I really didn’t want to be a high school teacher, but Mama had to eat.
In 1988, I graduated with an MA in Business and Technical Writing from Iowa State University. I received an extended temporary appointment at the college as a full time instructor, because Tech Writing teachers were in short supply in 1988. At the same time, the man I married in 1987 was teaching chemistry at a doomed school that we knew was going to close. He went out to find a new job, and find one he did in Audubon, Iowa.
Audubon. Named after the famous bird guy, and also home of the world’s largest concrete bull, Albert. Occasionally, the rival town Exira would send people to Audubon to emasculate Albert, so his bull features were steel-rod enforced. Audubon and Western Iowa was serious about the beef industry. When Bryon started working at Audubon in 1990, I could see the writing on the wall. We were in the middle of no where, and we weren’t moving to where I might be able to get an MA job. So, I wisely decided to get my high school certificate, do some student teaching, and after a semester of off sequence graduation and substituting, I too landed a job at Audubon in 1991.
I taught the most rotten group of sophomores imaginable during my first year of hazing. (As anyone can tell you, a new teacher during their first year anywhere, is hazed.) Now, I was a good teacher. I had awards to prove it. The best thing that teaching high school taught me was to deal with my ego in this regard. And as time progressed, these rotten sophomores didn’t get better, exactly, but we understood each other more. I also taught 7th graders and juniors and seniors.
There were a lot of bad things about teaching high school, but there was no substitute for watching your kids grow up. I cared about my students. We talked about everything. I wanted them to think about their educations, and like about a billion English teachers in the 1990s, I showed them Dead Poet’s Society to talk about literature, and extending the scope of your life beyond your job. Some kids clicked with the movie. Other kids, well, you know, it was another assignment.
I was 26. The character Robin Williams portrayed in that film touched me for two reasons: the obvious personal one, that you wanted to be that teacher, the teacher that students listened to, that they hung on every word of, and the less personal one, that Robin Williams took his place as a serious actor. Both were significant to me. To be honest, as much as I admired Williams, it was Keating and I that had the conversation. It took place every year I was at Audubon, at 26, at 27, at 28. What does it mean to be educated? What does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to truly live? What do you want from your life?
I was rewarded by moments with my students, but to say I was a happy high school teacher is a bit of a stretch. If it had just been me and the students, I would have been content. But seniority dictated that speech teachers taught college composition prep, when I had taught college composition for 4 semesters in my previous life and had training. The school supported a conservative community that tried to veto one of my books for 7th grade literature for 3 years. There were no opportunities to advance, to travel, to be professionally stimulated. High school teachers are locked in a building for 8 hours a day, subjected to the petty whims of administrators who are often not very good at what they do, sinking to the maturity levels of their students because they don’t get a lot of contact with adults.
That’s harsh. I know everyone’s experience is different. These are the pieces of the job that my husband complains about. The truth of the matter is that not only was the environment limited, I was not good in this environment. I wanted my students to think and see in different ways. I wanted my students to understand the scope of the world. I gave As to remedial writing students when they earned them, and Fs to students who failed to follow the assignments, regardless of whether they were the department head’s pet or not. I wanted to challenge minds.
And…maybe I was not a good fit.
Unlike Mr. Keating, I was not fired. I quit. I had almost talked myself into quitting and returning to school the year before I resigned, but several parents in the community had discovered that I was a good teacher, and they talked me into staying. The critical issue was The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. Immense pressure to not teach the book, a blackmailing administrator, and the principled belief that I could not stay in a school where my (future) children could not be taught such an important book, all these were the reasons I threw my shoulders back and left. It was such a big deal at the time. Years later, I know it was an unintentional gift. I would have been a miserable career teacher in the secondary system.
I always joked with my friends at the time that if I had known I would clear so much swag, I would have quit my first year. I received roses from my classes. I autographed copies of The Chocolate War and sent them home with the current crop of sophomores, the ones whom I had taught before now graduating seniors. The little dears invited me to speak at their graduation. In the end, I think we connected because they recognized the rebel teacher, like they recognized the rebel in themselves. Of course, their request was NOT granted, probably a wise and diplomatic decision, if not also the decision of a gutless wonder who bent to community whim. 😛
The school ironically pulled the offending book from library shelves, but left the sequel out. Christian groups suggest To Kill a Mockingbird as a good substitute. Anything that subverts the conservative agenda is okay with me!
What happened that I will always remember was when members of Basic Writing, what I thought lovingly of as Combat Writing, all stood on their desks when I left. “Captain. My Captain.” They were sophomores when I came, and seniors when I left. The movie I thought had not touched those kids turned out to have stayed with them, and there we were.
Robin Williams died of depression. He will never know what his work meant to me. At that time, at that moment, it meant everything. It was my existence. It was my life. It was my final chapter at Audubon, and a new beginning. “Thank you, boys.”
Thank you, Robin.