The second in a series of five essays about my 32nd year of teaching…
Maybe all teachers have models they’d like to be or become. I’m been lucky. I’ve met many exemplars with diverse styles and talents. If you ask me which teacher I’ve envied, however, I can reduce the number to one.
Forget that he finished tasks well ahead of deadlines and without sweat, that he graded and returned papers sometimes on their due date, or that he, unaccountably and invisibly, forged consensus among members of a department trained in making barely differentiated but essential distinctions. Forget that he discussed every new book, read every magazine, already knew anything you might mention having seen or heard—after probably having absorbed them all at once in his armchair, watching sports. The work engaged him, yet he found time every school day to write exactly one page in this journal, an ellipsis dotting the last sentence at the end of the page. He made teaching look relaxing because he loved it, every day. He made time to reread and mark new passages. He found time to doodle. He found time to laugh. Students universally admired him and loved talking to him and, no matter how busy he was, he always had time for them.
He seemed built for professional longevity and spent each moment in the moment. Hilarious and moving, playful and dramatic, organized and improvisational, demanding and fun, spontaneous and steady, he never seemed to be working, though undoubtedly he was. Around him, everyone worked hard (and obviously) to look half as capable.
He could be fiery. No one wanted to disappoint his expectations twice. Yet his approval meant more. It meant more than awards, and, whether students feared or loved him (or loved and feared him), he pulled the best from them. We taught fall and spring versions of the same course, and I watched students stretch well beyond themselves in his tasks, his papers, his final projects. I wanted to know how he did it—his secret—and asked frequently. But the key is he did it. I didn’t inspire my students nearly as vividly and, at times, felt dispositionally disadvantaged staring at the last minute, half-baked products of my charges’ labors. His students produced mobiles with albatross wingspans. Mine floated a walnut shell sailboat in a shoebox lid full of catsup. His spoke eloquently about justifications and implications for every choice. Mine said, “I just felt like it.”
With his returns, I might discover fuel to teach forever.
Yet I knew, almost instantly, I wouldn’t become him. I couldn’t draw as much from students because I wasn’t and would never be him.
That discovery was my first disillusionment as a teacher, the first intimation of my limits and unwinding clock. My parents taught me that labor could overcome any deficit, but sometimes not. Perhaps every profession illuminates people so suited to its tasks, so observant, and so shrewd they grow into “naturals,” but they seem especially rare in teaching where you assume you can always master something novel, where belief in self-improvement is unshakable faith.
My triumphs have been exhausting. I’ve been diligent. I’ve been self-consciously personable. I’ve been painstaking. I’ve been earnest. I’ve stumbled upon success through effort and desire, but mostly effort.
One question education won’t prepare you for—how long can learning last? For years, I’ve become a more efficient, sensible, and composed teacher, but dependability and predictability mix finally. I’d like to be new everyday, as my model was, but returns diminish. Your desire to pull a lesson from a folder overwhelms ambition, and, for most older teachers, little appears fresh anymore.
The few who find the sweet spot between work and play promise hope and envy, an ideal, an aspiration stretching ahead, a picture of what could—and should—be.