone quiet. I don't care if they're not praying, or if they even believe in a God, Saints, Buddhas, or Enlightenment. I'm just frustrated that they can't even be quiet. I'd like them to at least be the kind of person that would take their hat off and stop chatting at a funeral for a stranger. To be able to recognize that just because they may not care about something - that there's value in reverence for the beliefs of others. I guess I see quiet as a means to that goal. So prayer just becomes getting them quiet. Mass just means being behaved. Being able to be behaved. Mediation means quiet. And the whole thing's been cheapened so much more. And I'm a part of that, because I fall into it.
So it feels like putting on a coat. Becoming a pretend sort of person in order to tell them all to be quiet. To fold your hands and flare around the room, as the loudspeaker describes a love that extends to all humans. In a giant circle of logic, as this same scene plays out in room after room through all the hallways, maybe that's why it all feels like bullshit to them. Perhaps.
It's an odd thing, deciding to have power over others. And I think this is the real reason why I must leave. It's down to eighteen weeks until the final bell, and it's becoming seductively sweeter to stay another year. Where else could I have so much power?
So it's about the change taking place. This feeling not of value but of importance. "Teachers shape the future," yet we are no martyrs, we're just people caught up in a job, slowly changing, and part of us are slowly dying, giving birth to new ideas and realities of who we really are.
This is not always a place of education, ideas, and ideals. This is not always just a school. For most, it's just work. Some place to put in the hours, and for others to work their ways up from a teacher, to a chair, to an administrator.
Because of this, I live as far away from the school as I can. I drive 40 minutes without traffic, waking up at 5:23 every morning. "Why not live closer?" an older teacher chuckles, laughing at youthful preposterousness.
"So I don't have to be Mr. Gracy all day."
The week before I started teaching, I was having dinner with friends to celebrate an upcoming birthday. "What's going to be your persona?" asked Max from across the way. Persona? I figured I'd just teach.
He smiled and shook his head while he explained the need for teachers to play certain characters. And so began Mr. Gracy. In class, I smile about 4 times a year. When a kid asks what I'm doing over the weekend, I respond that I'll practice teaching class. I tell the kids that I live on the 3rd floor of the G Building, that I don't have any friends, and that my grandma drives me to work. Basically, that I don't have a life. Which is what they want to think, and will think - no matter what I tell them. So I just fill in the blanks. I pretend to try and relate to them with references to rap groups, and talk of the evils of public schools. When they ask me about it, I just stare vacantly out the window like I'm traumatized.
Sometimes I'm not sure if they know I'm joking.
My only hope is that at the point of my departure that I'm not so terribly different from the person I was when I went in. My biggest fear is that the bitterness, the power, the necessary hostility, and the lack of ability to trust won't be so easily shaken. I don't want to be the person I am between the hours of 7:00am and 3:00pm, office hours included.
I wish I could just be Charlie.
To be able to walk into a room of thirty some people and just be nice and pleasant. Trusting and unreserved. Without any responsibility of detentions or moral, ethical, or cognitive formation; to not have any say in how colleges will evaluate the other person. In short, I'd rather not have students.
But still, with eighteen weeks to go, when I think real hard, I can still realize that they're all okay. Even the jerks and rude ones are all right. They're just people trying the best they can, and when they're rude it's because they don't have much power over their own lives. And they're trapped in a school, just like me. But remembering that is getting harder - like those last moments of sobriety, when if you concentrate as hard as you can, you can still convince yourself that maybe you're not drunk after all.