Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Year One? Ain't No Fun! (Part 2)
I knew virtually nothing about boarding schools when Joyce and I began teaching in one in the fall of 1979. I'd read A Separate Peace. I'd seen some movies. And one crazy kid in my generation at Hiram had gone to Western Reserve Academy. My friends and I thought he was insane.
In the fall of 1979, I would turn 35 years old. I had thirteen years of teaching experience. I had a Ph.D. I had some publications. I thought I was pretty hot stuff. A few days/weeks of boarding school life cured me of that daffy notion.
That first year we lived in a nice school-owned house across Rt. 91 from Western Reserve Academy. An easy walk. But that was the only easy thing about that year. I taught only three classes (with 12-15 students per class)--normal load for an English teacher--but the department required that each student write a substantial essay every single week. Do the math. Forty students times, oh, twenty minutes to grade each essay = 13.3 hours of essay grading per week. Just for a single assignment!
I had two different classes--frosh and juniors--and I had never taught high school English before. The freshmen read The Odyssey and a Shakespeare play and numerous other things--plus an "outside reading" book each of the five marking periods. The juniors read Hamlet, some of the Greek tragedies--and "outside reading," too. I hadn't read any of that stuff since college; I'd never taught it (the thought of teaching Shakespeare terrified me). Oh, and there was a required 200-word vocabulary list. And other books. All of which my students had to believe I knew about. I spent many dark hours reading and readying for those classes--trying to be prepared enough that the students would think I knew what I was doing.
But these were just some of the academic requirements. I also had to coach two seasons (I did girls' tennis in the fall, boys' in the spring). I had dormitory duty one night a week: I patrolled a girls' dorm from 7-11 p.m., making sure that the girls were working, making sure that Freddy Krueger did not come charging through, razor-gloves slashing away. Etc.
I also had academic committees and faculty meetings.
Oh, and dining hall. In those days, WRA served family-style meals at lunch and dinner (for which we had to dress up--coat and tie--Monday-Friday). Joyce and I had to "host" a table two meals a day, five days a week.
Every so often we also had a weekend assignment, too--a dance or something to chaperon.
After several weeks of this I complained to my department chair, Tom Davis: Even God rested one day! Tom, who would become a great friend, replied: You're not God.
No truer words ever spoken.
I felt like an idiot for weeks--no, months. The kids used words I didn't know (mode, transpo); they referred to campus buildings by nickname (The A was the Athenaeum); they wore Bean boots (clothing I'd never seen or heard of). They knew--with a depth it would take me a long time to learn--the difference between what the rules say and what they mean. They balanced confidently on the very thin dress code wire. The boys knew how far they could loosen their ties, allow their shirts to sneak loose; the girls knew how short their skirts could be, etc.
It took me a while, as well, to adjust to the school's grading system. No letter grades. Just a scale of 1-7 (low to high). The school gave me a sheet that said a 4 was an average grade. So in my early essay grading I gave a passel of 4's. May I say that those grades did not endear me to my students? An earnest delegation of kids came down to my house one night the second week or so to let me know that 4's were not the average grade; 5's were. Oh. I smiled and made nice. And gently revised my standards.
Overall, though, the kids were great. The frosh were generally terrified (lonely and homesick), so I had no trouble relating to them. I was terrified and lonely and homesick, too. And in my one class of juniors, I lucked out. They were bright and cooperative. Well ... mostly. When we were doing Hamlet, I required them to memorize x lines of any of his soliloquies (I forget the exact number). One young man memorized exactly that many from the "rogue and peasant slave" speech, stopping his effort in mid-sentence. I kind of admired that--though it pissed me off, too.
At the end of the year, I was more exhausted than I'd ever been in my life. But I'd also had a very good time ... after I figured a few things out. I'd started doing some dumb "lunch-time rhymes" that the kids would read during lunch-time announcements (Turkey, turkey, turkey, / What have they done to you / To make your lovely body / Secrete that yellow goo?). I'd done the first of my Chapel talks (about the movie The Exorcist). I'd written a series of satirical skits with kids--and seen it produced: WRA and Peace. We had made some great, life-long friends.
But Joyce and I decided that year that we would ask if we could divide a single job for the 1980-81 academic year. Both of us were nursing our infant writing ambitions; we both wanted more time to write. The school went for it, and the next year we shared a job and danced on the edge of poverty ... but that's another story.
TO BE CONTINUED