A while ago I got into conversation with a former student of mine. You see, way back in the late 1960s, through the mid-1970s, I was a high school teacher of English and history. It was a good gig, and it served me well – for a time. Then I moved on.
“Why did you leave teaching?” asked the pleasant middle-aged woman whom I remembered with fondness from my pedagogical days. “Was it because of us?”
I assured her that students did not fit into the equation of why I left teaching, and that why I left was for countless other reasons.
“That’s a relief,” she said. “We always really liked you, and I always hoped we hadn’t driven you out. And I was sorry when I had heard you left a couple of years after I graduated, because I thought you were one of the good ones.”
Flattered and gratified by the conversation, I got back to pondering the question of my departure from a chosen profession. I think, when it came down to it, it wasn’t really my ‘chosen’ profession at all, and that was why I pulled the pin.
In truth, I left because I hated school I hated school even when I was a teacher.
I did like the process of teaching. I liked the idea of imparting at least a semblance of wisdom, and maybe even a few life-skills in my young charges. I was very fond of the kids, and I still enjoy the company of adolescents. I find them funny, and sometimes enlightening when I get too set in my ways. For a time I had a teenaged stepdaughter and I found her dynamic and that of her friends to be more fun than problematic.
Colleagues were a little bit of my problem when I taught. Some of them I liked and respected a great deal, and still include them among my friends. Others, I either regarded with no feelings one way or another, and a few I detested. They reminded me too much of the teachers I had loathed when I was in school.
But, at the end of the day, my problem with being part of the public school system was ‘me’. The me part was all about having been in school for every year of my life since age six, and there I was, still there. Surely that didn’t resemble progress of a personal nature. Albeit I was getting paid for being there, and I could smoke in the staffroom rather than the boys’ room, but it was still school.
And, my own screwed up memories of school were so primal that when another teacher yelled at a class across the hall, I would feel uneasy, maybe even guilty, too. Therefore, how did I, feeling the way I did, end up being a teacher. Easy, and the impulse was ninety percent venal.
I had emerged from university with a Bachelor of Arts degree and I had no place to go. And, I was broke. I had been broke for years, and I was weary of being broke. So, I weighed my options in the balance.
I could have gone on to law school, for example. My grandfather was an accomplished barrister and he could have pulled strings and gotten me in with a good firm when it became time to article. But, I somehow didn’t see myself as a lawyer, pin-stripe suits and sucking up to people I found distasteful. I mean, I was young and it was the ‘60s, so my values were a little different (thought not entirely different) from what they are now. In retrospect, I probably wouldn’t have minded the law. In fact, in semi-reactionary middle age, I would like to be a hard-hitting prosecutor, even though the touchiest and feeliest of lawyers end up being defence attorneys, and then end up on the federal Supreme Court, the bastion of all the most breastbeating and marshmallow-soft members of the profession.
Regardless of all, law did not seem like a serious option at the time.
I could have gone to grad school and, if I had an aspiration at the time, that of being a perpetual crusty academic sort of appealed to me. Lots of tweeds and corduroy jackets, and hot-blooded and toothsome young coeds eager to share their nubile charms for a good grade. It was a pleasing consideration. I even had a couple of professors who expressed willingness to sponsor me in a masters program. But then, that old question of poverty reared its ugly head.
There was the corporate world. But again, the ‘60s thing, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. I don’t mean to suggest I was particularly radical in my sensibilities, and was the farthest thing from being a hippie, but the crass and calculating corporate world? Throughout my university years I had worked summers in a plywood mill that was owned by one of the significant forest companies on the British Columbia scene at the time. At the end of my last summer there, our plant manager approached me, knowing that I had just graduated from university. He asked me what my plans were. I told him I was wavering among a few options.
“Well,” he said, “You’ve worked here for four summers. You’ve worked hard, and we like the way you work, and your intelligence and attitude. We have a junior executive stream with this company, and we’d really like you to consider it. We didn’t keep you employed all those summers just out of generosity, but also because we thought you had potential. Think about it.”
I thought about it, but not for long enough. I passed it off, and went back in my mind to the idea of teaching. Shortly thereafter I decided on following that direction. I only had to put in one more year on campus to get there, and when I had completed a program (that turned out to be almost insultingly easy) I would actually be able to earn some money, and would even be able to call myself as professional – of sorts.
My decision to go a-teaching wasn’t quite as unfounded as you might think. There was a philosophical motivation behind it all. It was a consideration that suggested school should not be as I had found it. I did not want to perpetuate the flawed and distasteful system of my experience, but wanted to create for my students something ‘new’. Of course, I am certain there has never been a thoughtful pending teacher who did not feel exactly the same as I did.
What I believed was that there was nothing wrong with education per se, and that any form of schooling has intrinsic value, but somehow it should be more palatable and inspiring. That had not been the case with my schooling. We were too often in my day taught by jaded and bitter folk, underpaid and underappreciated and not genuinely caring a sweet goddamn about the experience of their clients; the kids. Either that, or they were petty, anal martinets driven to tyrannizing children because they were not brave enough to confront actual grownups. Sweeping generalizations of course, but even from this viewpoint, I believe there is some validity to be found therein. Yes, I had some good teachers in my school days, but they were rare enough to still, in my memory, be deemed aberrations from the general pedagogical cattle auction.
So, I thought the experiences of ‘my’ students should be more palatable. I should make it taste better. I wanted my students to not despise what they were doing. I wanted them to want to be there. I didn’t care so much if they liked me, but I did care if they didn’t like what they were doing. I also wanted to see that the true potential of my students was recognized by me, and that I wasn’t conned by the ‘good kids’, as too many teachers are.
You know the good kids. They are always “all in their places with sunshiny faces”. They are moderately bright, they look and smell nice, and they are enjoyable company. They run for student council, and win. They play sports. They lead cheers. They are a built-in school chamber-of-commerce and boosterism brigade, and they ‘peak’ at the age of seventeen or so. They are every teacher and administrator’s dream.
But then there are the other kids. They are the kids that Ally Sheedy played in The Breakfast Club, adrift in a sea of Molly Ringwalds. They slump in the back, collars turned up to obscure their faces, and they jest barely get by, or get by not at all. Those are the kids I wanted to reach. Those are the original souls who actually might be able to solve the world in a better way than the piss-poor efforts being made by all the ‘good kids’ who would be left in charge.
So, I went teaching. English and history, as I said. I found it wearing and tiresome at times, but I still liked it, and certainly never found it as challenging and displeasing or demanding of anywhere near as much from me as strident unionist teachers would have the public believe. I have had much more challenging and thankless jobs, at lesser pay. But, I digress a little bit.
And so I went, down all my years at it, working hard to make it work for them; and for me.
Eventually, after eight years, and here I must be candid, I got tired of it. It no longer was working for me, and all aspects of my being suggested it was time for me to graduate finally. It was time to do something else. Something in the ‘real’ world of grownups. I’ve never regretted my decision to leave, although I confess I wouldn’t mind, by my age, having that big fat pension payment coming in each month.