The Fringe Benefits of Teaching

old school room

I cringe whenever I encounter anyone cluck-clucking about the plight of teachers, those noble souls who have forsaken the glint and bling of wealth to follow their calling [quiet fanfare]: educating rising generations of young Americans!

I wonder, did a god/intuitive-inner-voice whisper vocation into my high school Spanish teacher’s ear one monumental day in first or second grade after she had plopped her plump seven-year-old self into the seat of one of the tiny desks arranged in rows facing a green board riveted to a concrete wall painted a pale urine-tinged yellow inside of whatever squat penal-red brick elementary school she attended?[1]  Did she hear an inner voice? “Be a teacher!  One day you can wipe the noses of and teach the alphabet to little boys and girls just like you.”

Bet not.

Perhaps my high school Spanish teacher’s decision to enter the profession came later when some energetic young man or woman teaching Español Uno initiated her into the exotic world of piñatas and “La Cucaracha.” This teacher may have inspired the future Sra D____ so that she modeled her life after her mentor’s and became a high school Spanish teacher.

It’s possible.

But more likely, she was very good at Spanish, received positive reinforcement, fell in love with the language, then the culture, so she wanted to study both.  Not talented and/or wealthy enough for the bigtime world of serious postgraduate scholarship, given the choices that lay before her, she took up teaching, the road not less traveled.

No matter what had prompted Sra  D____ to take up teaching, when I suffered through her Spanish II class ( 48 years ago), something had gone wrong with her work ethic. From Michigan, married to a sailor stationed in Charleston, she looked twenty-five or so.  Sour-faced and an acetic-tongued, she plopped down behind her desk each morning, leaned over, and clicked on a tape recorder (one that had to be hand-threaded).

For the entire class period, we echoed in unison the tinny foreign sounds emanating from the machine’s dime-sized speakers.  Cheating on tests was so rampant in her class that a couple of boys audibly hummed the Mission Impossible theme whenever they extracted cheat sheets of conjugations from beneath their artificial alligator belts.

One day a friend, Sharon Mallard, leaned over and whispered, “You could train a chimp to do what she does.  Have it come in every day and turn on the tape recorder.”

James Grafsgaard Gran Flamenco


I don’t mean to imply that many teachers aren’t underpaid, only that some are overpaid and others fairly paid.  For me (albeit underpaid), the fringe benefits of teaching more than compensated for the monetary rewards of professions that demand year round onerous office hours (e.g., law/medicine/engineering) or that deal in the ultimately trivial enterprise of merchandizing non-essentials (e.g. 5000 sq. ft. houses for families of four).

If indeed time is money (rather than time’s being a chain of chemical reactions flashing sentient beings deterministically through a process that ultimately culminates in their demise), then the free time that teachers possess is a treasure trove, not of accumulated cultural artifacts, but of hours of freedom to pursue pleasures – in my case, reading, writing, traveling – pleasures that ideally made me richer in experience and knowledge and therefore theoretically a better teacher.

Because we periodically changed what English classes and grades I taught at my school, my job demanded that every few years I reread Great Expectations, Julius Caesar, Pride and Prejudice, Heart of Darkness, Song of Myself, Steppenwolf, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Hamlet.

The horror, the horror!

As I grew older, I cross referenced my interpretation of those texts with earlier readings, discovered previously unnoticed nuances, explored criticism that might prod me to read something of Nietzsche’s I hadn’t (e.g., Beyond Good and Evil) or something of Jung’s I hadn’t (e.g., “The Difference between Eastern and Western Thinking”)

Of course, grading essays was burdensome; however, at least I was dealing with something I actually love – words – and helping a young person acquire a valuable skill, [i.e., writing (i.e., diction, syntax, logic, illustration, mechanics, etc.)].

As self-serving as it sounds, I wandered into teaching not because I heard a calling (how awful it would have seemed to me at 16 to spend forty more years in high school) or because I particularly liked children (I didn’t), but because I wanted employment that provided me a comfortable living with enough free time to cultivate my own interests.

What I didn’t know when I stumbled into my first classroom at Trident Tech was how much I would enjoy interacting with students.  There I taught ex-cons, single mothers, semi-English-literate Philippine-born Navy veterans, frugal intellectuals, and curious grandmothers.

In the far different situation at Porter-Gaud, my students enriched my life in ways that are too numerous to catalogue.  Of course, I taught a few pains-in-the-ass as well, but I can’t ever remember encountering a former student anywhere (even one who failed senior English and didn’t graduate with his class) who wasn’t glad to see me or I to see him or her.

Moral: Don’t pity teachers; envy them.

[1]One critic* notes: Not only does the sentence effectively capture the visual ugliness of a typical public school setting but also the sheer boredom of school routines, with those dreary participial phrases stretching out like the periods of the day, a Bataan Death March of detail: Oh, when will the sentence, like the school day, ever end?

*I.e., I-and-I


7 thoughts on “The Fringe Benefits of Teaching

  1. Thanks for your share. I’ve grown to see teaching as a responsibility to ensure the students have their basics, multiple experiences through which to soar academically, and consider what they want to do when they grow up, hopefully engaging after school in hobbies and even work/business (small). If I can encourage responsibility, but also the joy of realizing things for themselves, then I’ve done a good job. Each year is a new opportunity.

    • He and She are subjects (i.e. He went to the store.). Him and Her are used this way (The gift was bought for Her.). You never say “Her bought a gift,” or “The house was painted by He.”

  2. You use “he/she” when the pronoun’s antecedent (what it’s taking the place of) is singular and “they” when the antecedent is plural. However, practically everyone uses “they” or “them” even though, strictly speaking, it’s incorrect. In other words, most people would have written “. . . I to see them.” And if everyone does it, it’s okay, because it starts to sound normal whereas correct grammar can sound odd.

  3. In reference to the first footnote, the effect of the mechanics (or lack thereof) really illustrated the point. I recall time slowing the first time reading it now that I have taken a second glance. I guess you create the desired effect on a subliminal level so that the reader’s subconscious catches it. I suppose good writers convey similar techniques that a magician may utilize.

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