My Short Lesson On How to Teach

A local high school English teacher recently asked me to speak to his class about writing. I was flattered and seized the opportunity to indulge myself with creative abandon.

I entered the high school during a change in classes. Almost immediately, I was swept up in a hectic flow of adolescents as they hurried to the next class. I felt like flotsam in a spring torrent, and found myself awash in memories of a previous return I had made to high school some 20 years ago, as a wet-behind-the-ears teacher.

In the mid-1970s, I had the good fortune to get a teaching position fresh out of college. It was at the all-boys high school I had attended in my hometown. I had not gone through an education curriculum: The principal had hired me on the recommendation of one of his teachers, who had told him, "He has the potential for success." Such was the uncomplicated tenor of the times. As ersatz for four years of education courses I had bypassed, the principal gave me these sage words of advice: "Don't smile until Christmas."

My assignment was to teach three classes of sophomore biology and one of freshman earth science. In the weeks prior to school, I ordered materials, created syllabuses, restocked the laboratory, and even wrote my own lab manual. All for an annual salary of $9,400.

The day before classes commenced, the principal sent an emissary in the form of a veteran teacher. The middle-aged man bore a look of sagacious weariness that stated he had seen it all and it was my job to keep my mouth shut and listen. I felt like a 12-year-old as I sat before him, taking in his instruction on how to keep a grade book, what constituted an acceptable amount of homework, and the best way to structure a science test.

By the time he had finished he had covered some 20 topics. He didn't even ask me if I had any questions. I watched as he shuffled to the door. And then he paused, turned, and looked me dead in the eye. "And don't forget," he said. "Don't smile until Christmas."

Overnight, the school went from a calm oasis where teachers sedately prepared for the year ahead to a pandemonium of 1,000 boys fresh from the long, untethered days of summer. I watched them from the window of my classroom - a veritable army streaming through the front entrance. For the first time, I felt the slightest tinge of nerves. "Don't smile until Christmas," I quietly recited, and it now seemed to make good sense.

Five minutes later, I was confronted with 30 sophomores: large, disheveled, already-sweating bodies shifting in their desks, making the wood squeak. They were looking me over, and it seemed that I could already tell which ones would be troublemakers. I decided to take the principal's advice and give them a tough line.

I told them that if anyone was late for class he would be sent straight to the office. I told them that late homework was unacceptable. No one was to talk out of turn, and mutual respect was my primary bylaw. Of course, I couldn't believe that any of this was coming out of the mouth of someone who, just a few months ago, had planted 1,000 fruit flies in his zoology professor's desk drawer.

When I was done my boys were dumbstruck. I had taken no prisoners. And so, having made my point, a faint smile of self-satisfaction blossomed on my face. A moment later, a boy named Freddie piped up. "Hey," he said, "ain't you Adrienne's brother?"

Such is the bane of returning to teach in one's hometown.

From that moment on, the year was a struggle for control. But a 22-year-old has boundless, self-renewing optimism, and every day bore the promise of success.

In retrospect, most of my energy went into keeping my charges just this side of chaos; but we did some wonderful things, including setting up a saltwater aquarium and an ant farm, hatching chicks in an incubator, and making a field trip into the country to watch beavers do their work. I was exhausted at the end of every day, but by morning I wanted the classroom as desperately as fresh air.

And then, at year's end, I did an unexpected thing: I left.

I had to. Because I knew, even then, that if I stayed another year I would never be able to pull myself away, and I needed to know what other doors were open to me.

AS I stood before Mr. Phippen's Expository Writing class the other day it all rushed back: the students' eagerness as well as their disinterest; the joys and the difficulties; the days when things went like clockwork, and those that defied any of my efforts to bring the class to heel.

My stint as a guest speaker renewed my estimation of high school teaching: It is a special vocation, and I sometimes wonder how long I might have stuck with it had I not needed to be elsewhere, despite the twin handicaps of being Adrienne's brother and having the alarming inclination to smile before Christmas.

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