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 didn’t like. I didn’t enjoy forcing human beings who had no choice to read Shakespeare and Ovid. John Holt, my favorite education writer, reminds us teachers that our students’ alternative to coming to school is going to jail. When they enjoy a lesson, they might actually be enjoying the lesson, or they might be thinking, “At least it’s better than jail!”
What else not to like about teaching? The rudeness of some students, the resistance, the refrains of “This is boring” and “When will I ever use this?” Resentful, rude, embittered parents occasionally made my life miserable. Such parents are in the minority, but sometimes they set the tone for the 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. They’re supposed to be fun, but to me seemed 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 didn’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 – endless grading and students’ recalcitrance (it being a required course). But mostly the kids at CSU were polite and hardworking and friendly, and even, sometimes, eager – unlike many of the sullen suburbanites I’d been used to. 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 – 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 they’re willing to go on, reading Vergil or Ovid or Cicero with me.
I just now 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 Vergil’s elaborate similes, and his convoluted syntax. We argue over whether a phrase is an ablative absolute or dative case.
It’s nerdy as hell, but so what? I’m in my ideal teaching situation. Small classes. Great literature. Engaged, hardworking, and friendly students – lovely, interesting, smart people. Freedom to teach as I like. Today I explained that “digitus infamis” 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.
I’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.