It’s somewhat surreal – I was 32 when I stumbled into my first class of high school students, never having taught adolescents before. My teaching experience came from Trident Technical College, a community college that offers vocational training and some associate degree programs. There, many of my students were my age and older, some of them Viet Nam vets who certainly knew much more than I did about certain facts of life.
Classroom management was never a problem, except for that one night in a Developmental Studies class when a young blonde-haired man showed up drunk and red-eyed and started hitting on women in the back of the classroom. At the break, I mentioned to him he couldn’t come to class stoned, and he assured me that the red glazed look in his eyes came from welding all day. Nevertheless, he agreed to quit hitting on the woman.
No, classroom management wasn’t a problem at Tech; the problem there lay in that many students lacked basic academic skills, and I became a decent developmental studies teacher because I came up with some mechanical steps that students could follow in constructing sentences so that their writing wouldn’t mirror their speech.
If a student wrote, “My sister eat at her boyfriend house,” I’d have him find the verb.
“Who eat?” I’d ask.
Then I’d have him plug in a pronoun for the subject. If the pronoun was “he,” “she,” or, “it,” the verb needed an “s”; if the pronoun was “they,” no “s.” Getting him to add an apostrophe “s” for the possessive was a more difficult task, but that was merely a 2-point error versus the 10-point subject/verb disagreement deduction. The final exam consisted of writing a 150-word paragraph with fewer than 30 points of grammatical or mechanical errors. If he passed, he could go on to enter the small engine repair or welding certificate program or take classes for an associate degree.
The vast majority of these students wanted to better themselves, many were receiving GI bill checks, so getting them to pay attention wasn’t a problem. Although the job wasn’t intellectually stimulating, it was rewarding. I felt as if the Dalai Lama would approve.
Fastforward to 1985, my first class of seniors at Porter-Gaud. I asked each on that first day to introduce herself and tell me a little about herself and discovered that among these young scholars sat a “cocaine dealer,” a “Soviet spy,” etc. Whenever one of them offered one of these puerile bits of misinformation, the class erupted in gales of laughter as if Robin Williams stood before them performing a monologue.
The good news is that I was able to rein them in fairly quickly with a couple of scathing, sarcastic counterpunches. No, my problem here was not a lack of academic ability but roiling hormones and the unsettling fact that many of these students were much more intelligent than I when it came to brain circuitry.
The good news is that I was profoundly hipper and knew my stuff when it came to literature and writing. By the end of the year, I hated to see them go.
Next year will mark the 30th year since they graduated from high school, and to me, as I tumble faster and faster down the Great Hour Glass’s avalanche, it seems as if just last month my mother was preparing to go to her 30th high school reunion!
So here I am at the same school teaching the second generation, who are taller and better behaved (but less worldly and mature) than their progenitors, and it’s really eerie how much they can look alike, virtual doppelgängers in some cases.
I do my best not to show them favoritism, but it’s hard.
And to be truthful, I’m feeling the tug of time, feel like Yeats that old age has been tied to me “as a dog’s tail.” I get the feeling that some of the students think of me as ancient, the way they once thought of Blackburn Hughes, a colleague who was the age I am now when I first started teaching, and that it might be easy to pull something on me, the old coot. Even a couple of colleagues occasionally make playful cracks about my age, facetiously asking if I would like to join the faculty track team to challenge the students.
The good news is that I’m still hipper than these 30-something whippersnappers (where were they when I saw Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee perform in the bar where I worked, the Sonny Terry who played with Woody Guthrie on such songs as “Hard Traveling” “Bow Weevil Blues,” and “We Shall Be Free?) and I still know my lit and writing shit, so why not keep on another year or two despite the great demoralization of the bureaucratic technocracy that rules 21st century education, despite the irritating intrusion of a few arrogant fathers and snippy mothers, whom I certainly could teach a thing or two.
What shall I do with this absurdity—
O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog’s tail?
Yeats, “The Tower”