Of all the myriad advice I received from friends and family before entering my first year of teaching, one stood out above the others: be prepared to cry.
It wasn’t that I found the warning particularly ominous, nor did it surprise me that some teachers shed tears over the difficulty of their profession. What struck me was the sheer frequency that teachers associated their first year with crying.
“Oh, I’d go home and bawl my eyes out every night my first year,” I recall one teacher friend saying to me at a party once.
“Sometimes I just laid in bed all weekend too overwhelmed to move,” said another.
It’s no wonder the average teaching career spans a measly five years. These poor people are spending all their free time curled into the fetal position, praying for June.
I’ll tell you the same thing I tell my students every year on the first day of school: I never wanted to be a teacher. My parents are both teachers; my brother is a teacher; my grandparents were teachers; my wife is a teacher; her parents were teachers. Me? According to my sixth grade yearbook biography, I wanted to be a writer like Stephen King or quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles. At 34 years old, that’s pretty much still true.
My foray into education happened more by default than anything. I tried my hand at journalism after college, but couldn’t find a newspaper willing to take on anyone, let alone a 21-year-old whose shining accomplishments were a 2.17 GPA and an internship as a feature writer at The Gloucester County Times.
2006 was a strange time in journalism, when the old school newsrooms of the country were in denial about the impending changes to the profession that would come at the hands of the World Wide Web.
“Don’t worry,” said one of my professors, a grizzled Hartford Courant reporter who wore rumpled suits to class and had permanent coffee stains at the corners of his mouth. “They said television would change us in the 50s and again in the 80s, and we’re still standing. This Internet thing isn’t a big deal.”
That’s the advice I paid $110,000 in tuition for. Cue the sad trombone.
I made ends meet by selling guitars on commission, and even toyed with the idea of pursuing a career in retail management. If I kept at it and continued with my 80-hour workweeks, I could pull down 35, maybe even $40k a year.
“Why don’t you just try teaching?” my mom said to me over the phone one night on my way home from another 14-hour shift. “You’d probably be pretty good at it.”
When teachers describe the best parts of their profession, they often laud how satisfying it is to know they’re making a difference in children’s lives, that they’re molding the minds of future generations and preparing them for the world beyond the schoolyard gate. None of that really appealed to me — it seemed like the type of things starry-eyed idealists said when they joined the Peace Corps or devoted their lives to rebuilding huts in some village that lacked potable water. A student once gave me a coffee mug for Christmas that read Teachers are like candles: they consume themselves to light the way for others. Consume themselves? Good god. I pictured myself as a candle, my hair on fire, melting away like the Nazis in Indiana Jones while in the background a couple of teenagers giggled at a YouTube video of a cat walking on its hind legs.
The thing that actually convinced me to teach was when I realized I would be paid to stand in front of people every day and listen to myself talk. As any performer will tell you, there’s no better feeling than when a crowd hangs on your every word, but this audience would be captive in the literal sense of the word. Federal law required them to listen to me, and if they didn’t they’d have to take the course again and again until they did. There’s a certain amount of egotism required of an effective public speaker, and since I never had a problem being the center of attention, I figured it would be a natural fit.
Turns out that getting a job as an English teacher isn’t as easy as it seems. Apparently, every lit major on the planet abandons their lofty goal of translating the lost works of Proust or joining the ranks of Whitman and Ginsburg, and they settle for spending their Sunday afternoons trying not to spill Franzia on their stack of persuasive essays about school uniforms. The first time I approached an assistant principal about a potential position in her English department, she asked me where I got my master’s degree. I told her I didn’t have one, but did have a journalism degree from the University of Maryland.
“Oh,” she said, making an attempt to wrestle her lips into a polite smile. “Well…it was nice meeting you.”
I drifted around for a year as a substitute teacher, taking every job I could, weaseling my way into lunch conversations in the teachers’ lounge, trying to make an impression. I applied for several openings at the local high schools but never got a call back.
And that was when I discovered the two magic words that threw open every locked door in the state:
There is such a vacuum for special education teachers, administrators are forced to all but collar people off the sidewalk to fill slots. Logically speaking, you assume school leaders would want to assign positions to teachers based on their skill level. Special education students, who are often reluctant learners and have trouble overcoming their disabilities, require the greatest level of skill from their teachers in order to be successful.
But what administrators actually do is let the inmates run the asylum. Most talented teachers want to teach the talented kids, meaning they get assigned the honors and advanced placement courses. The special ed kids who need the most help?
Well, they get me.
After applying for more than a dozen English positions over the course of a year, I applied for exactly one special ed English job and got an interview request within an hour. When I arrived the next week, nervously adjusting my tie and sweating through my sport coat, the assistant principal welcomed me with a smile and a handshake and beckoned me into her office.
The first words out of her mouth come as a shock to any teacher — hell, any employed adult — to whom I’ve recounted them:
“So obviously you’re hired. This interview is just a formality.”
“Are you sure?” I responded. “Don’t you want to, I don’t know, ask me some questions?”
She laughed. “Do you want me to ask you some questions?”
