THE FAMILY BUSINESS
Back in the 50s when I went to college, I had not needed to spend much time deciding on a career, but this was not just because I made one of the few accepted choices for women at that time: teaching. No, it was rather that teaching ran in the family, like blue eyes and brown hair.
My great-grandfather, my mother's grandfather, had been headmaster of a school in Norway. My great-grandmother taught in that school. Here in the United States, my father's father graduated with a BA and teaching certificate in the 1890s, a rather unusual happening in rural areas where it was common to teach right out of high school. He loved his chosen profession and soon loved a lady who taught under his direction, but when they married he decided that teaching would not support a family, and so became a farmer, but his teaching continued all his life within his home. He taught me to read when I was five, and one of my best memories is of him in his big leather chair, me on his lap, with a book open in front of us as I read to him for the first time the tale of Billy Goat Gruff.
My mother taught in a one-room schoolhouse before she was married, and there won over the big high school boys by not being afraid of the mouse they had hidden in her desk drawer. Instead she held it gently while turning the experience to a lesson on Robert Burns' poem "To a Mouse." My dearest uncle was first a high school teacher and then a university professor, and so on through the family tree. Teaching, then, seemed a natural for me, though I did succumb to the lure of the stage for a bit, moving to New York to see what would happen.
Fast forward to marriage and a family, and I made my grandfather's decision in reverse. I gave up a career with an insecure income and turned toward, not away from, teaching. And I stayed with it for more than thirty years.
As I neared the age of possible retirement, I looked back on that time spent in the family business. It was a bit like what people imagine the moment before death, having one's life and pieces of others' lives flash in stark relief. And this is some of what and whom I thought about and saw:
One uptight junior high boy, when asked to write about himself and things he wished were different, responded with this statement, and the construction of the sentence spoke as loudly as the words themselves: "Spontaneity was not an attribute I was allowed to fulfill."
Another wished that his mother were more accepting, less critical: "Her tongue was a red pen." I flinched——as he must have many times——and switched to a different kind of pen for my corrections of students' papers after that.
Sometimes students tumbled on truths inadvertently——misspelling led the way. It's hard to find a better description of those early teen years than served up by a girl who did not know how to spell midst: "She seemed to be in the mist of adolescence." Indeed. And a boy whose parents had spoiled him and excused him in his early years, at the same time neglecting to build in confidence that he could handle whatever came up, offered this as an assessment: "When I was a kid I had no preassure." No pressure, yes, but even more important, he had not been assured about his worth before those years when natural doubts enter in——no pre-assure had been part of his bringing up. And he suffered because of it.
Students often have an easier time assessing themselves than teachers have in explaining what keeps them invested in teaching. It's surprisingly difficult to write a true view of oneself and one's profession. It's more fun to think and write of the many students who filled those days and more of your life than you always liked. Teaching can be exhilarating, exciting, humbling. There are moments of wonder and freshness and awe when elements jell and click and everything in the immediate world seems right and true and destined. And then there are those other times when tiredness pervades your being and enters your bones and seems to settle in permanently.
You look back to the beginning, naive years when you were young and pretty and vibrant and the boys all had crushes on you and the girls wanted to walk in your shoes. And now your students have parents younger than you are, occasionally call you "Mother" by mistake or point out your gray hairs and ask when you're going to retire. You get used to children entering your life and leaving it. The lives that crowded in on you, sometimes draining energy needed for your own family, fade away to make way for the new set of talents, problems, joys, tears. Faces and names and memories of decades crowd forward: bright, eager children——now married, divorced, successful, prosaic, conventional, exciting... The lives of some are turning out just as they hoped, like the aspiring writer published in a major magazine when barely out of college, and others are less happy to think about——a girl raped and murdered at a college you helped her fill out an application for; a zesty, young earth mother paralyzed in a car accident; a bubbly life-lover killed in a freak landslide on her honeymoon; a high achieving boy who shocked everyone who knew him by committing suicide shortly before graduation; a girl who traveled five hours to see you who talked nonstop all day before she finally said what she'd come to say, that she was a lesbian and didn't know what to do, and you hope you helped her accept herself and wonder where she is today; and reams and reams of people whose lives you know nothing about. And some occasionally write or show up to see you and say hello and say they miss your classes and ask how you are and do you remember them. And sometimes you do, and sometimes you don't.
So many of them have needed and do need so much, and you want to touch them all in a way that is impossible given the numbers in your classes and the structures of the school system. And you remember reading that a teacher of secondary school children does not teach subject matter so much as she teaches herself, that long after course content is forgotten the core of the teacher remains. And you hope you'll have the sense and the courage to know when your core curriculum is no longer teaching what you feel should be taught, when your time is past, when you should leave the profession for your own sake as well as for the sake of the children to come.
You think of the speech you made once to a graduating class when you talked of teaching as a love relationship and quoted Walt Whitman:
I am the teacher of athletes
He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own
proves the width of my own,
He most honors my style who learns under it to
destroy the teacher
and you would like to feel that again——and not just once in a while. It's too much to ask for always. But it's hard, and you're tired: tired of being a five to five-thirty riser, a nine to ten o'clock retiree, a person never done, never with enough time her own, always seeing the need for a new branch-off to keep alive. The intellectual stimulation in the classroom fades, your physical vigor is harder to replenish, your emotional stamina seems shakier, your desire to develop other parts of yourself, more insistent. Still——there are moments and there are individuals who touch you in a way only students can.
Upset with how precocious thirteen-year-olds are these days, how sexually aware, how blasé about explicit lyrics and movies, your faith is restored in the vulnerable beauty of youth that doesn't change. Today's eighth graders are as moved by the relationships and the life truths in Thornton Wilder's OUR TOWN as were those of yesterday. They still feel it was written for them, giggle in empathy in the Emily/George encounters, feel self-conscious acting out the play in class when they come to the wedding scene——while nonetheless fighting for the chance to play those sweet, universal parts. They then shyly but trustingly write of their personal feelings about life and love. At moments like that they're altogether innocent and lovable, like Emily and George. And they're yours, as well as their own maturing selves.
Yours or not, students are often reluctant to tell you that you've helped, that you are important, that they're glad you were there for them when they needed it. Because of this, when an unexpected thank you is given, you treasure it even more. I still have a poetry exercise turned in to me by one boy——a newcomer to the school who was not fitting in, who was unhappy at home, who was not doing well in his classes. For a combination of reasons he felt comfortable with me and felt I valued him, which I did. The class had been asked to choose a word and then turn it on its head through a progression of related words. This is what he shyly but proudly handed me:
Tell me, in what other profession do you get that kind of reward. No wonder it runs in the family. And no wonder I'm not at all surprised that my daughter, though with brown eyes rather than blue, ended up with those other familial genes, the teaching ones.