I was a high school English teacher for a hot minute – 7 years – in the 90s. I loved my job. I loved my students and I loved sharing literature and vocabulary with all of the kids in my classes. The low pay, long hours, no raises, no career development, low support from administrators, disrespect from society and hassling from parents finally pushed me into a very early retirement or an honorable discharge if you will.
I have said it many times. I NEVER left teaching because of the kids. They are simply a product of their parents and society and they did not ask to be here. They were brought into this world without a choice and then thrusted into whatever environment fate allowed. There was not a single student that I hated. Some were tougher to reach than others and I even feared a couple but I never hated any of them.
As an English teacher, you have to grade a lot of essays – it comes with the territory. I always tried to choose topics I enjoyed reading and hopefully they enjoyed writing. One year, my seniors complained that all the other seniors before them dreaded the research paper segment and they were worried about it too. Once I found out what they did not like about it, I chose a topic they were excited about and I personally was fascinated with – serial killers. It would probably not fly today and probably shouldn’t. I was young and cutting edge and the principal agreed as long as the gore was minimal and it still followed research paper guidelines it was fine by him. The few students who were from very strict religious homes asked for alternate assignments and they still chose really cool topics like the Salem Witch Trials, The Christian Crusades, etc. They were fun to read and grade.
You always remember one student more than others for whatever reason. I remember this brilliant young man whose writing was very difficult to grade and the handwriting was even harder to decipher. I don’t want to embarrass him so we will just call him “Johnny”. “Johnny” was a tech geek before we had tech geeks. He was the one every teacher went to when any sort of machine “broke” or was not functioning. I had also been that kid in high school so we had an immediate bond.
He was a lovely boy who had a gentle way about him and a little smirk that let me know he was always up to something but nothing bad. He constantly had ideas and innovations and he was easily excited about anything that peaked his interest. He was one of my favorite seniors and I loved conversing with him. The other students would egg him on trying to get me off topic. Sometimes it worked (only because I felt like talking — wink wink).
One day, I assigned a self-reflective narrative essay. Those are hard for any kid to write. After supper one day, I sat down to tackle the 30 papers I needed to grade. My 12th graders worked hard on the essays and I knew I had hours of work ahead of me. I normally tried not to have essays from more than one class due at the same time so I could devote a fair amount of time to their work and grade them as objectively as a person can.
I have a confession to make. I always saved ” Johnny’s” papers for last. His papers were always interesting but they were somewhat like traversing through an unknown dense forest with only flip flops and a plastic fork. It was really hard to get through. In fact, I often took a shot of vodka or sipped on bourbon while grading his paper. It helped me to relax so I could try to understand his intentions better.
His narrative essay broke my heart. He had gone through some similar experiences as me and there was so much turmoil. Yet, here was this young man who made it to school every single day regardless of his challenges. He always had a smile on his face and a kind word for anyone who needed it. He was complex but apologetic and always gave others the benefit of the doubt. This night I needed two drinks. One to prepare for the essay and one to weep afterward. I already loved this human bean but now I respected him as well.
Many, many years later, we crossed paths again and I’m proud to say we are now friends. In fact, when he married he asked me to officiate his wedding and it was such an honor for me! He is raising an exceptional daughter and he is holding down a full time white collar job while also organically farming AND continuing his education! I could not be prouder of the man he has become. He is like a younger brother to me and I am so thankful he is in my life.
When I told him about the drinking while grading his paper, he laughed heartily and simply said, “That makes total sense.” He was not offended a bit and he thanked me for trudging through his horrible handwriting, spelling and grammar. I graded his paper fairly, he felt, and gave him more credit than most teachers in his past. This is an humble, beautiful man. He and so many like him are the gifts I received being a teacher. I miss teaching beans like him but I do not think I will ever go back to the classroom simply for self preservation.