“You’re the one running the interview,” I said. “I just thought you’d ask me about my educational practices or something. My beliefs on teaching.”
The assistant principal waved a hand and turned her attention to a manilla folder on her desk. “I’m sure you’ll be fine. I just need you to fill out these forms so we can start the hiring process.”
I’m sure you’ll be fine. The words echoed through my head for the next four days. Since the school year was already underway and I was filling a vacant position, the district expedited my paperwork. I had no time to prepare lessons or materials; I didn’t even know what classes I’d be teaching. All I knew is that the assistant principal told me to report at 6:30 Monday morning and she’d arrange for someone to show me to my classroom. It was like casually discussing the idea of having a baby and having one show up on your doorstep the next day like you ordered it on Amazon Prime.
A woman named Cindy was waiting in the office for me when I arrived. Cindy was in her mid-sixties but dressed like she was still 22, a pair of white cat eye sunglasses hanging from the scoop neck of her tight Lily Pulitzer dress. She had poker straight blonde hair to her chin, and her tanned skin looked like beef jerky from too many summers laying by the pool.
“You’re the new guy,” she said in her Marlboro red voice; a statement, not a question.
Cindy had taught special education English for 28 years and was two years from retirement. Just from the quick conversation on our journey to my new classroom, I could tell she was what my dad would have called a “tough old bird,” and also the type of person I’d love to drink a couple beers with.
When we got to my classroom, she unlocked the door and let it swing open. “There you go,” she said, beckoning me in with a hand.
I stood there in the hallway, staring into the darkened abyss, the outlines of desks in neat little rows just barely visible.
“This might sound like a stupid question,” I said, “but what am I supposed to do?”
“What do you mean?”
I explained in the school’s haste to get me hired, they had neglected to provide me with a class schedule or curriculum. I had no idea who or what I was supposed to be teaching.
If Cindy was surprised by this bit of information, she didn’t show it. “English 12,” she said. “I think they’re doing Beowulf.”
“Seniors?” I said. “I’m teaching seniors?”
Though it was my first day on the job, I was no dummy. I’d seen Dangerous Minds, and I knew teaching 12th grade special education students was not a task for the faint of heart, certainly not a job for a guy whose last meal consisted of Vienna sausages and Keystone Light.
Cindy shrugged. “I’m sure you’ll be fine.” Was this the school motto? Welcome to Northern Virginia High School: We’re sure you’ll be fine? They could have at least translated it into Latin.
“I don’t even know where to start,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Cindy. “Just close the door and do whatever the hell you want.”
As the minute hand crept closer to the day’s opening bell, I paced the room and studied the copy of Beowulf I had found on my desk. The fluorescent lights gleamed off the waxed floor, my stomach twisted, my hairline bloomed fine droplets of sweat. I tried focusing on the text and not the fact that soon, a dozen or so voting, lottery ticket-buying students would be walking through the door and expecting me to dance before them like a vaudeville actor. My god, what if they had gang affiliations?
What exactly did the assistant principal see in me that led her to believe I was capable of handling this job? It certainly wasn’t my lack of experience or teaching license, and it definitely wasn’t my resume, which was so thin I had decided to include the two years I played guitar for a punk band.
Beowulf, at least, I could handle. Since I had a minor in British Literature, I spent the better part of a semester dissecting it in my medieval lit class. How to explain the juxtaposition of Christian and pagan imagery or the concepts of the epic hero to a room full of newly-minted adults more interested in their cell phones, however, eluded me.
The bell tolled its inevitable toll, and the students trickled in, and I battled the urge to vomit. Suddenly there they all were, staring up at me with blank dispassion, the captive audience I had cooly joked about over the weekend. Go ahead smart ass, my brain teased me, soak up the spotlight.
I fumbled my way through an introduction, telling some rambling story about my journalism career as though the kids in front of me gave a single shit, and then I transitioned into talking about Beowulf. I passed out books and, knowing nothing about reading strategies other than what my teachers did with me in high school, I started to read.
After a page, I stopped and looked at my roster.
“Let’s see,” I said, choosing a name at random. “Stephen, why don’t you read the next page for us?”
Stephen, who was in the third row and one of the less-threatening looking students, barely paused a beat before responding.
“Oh, I don’t read,” he said.
A bead of sweat ran down my spine and I felt it trickle into my underwear. Shit. They can’t read? Maybe I had seriously overestimated their abilities. If they can’t read, why the hell are we studying Beowulf?
This required some clarification. “You don’t read as in you don’t want to, or you don’t know how?” I asked.
“I know how to read. I just don’t read out loud. It’s not a thing I do.”
Having learned from my brief tenure as a substitute teacher that it was never a good idea reveal teachers had about as much authority as a mall security guard, I tried to stand my ground.
“I’d really like for you to read for us, Steve. Everyone will have a turn.”
“No, I’m good.”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” I said, hoping the school motto would inspire some cooperation in him.
“I don’t read,” he repeated. His demeanor remained casual, his body draped in his chair with a posture that said I don’t know what to tell you.
