Idiots say, “If you can’t do something useful, teach.” In Texas, the local wisdom is that teachers are over-paid and don’t work hard enough. They have three months off every year. They have more job security than small-business owners. And all they have to do is talk to kids. Why do we put up with such parasites? Of course you realize I am not talking from my own heart. I am speaking as a despicable straw man that I am intending to knock down, if only I don’t go anthropomorphizing to the point where I associate him with the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz and then find myself unable to knock down the poor misguided man with no brain.
So why would anyone in their right mind want to be a teacher? Oh, yeah… they wouldn’t. What does that say about me? You know, I never wanted to be a teacher when I was growing up. I wanted to be a cartoonist and make people laugh and like my adventure stories. I wanted to be a clown. I wanted to tell stories. I didn’t realize that a teacher, especially an English teacher, must be all of these things. God, with his infinite sense of humor, gave me arthritis in my hands and shoulders when I was only eighteen. And so, what was I gonna do? I had a BA in English. How do you feed yourself with that? I guess you get a Master of the Art of Teaching degree and teach. …Can’t do something useful… right?
When I was looking for a job in 1981, I had a choice between two States, Texas and Florida. Iowa was laying off its lazy teachers who had less than two years experience, reducing their teaching staffs, not hiring. Most other States were doing the same. Only Texas and Florida with some of the biggest education problems and worst educational inequalities needed teachers. And since my parents moved to Texas in 1980, the choice was really made for me. I came to the land of yee-hah cowboys and hey-gringo caballeros by Trailways bus. My first job was in Cotulla Texas, 85 per cent Hispanic and 80 per cent below the poverty line. I didn’t speak Spanish… or Mexican, or Texican, or Spanglish, or anything. I didn’t know the culture. I didn’t know the kids. I’m lucky they weren’t literally cannibals because they ate me alive my first two years. I learned all the bad words in Spanish the hard way, including the idioms. I was nick-named La Choosa (the barn owl), Batman, and Mr. Gilligan’s Island. I was plastered with spit-wads, defied, and demonized (and that was just the parents). I sent crazy little monsters to see the principal, and the principal would call me in and chew me out for having no classroom control. How do you control the behavior of hormone crazed early teens in a junior high school monkey house? The answer is… you don’t. No human being can actually control the actions of another human being. You can only control your own actions.
So I learned how to give them what they needed (as opposed to what they wanted). I started teaching things that weren’t in the textbooks. I taught a few of them how to read. I presented the many, many books I love and showed them how much I loved the books. Some of them loved the books too. I showed them how to reason and put ideas together. I showed them how to infer things. I showed them how to treat others with respect, and I even demonstrated how I respected them (sometimes by being polite and supportive as I told on them for selling pot in the boys’ restroom or busted them for calling the principal bad names in Spanish). I broke up fights. I faced down one kid who came to school with real ninja throwing stars. I kept kids near the interior concrete wall when the tornado visited… at two different schools. I did what Wall Street Bankers would never be able to do. I figured out how to do things that lawyers like Johnnie Cochran would never be able to figure out how to do. And I did it all for the BIG BUCKS ($11,000 for the first year, less than $50,000 last year).
Why did I do such an incredibly stupid thing with my life? Why did I waste my entire working life like that? I can’t write this without making myself cry. I did it because Ruben and Pablo both said I was their favorite teacher. I did it because Rita and Sofie and Shannon had a deep and painful crush on me. I did it because Jose told me that after he graduated he still remembered reading The Outsiders out loud when he didn’t really remember anything else he had learned in middle school. And I did it because David needed me to do it… and I still love all of them.