Tuesday, April 2, 2013
And Gladly Teach? Not I, Not at First.
A surprise came in the mail yesterday. (See image.) A certificate, sort of. Something to frame? (Probably not--we're "downsizing.") An "award" from Phi Delta Kappa, the education honorary.
But don't be impressed. Here's why I got it: I've paid my dues for forty consecutive years. So maybe I'll be getting certificates soon from, oh, Allstate and Dominion East Ohio Gas and BP and AMEX and other outfits who have gladly cashed my checks for many decades now.
Of course, PBK is an honorary society, and I was thrilled when I was inducted forty years ago. I remember thinking at the time that it was a story worthy of some coverage from Walter Cronkite. I think I also remember that, for a while, I wore the little lapel emblem I received. Sounds like the me of Back When. In my family, it was my two brothers who generally won the awards (except for athletic ones, which I was able to "earn" only because I attended a tiny high school), so when a few came my way, later on, I elevated them and started imagining my face on Mt. Rushmore.
The irony of all of this? I didn't even want to teach, not really. I'd fulfilled the requirements for an Ohio teaching certificate only because my parents--alarmed at my undergraduate, uh, "achievements"--urged me to do so. Dad put it succinctly: "It'll give you something to fall back on."
Okay. So I did it. Took the courses. Did the student teaching (West Geauga High School, 11th grade English, winter of 1965-66). Got the certificate.
But my goal was to go to grad school in English--or, even better, American Studies. Virtually all my close friends were going to graduate or professional schools. That was my plan, too. So I applied a few places. Got in at the University of Kansas (they had an Amer Studies program leading to a Ph.D.)--but when no fellowship or scholarship materialized, I knew it was time to "fall back on" something. Teaching.
I should say that I was disappointed but not at all surprised at the failure of scholarship dollars to flow my way. I had messed up, big time, the spring quarter of my junior year. I visited classes occasionally only to see if they were still meeting in the same room. I turned in papers late. Read a few of the assigned books. (Stayed up late. Slept late.) I drifted around campus in daffy, desultory fashion, thinking with the surpassing self-delusion of youth that I had all the time in the world. My friends looked at me as if I were possessed. My parents despaired. Not I! College is awesome! My spring grades were not awesome--though the aw- part fits (I didn't fail anything--though I probably should have.) And that ended my grad school plans for the nonce--even though I recovered strongly my senior year.
I applied for two jobs. One in Garrettsville, where my mother had taught for the previous ten years. Another in Aurora. Aurora called first with an offer to teach seventh graders. I leapt for it like a goosed goose. $5100 a year sounded like a fortune to me. (I soon learned a sadder truth.) Teaching jobs in 1966, by the way, were as plentiful as April snowflakes in Ohio today. If your breath could steam a cold mirror, you could teach.
I had sort of liked my student teaching--but had never worked so hard in my life. I was glad when it was over. I was exhausted. Real Life was not looking all that desirable. All that work. All day, evenings, weekends, holidays. All I did was read and grade and prepare and despair (now and then). And ... I had to wear a suit every day--with a tie! And when I heard "Mr. Dyer," I was still looking around to see who was talking to my dad. A lot of my students were bigger than I, and I was only four years older than the girls in my classes. I spent some time slapping my imagination upside the head those months I was in West Geauga.
At Aurora, I made an astonishing discovery. And I made it very quickly. I loved teaching. I loved middle school kids. The days, weeks, months, years, decades flew by. Along the way, I went back to grad school, earned a master's and doctorate, met and married Love herself, sired a son, and went to work almost every day looking forward to what was going to happen. I retired in January 1997 only because the State of Ohio had started exhibiting the early green shoots of its Testing Madness that's now in full flower. I wanted no part of it.
I took a few years off, researching and writing a YA biography of Mary Shelley, then, in 2001, returned to the classroom at Western Reserve Academy, two blocks from my house, where, once again, I fell in love with my students (11th graders) and my job. Health was the principal reason I retired--again--in the spring of 2011. I miss the students. A lot.
In some ways I cannot retire. I'm still reading books related to the works I no longer teach. I still clip-and-file stuff from the New York Times and other publications--things to show the students I no longer have. Facebook has become my classroom. (Good news for students: They can easily turn me off now!)
In the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales appear those famous lines about the clerk from Oxford. The narrator says this about him (I'm pasting a translation from Middle English):
Philosopher he was, and yet his coffer Had little of the gold that it should offer. But all that from his friends he could acquire He spent on books and learning, didn't tire 300 Of praying for the souls of all those who Would give to help him see his schooling through, For study was the foremost thing he heeded. He never spoke one word more than was needed, And then he spoke with formal reverence; 305 He'd make it short but make a lot of sense. Of highest moral virtue was his speech, And gladly he would learn and gladly teach.
I've learned to see these lines as something of an ideal--one I sometimes reached, sometimes failed to reach. But I think--overall--my forty-five years of "falling back" are gracefully summarized in that final line--for gladly did I learn, and gladly did I teach.