I tried to take a harder line, reaching for any shred of power I could lord over him. “Steve, I’m asking you to read, and if you don’t, I guess I’ll have to contact your parents, which I really don’t want to do on my first day.”
“You can do whatever you want, but I’m telling you, I’m just not going to read. I’m sorry.”
At least he was polite about his insubordination. “O-kay,” I said, now in a full panic. I looked down at the roster, searching for a name that sounded more sympathetic to my cause. “Maya, why don’t you read for us?”
“I don’t read either,” she said.
“You,” I said, pointing to a boy behind Maya.
“Okay, no problem,” I said. “I’ll just read and you guys can follow along.”
I read Beowulf aloud for the next 85 minutes without pausing or looking up, my heart hammering in my chest the whole time.
Of course it did get better. Given some time and space to collect my thoughts, I was able to get my feet under me, and my time in front of the class each day felt less panicked.
There were some bumps that first year, including the afternoon I discovered one of my students selling bottles of Mountain Dew spiked with vodka out of his backpack. He denied the claim vehemently, hurt and offended I would make such an accusation, until the school cop confirmed the presence of alcohol. When he returned from serving his suspension, he came up to me and apologized for lying. “I thought vodka didn’t have a smell,” he said. I told him that was unfortunately a myth, but I did admire his enterprising nature.
Then there was the time I had a kid throw his desk across the room for no apparent reason. Duane was the fullback on the football team and built like a brick shit-house. He was also diagnosed bi-polar and prone to arbitrary mood swings. I took him out into the hallway and talked to him in a soothing voice to try and get him to calm down.
Unfortunately, my attempt to curb his anger only resulted in him focusing his rage on me. Duane panted in ragged breaths and stared me dead in the face. In the same way you know when a dog is about to attack you because of its body language, it became pretty apparent Duane was a hair trigger away from pouncing. This kid is going to hit me, I thought, and it’s really going to hurt.
“I need you to think through what you’re about to do,” I said in the most even tone I could muster. Duane balled and unballed his fists, his shoulders shaking. “If you do this, your life will change.”
Duane did back down, much to my relief, and I got him to sit back in his chair after taking a couple of laps around the school. Though I saved him from himself that day, Duane was expelled several weeks later when he sent a kid to the hospital by smashing his head repeatedly into a locker. Upon investigation, administrators discovered Duane’s bi-polar disorder was actually schizophrenia, and he had an alter-ego named Tony who wanted to see the world burn.
When I told Cindy about Duane/Tony over a couple of beers, she laughed and lit a cigarette. “Good thing we’re teaching these kids Beowulf,” she said.
By June, I was a pretty close facsimile of a teacher. I had lesson plans and a grade book and a Lands End tote bag to carry home all my ungraded papers. The students liked me and paid attention when I talked. For the last half hour of class each week, I did something called Family Friday, where we sat and talked about our feelings, which was mostly a self-serving opportunity for me to tell stories. I was proud of how far I had come since that first day, and the best part was that no matter how overwhelmed I got or how close I came to having a schizophrenic senior breaking my orbital bones, I didn’t cry a single time.
At graduation, I filed into the gymnasium with the rest of the faculty in my school-issued gown and stole, happy to celebrate the end of the year. Usually I’m a sap at ceremonies — I once broke down in tears watching my wife’s high school friend get married even though I had never met her — but as I sat and fanned myself with my program in the steamy gym, I felt nothing. Sure, I had formed some good relationships with my seniors, and most of them were graduating and moving on with their lives, but that whole teachers-making-a-difference feeling was wholly absent.
Part of the commencement included a portion where the top 10 students in the class acknowledged the teacher whom had made the greatest impact on their lives. The same four teachers stood and received the crowd’s applause: the AP English teacher, the AP Bio teacher, the AP Physics teacher, the Calculus teacher. I sighed and thumbed through the program, perusing list of the 185 faculty members. Sharon Halderstram. Marcus Henderson. No Sam Hedenberg.
They had left my name off the program.
I think it’s human nature to want to be recognized. I wasn’t looking for fame or glory, I didn’t need my name announced to raucous applause like the teachers of all those advanced placement wunderkinds, but it did sting a little to see I wasn’t even in the program, a ghost walking among the living. Didn’t they realize I was the one who brought down the school’s spiked Mountain Dew crime syndicate?
The students threw their hats in the air and the crowd dispersed and I folded up my stupid black gown and tucked it under my arm, glad to have my first year dipping over the horizon.
I almost got to the parking lot before someone tugged at my elbow.
It was Steve, the senior who, on my first day, had refused to read for me.
“Mr. Hedenberg, I did it,” he said.
“You did. Congratulations.”
Steve kicked at an imaginary pebble on the sidewalk. “I just wanted, um, to thank you. You’re the first teacher who actually cared about me. You’re the only reason I came to school this year.”
Steve told me he was the youngest of four, and he was the first one of them to graduate high school.
I told him I was proud of him, and I wished him luck in the real world. We shook hands and went our separate ways, the tassel of his cardboard cap swinging behind him.
With two minutes left in my first year as a teacher, I sat in my car and cried like a baby.