I’m outside my portable classroom with my brand-spanking-new students to review the material we’ve just gone over. It’s a good lesson, creative, because it gets the kids up and about, but having to do with the task at hand. That’s how I roll: Reach them, teach them.
But when I ask for a choral response, all I get is “Huhs?” and “Whats?” and looks stuck somewhere between confused and just plain “I don’t give a dang.” After all these years, I’ve ended up with a class of freshmen zombies, The First Period of the Living Dead.
I raise my voice a few decibels, but I might as well be speaking to the proverbial wall. Nothing I do works. In fact, I start getting pushback.
“This is boring,” declare a few snarky fishes.
And then my “favorite” insult comes from some lump slouching against his homies: “This is so gay!”
Derisive laughter rises from the throng. I can feel my blood pressure rising as well, sweat pouring from under my arms like a tap’s been opened. I’m ready to wade into the middle of them and take no prisoners.
Then I wake up. Damn, another anxiety dream. A former colleague warned me that when he retired the same thing happened to him. That first year he was plagued with multiple dreams, all set in his former classroom.
After all, this will be the first year in a quarter-century that I’ll not be wearing down carpet or linoleum to threadbare church-mouse thickness, cajoling, proctoring, mentoring — in other words, teaching — a bevy of high school students.
Of course, no one is more surprised than I am that I actually made 25 years as a high school teacher. There are some who were born to teach. I just wasn’t one of them.
I didn’t get into teaching because I had an overwhelming desire to be around teenagers. In fact, just the opposite was true. I figured I could stand the little punks until something better came along — if that didn’t take too long. But the truth is, as the years went on, I began to feel truly blessed by being around so many fine young men and women.
I’ll always remember my first year, 1988, at Stroman High School in Victoria, Texas, awaiting the usual baptism of fire reserved for new teachers. But before I could even do that, I had to go through mind-bogglingly boring in-services the week before school. The labors of Hercules were a cinch by comparison.
During that in-service week, I, a college graduate, had parts of the teacher handbook read aloud to me word for word, as if I couldn’t do that myself. On one particularly torture-filled day, I was barred from working in my room because I had to listen to some motivational speaker’s incredibly lame attempts at humor.
And that’s pretty much what every teacher is going through right now. I’m no prognosticator. Who knows if the Rangers will make the playoffs or the Cowboys will soar to a higher level of mediocrity? Not me. But during these first weeks, I do know the anxiety level will be dangerously high for teachers. If you know one, be patient. That person is passing through a circle in hell. It can all work out, usually does, but sometimes that’s hard to believe.
That first year, my last-period class was senior lower-level English. Think Welcome Back, Kotter’s sweathogs, and you’d have a pretty good approximation of the bunch I found waiting for me.
Since it was the ’80s, all the girls had their hair teased up to what looked like a foot or more. They all wore black clothes and globbed on dark eyeliner so thickly they could have auditioned for The Bride of Frankenstein. Yes, my rookie knees were shaking. But as has fortunately happened to me more often than not in my career, I grew to love that class.
In a week, schools all over this area, brimful with anxious teachers and nervous students, will begin. I had 25 years of those high-anxiety beginnings. May this year’s crop of teachers have as much luck and fun as I did.
Ken Wheatcroft-Pardue, a Fort Worth essayist, poet, and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.