Last week, I received several emails congratulating me on my recent retirement. Luckily, none of them was from my place of employ.
How did that rumor ever get started? Simple. In last week's column I said I was now eligible for Social Security. I didn't mean I intended to collect it - at least not now. Instead, I meant to show how young I was when I started teaching, and how fast those 39 years flew by. It was something I thought I'd said clearly, but was easy enough to misunderstand nonetheless.
Then again, it's easy to understand the most obvious things, and my first semester as a teacher is a perfect example.
Staggering and stumbling
When I got the job, I also had one big problem - I'd never taught before.
A little note about teaching: Nothing can prepare you for it, except teaching. Thinking you can teach because you've been a student for 20 years is as arrogant and misguided as thinking that because you've been a passenger in 747's for 20 years you can fly the darned things. In both cases, you're headed for a major crash and burn.
I had a vague notion this was true but no real understanding of it till my first class. I went in, introduced myself, and began my soliloquy about the Wonderful World of English Composition. I knew it'd be brilliant, since I'd rehearsed it repeatedly. I also knew it'd last the whole 55 minutes of the class, since it had in rehearsals.
The only problem was in my rehearsals I'd addressed a class in my imagination who were hanging on my every word, fascinated by my knowledge, wit and wisdom. The real class, I discovered almost as soon as I started speaking, cared not a whit for anything I was saying. And I don't blame them, since I was so nervous I was talking at warp speed. I was also sweating in a solid stream that I thought was flooding my shoes.
Finally, I finished my incoherent babbling and asked if there were any questions. Predictably, there were none, so I did the only thing I could - I dismissed the class. Then I sagged on the desk, tried to get my breathing under control, and checked the time. I'd lasted a grand total of seven minutes. That was the auspicious beginning of my teaching career.
I'd like to say I figured things out and had it all under control in short order, but that's a lie. The sad truth is I staggered and stumbled on, clueless. But at least I wasn't friendless. My department head, Mr. Allen, stood by me the whole time.
Mr. Allen was in his mid-50s, a man of average height and looks, but exceptional in every other way. He'd been a flight engineer on B-29s in the Pacific during WWII. Then after the war, he'd worked all kinds of jobs. He'd been a carpenter and contractor; he'd even spent two years alone in a fire tower atop some wilderness mountain.
When he was 35, he went to college; after he graduated, he went into the Peace Corps and taught English in Ethiopia for two years. He got married when he was 40, had his only child when he was 45. Almost immediately, his wife manifested a severe case of Multiple Sclerosis and was confined to a wheelchair. He worked full-time and took care of his wife and daughter by himself, and most amazingly I never heard him complain once.
On top of all that, he spent a lot of time and effort helping me learn some of the basics of teaching. He was never condescending or dogmatic, and always gave advice in a low-key, unobtrusive way.
"You know," he'd say, "something that I find that helps students learn conciseness is teaching them the precis. It's a British technique, and while many people think it's the same as a summary, it's not."
"Sounds great," I said. "What is it?"
"Well, I've got this book on it. Want to borrow it?"
"Sure," I said.
Then I took his book, studied it inside and out, took voluminous notes, wrote up exercises, and presented it to my classesor at least attempted to. The painful reality is, while I read all the stuff in the book, I really didn't understand it. Mr. Allen said a prcis wasn't a summary; the book said a prcis wasn't a summary; I told my students a prcis wasn't a summary. But all the while it looked like a summary to me.
And so it went, week after painful week. The low point of my first semester was a
Friday night. I was lying on the couch, completely wiped out from a week's gauntlet running, and a sudden realization hit me: At that point I'd exhausted everything I'd ever known or ever could know about teaching English composition. Not only did I not know where to proceed, I didn't even know how to proceed. And, nightmare upon nightmare, I still had nine weeks left in the semester.
Almost finished at the finish
Obviously, I somehow finished that semester, though I've no idea how. That experience, like all major traumas and disasters, has spared me its details, leaving me only with a vague sense that I was once a first-semester teacherand I survived.
I do remember after the semester ended, Mr. Allen came into my office, with a big smile on his face. He held out his hand.
"Son," he said, "let me congratulate you."
"Why?" I said, shaking his hand. "I was terrible. I had no idea what I was doing. I was a lousy teacher."
He shrugged nonchalantly.
"Maybe," he said. "But you exceeded all our expectations."
"How could I have?" I asked, confused.
"You kept the SOBs in their seats, and you finished the semester standing. With the load we stuck you with, we were afraid the first week or so we'd find you in some corner, tucked in a fetal position."
He finished shaking my hand and gave me a slap on the shoulder and a manly head nod and left.
Some people might've taken what he said as an insult, but as far as I was concerned, I'd just been officially declared Teacher of the Year.