Years ago, I taught high-school English and Latin. Sometimes it was fun: students were lively and silly and often sweet, and I enjoyed teaching literature and, yes, even grammar. But there was a lot I didnâ€™t like. I didnâ€™t enjoy forcing human beings who had no choice to read ShakespeareÂ and Ovid. John Holt, my favorite education writer, reminds us teachers that our studentsâ€™ alternative to coming to school is going to jail. When they enjoy a lesson, they mightÂ actually be enjoying the lesson, or they might be thinking, â€œAt least itâ€™s better than jail!â€
What else not to like about teaching? The rudeness of some students, the resistance, the refrains of â€œThis is boringâ€ and â€œWhen will I ever use this?â€ Resentful, rude, embittered parents occasionally made my life miserable. Such parents are in the minority, but sometimes they set the toneÂ for theÂ school year.
I hated giving demerits for uniform violations, hated checking hall passes, hated not letting kids go to the restroom. I hated monitoring study halls. I hated the glowering of another teacher when, for example, I allowed students to talk during a raucous pep rally. In fact, I hated pep rallies. Theyâ€™re supposed to be fun, butÂ to me seemedÂ like loud worship services for hulking adolescent males.
I quit teaching with both relief and regret when my son was about to enter first grade, over twenty years ago — glad to leave behind the nasty parents and the five-paragraph essays, but sorry that I might never teach again. Because the actual teaching I liked. It was the testing and the rules and the behavioral objectives I didnâ€™t like.
Eventually my kids got older, and our bank account diminished, and I started teaching Freshman English at Cleveland State. It had some of the trials of my previous teaching experience â€“ endless grading and studentsâ€™ recalcitrance (it being a required course). But mostly the kids at CSU were polite and hardworking and friendly, and even, sometimes, eager â€“ unlike many of the sullen suburbanites Iâ€™d been used to.Â And no parents! I never had to deal with an irrational parent! So, I felt lucky. I got to return to teaching without the travails of high school â€“ no lesson plans, no extra duties, no meetings. Also, basically no money, but that was okay.
Then I got even luckier. I slipped into teaching Latin at CSU. I had assumed, for sure, I had left Latin behind. But now, I could start from scratch with my own students every fall and introduce them to the beauty, aggravation, silliness, and maniacal order of classical Latin. Every year, a few students hang on. They finish a second year, and then theyâ€™re willing to go on, reading Vergil or Ovid or Cicero with me.
I just nowÂ left a group of them. They struggle through their hundred lines of the Aeneid. We laugh about the Trojan hero Aeneas crying all the time, and Vergilâ€™s elaborate similes, and his convoluted syntax. We argue over whether a phrase is an ablative absolute or dative case.
Itâ€™s nerdy as hell, but so what? Iâ€™m in my ideal teaching situation. Small classes.Â Great literature. Engaged, hardworking, and friendly students â€“ lovely, interesting, smart people. Freedom to teach as I like. Today I explained that â€œdigitus infamisâ€ describes the middle finger; it had a bad rep even then. I showed how the word molecule and the scientific term mole both come from the Latin word for mass, or mound. I recounted some deeds of the Trojan War and the curse of the House of Atreus, but my students knew more about the myths than I did.
Iâ€™m so lucky. I thought I would never teach again, but instead I have this gift. For these few years, however long it lasts, I love my job.