Amok Time

Sometimes, when work ups its demands, squeezes the life out of the rest of my life, and creeps deeper into absurdity, my mind begins to wonder what I might do to free myself. I start to daydream about imaginative ways to get myself fired. I begin to think about running amok.

Running amok isn’t really funny. In its strict meaning—as it’s understood in Malaysia where the term arose—a male “goes postal” and reaches such a blind state of rage and lunacy that he finds a blade and slashes everyone he meets until he’s a. subdued or b. killed or c. kills himself. Running Amok is a tradition dating back as far back as westerners know. But don’t worry, my daydreams aren’t violent or even harmful to others. They simply announce, “Please notice: I’ve lost it.”

My fantasy began with a French film I saw once. The opening scene presented a teacher at a kitchen table scratching comments on essays. After a few violent strokes, she wadded the papers in her fist, grabbed the handle of a small trap door on the wall, yanked it down, and shoved the papers in the hole.

I’m assuming that door led to the furnace. I’ve been there.

My students are wonderful as individuals—I love them—but as an aggregate their missteps are tedious and predictable. Someone is going to almost knock me over rounding a corner with another student in pursuit. Someone is going to enter class after reading the first 15 pages of a book and offer some variation of “This book sucks.” Someone is going to call his or her English Paper “English Paper” even after I’ve repeatedly told him or her how a good title inspires your reader to read. Someone is going to steal balloons from a display and say something vapid after inhaling helium, finding the remark hilarious. Someone is going to ask what five students have just asked in the last eight minutes or point out the one typo in an assignment I’ve spent hours designing or interrupt a lively discussion to ask “Can I go to the bathroom?”

These trials elicit the question, “How do I get out of here?” They beg me to ask, “What absurd way can I get myself fired that might be commensurate with the absurdity I’m swimming in?”

Some possibilities I’ve considered:

  1. Composing a multiple choice reading quiz where the answer to every question is “toaster oven”: “Which of the following was NOT sown onto Hester Prynne’s dress…”
  2. Suffixing the title of every literary work I reference in class with “and a man with a hacking cough” as in, “Let’s look at the third act of Macbeth and a Man With a Hacking Cough” or, “As you may recall from our study of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and a Man With a Hacking Cough…” or “Tomorrow we start Crime and Punishment and a Man With a Hacking Cough.”
  3. wearing progressively uglier ties until what’s around my neck isn’t a tie at all but register tape, crepe paper, woven twizzlers, toilet paper, lo mein, a noose.
  4. appearing with one bare foot and then teaching class with a hand-puppet that’s really my sock. I’ll call him “Hooty the Wisdom Owl” and, all day I’ll say, “What’s that, Hooty?” and then I’ll laugh uproariously at jokes only I hear.
  5. Placing an open fountain pen, nib down, in my breast pocket until it creates a butter plate sized stain… EVERY DAY.
  6. standing up in front of the assembled upper school and announcing, “Hi, I’m starting a synchronized diving team and I’m looking for a partner… I already have the speedos.”
  7. returning a set of essays I’ve poorly spray-painted white. Each page will be obscured and carefully stapled back together. Then I’ll walk between the desks, dropping them off, saying in my calmest voice, “I know you guys are trying, but I just didn’t get much out of these.”
  8. sitting in the faculty lounge with a book propped before me, upside down. If anyone says to me, “Hey David, I think your book is upside down,” I’ll say “Thanks” and turn it once and once again until it’s upside down and resume reading.
  9. wearing a NASCAR style jumpsuit with amateurishly drawn and lettered logos for educational products—Expo markers, Crayola, Signature staplers, Starbucks—and saying they’re my sponsors. Soon, I’ll wear a headband with scrolling and blinking LED lights proclaiming, “Eat Lunchables!!!”
  10. mimicking all the student behavior that drives me crazy: titling my handouts “Handout” or speaking with helium induced hilarity or chasing students down the halls or asking my class if I can go to the bathroom in the middle of discussion or repeating instructions thirty-seven times or staring at my laptop with bemused expressions as they say things that are important to them.

I know. I’m bitter. Let’s hope sharing these plans isn’t the eleventh way of running amok. Maybe everyone needs an imaginary escape, some crazy scheme to combine getting out and getting even. Writing fantasies down takes the place of fulfilling them and gives me something mysterious to grin over as my students labor on exams.

And it’s doubly fun to speculate how long it’d take for anyone to notice anything amiss at all.



Filed under Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Laments, Survival, Teaching, Thoughts, Work

4 responses to “Amok Time

  1. Elliot

    ….have you been taking your medicine?!?
    Loved this, and found myself LOL in a crowded lobby….let them wonder!

    I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’ve been gathering the material for a while now, like the last 30 years or so. Students laugh when I describe the idea of running amok–they are more than willing to cooperate in my plans to get myself fired… I don’t know what to think about that. Thanks for visiting. –D

  2. David – the neck-tye scenarios have a certain je-ne-sais-quoi possibility, and the spray painter returned assignments are most definitely a hilarious potential statement. I had a particularly unruly Grade 9 class in my second year of teaching– last class of the day – they annoyed me terribly, so I announced to them it was more fruitful for me to leave and go to a movie matinee, so I assigned them a doable in-class assignment to be completed on their own before class ended, and a homework assignment which involved participation from their parents and had to be done by next class. I schlepped off to the principal’s office, told him what I had done, and then hid out in the staff-room. I got lucky – my method of going amok yielded a very co-operative class from that day on, and many amused parents calling me on the phone. G

    What a wonderful story! It sounds like your run amok was productive… my fantasies, not so much. It’s too bad you didn’t really get to see the movie, though. I sometimes wonder what parents would do with a movie of their child’s behavior on a typical day at school. I’m sure they’d be shocked. My own children go/went to my school, so I get to spy sometimes. It’s quite enlightening. –D

  3. i think the one way of your escape, writing this awesome blog, is something serious which demands your energies and produces a fruitful output. what you need to do, in my humble opinion, is to do something playful, only for your own amusement, without any particular goal, go on a ride, meet old friends, take wife to a new restaurant (probably not such a playful idea), or hang-out with your favorite students after school over coffee and play some baseball 🙂

    All good suggestions, and, now that it’s spring here, just looking out the window is a sort of break. I didn’t mean to sound quite so bitter. Sincerely, I generally appreciate my students immensely. They are good people. Maybe it’s the accumulation of petty frustrations that does me in. Writing about it helps though. Thanks for your kind comments about this blog. –D

  4. Peter Newton

    Who knows? One day you might just go on the road. I suspect you could do stand-up.

    Hard to imagine anything more terrifying than that. I’m capable of some whimsy, a little wry dismay, a moment or two of smiling amusement, but stand-up? I’ve never understood that level of courage and consistency. Thank you for commenting–it scary to try to be funny. You always worry it will be funny only to you.–D

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