Being a teacher at heart… I want to recommend that career…even though I know full well it is a super-hard crappy job of glorified baby-sitting that pays in literal peanuts and nobody in their right minds recommends it to smart young up-and-comers as a glamorous choice… and it is only getting worse under a new anti-education administration.
Being a teacher at heart… I can’t help remembering how it all started for me. The last thing in the world I imagined myself being when I was in high school was a teacher. I wanted to be a cartoonist or a comic book artist. I wanted to write best-selling science fiction novels and maybe direct a movie. You know, the kind of thing millionaires line up to bestow on college grads with a degree in English and a transcript filled with mostly A’s in my art classes.
But after my remedial master’s degree gave me a provisional teaching certificate, and my one and only interview for an illustrator’s job resulted in compliments on my portfolio and best wishes for my teaching career, I headed to Texas, one of only two states actually hiring teachers in 1981. (The other was Florida, which it turns out it was a very lucky thing my family had already moved to Texas to help me make that decision. Have you seen the education news coming out of Florida? I now know where Satan gets his mail.)
Turns out the only job available in 1981 was all the way South on Interstate 35 in Cotulla, Texas. I was there to teach English to 8th graders. Mostly Spanish-speaking 8th graders. And the previous year the 7th grade English teacher had run out of the classroom screaming after the little darlings exploded firecrackers under her chair and put scorpions in her coffee cup. I was given her classroom and the same students that forced her to re-think her career choice. El Loco Gongie, El Loco Martin, Talan, El Mouse, El Boy, El Goofy (whose one and only talent was to turn his whole head purple at will), La Chula Melinda, and the Lozano Twins were the nicknames I had to learn because practically everyone was named Jose Garcia… even the girls. Talan and El Mouse were the first ones to threaten my life. They picked up a fence post on the way to lunch (we had to walk four blocks to the elementary school to get lunch because the junior high building had no cafeteria). Talan said something threatening in Spanish that I didn’t understand and added the name “Gringo Loco” menacingly to whatever he said, and El Mouse pantomimed using the metal fence post as a sword to cut me in two. All this because I was trying to get them to keep up with the rest of the class on our little hike in the 100 degree heat. (I think I knew then why Satan moved to Florida.) Fortunately they must’ve decided that murdering me wasn’t worth the hours of detention they would have to spend, and dropped the post. Class was definitely disrupted when handsome El Boy and La Chula decided to break up, or rather, El Boy decided he like brown-eyed Alexandra better after she got blue-eyed contact lenses that made her eyes look yellow-green. Girl fights are harder to break up than boy fights because girls fight to the death over matters of the heart, and they really don’t care who dies once the fight is started.
Now you may think my account of my first horrible year as a teacher must be exaggerated and expanded with lies because you know I am a humorist and that I went on to teach for many more years. But I swear, only the names have been changed. The nicknames and the incidents all are real. (Yes, he really could contort his face in a way that turned his entire head purple. It was freaky and made the girls scream.) As I reached the spring of the year that year and had to decide whether or not to sign my contract for the next year, I really was planning to get out of teaching all together. But I was standing on the playground one day that spring glaring at the vatos locos to prevent fights from breaking out again when Ruben came up to stand beside me and talk to me. Ruben was one of the brightest and physically smallest of all my kids that year. But he had such a charm about him that the bullies left him alone (except for the time he got in trouble for forging El Boy’s mother’s signature on a failing report card). He said to me, “I want you to know, you are my favorite teacher. I learned a lot from you this year.” I had to bite my lower lip to keep from crying right there and then. It was the moment when I decided I had to be a teacher. They were not going to make me run away in defeat. I was going to work at it until I knew how to do it right. For Ruben. And for all the other boys and girls like Ruben who liked me as a teacher… and laughed at my jokes… even the really corny ones… and needed me. That made all the hard stuff worth it.
Being a teacher at heart… I recognize now that there was never anything else I was going to be. It was what God chose me to be. And my only regret about my choice is that I had to retire and can’t do it any more for health reasons. I still miss it.