America’s best advocate for teachers is the intense and often funny slam-poet Taylor Mali: “What am I, really, but a propagandist who mollifies teachers into accepting the status quo? I sometimes feel that way when I am worn from the fight. But I always come back to the fact that being a teacher is one of the greatest jobs in the world, and sometimes the people who have chosen to walk that noble path simply need to be reminded that there is a vast army of educated and grateful citizens who have their backs. Someone needs to remind teachers that they are dearly loved. I’m that guy." He sings our praises in the face of reckless politicized disparagement.
What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World is thus a rare type of celebrity memoir, as its celebrity is based on a poem, Mali’s poem, the most famous American poem about teaching, “What Teachers Make.” I won’t quote from it because you can watch it on YouTube in three minutes or read it in one – either way it’ll amuse you and make you happy. However you encounter it, it’s dynamite, as satisfying as witnessing a put-upon good kid deciding he has had enough of a bully’s put-downs and finally retaliating.
In casual mini-essays, Mali, a New York City native, tells the poem’s front, back, and side stories: where it came from and where it’s brought him. He remembers when he was one of us, a full-time teacher, more than 10 years ago. And while he celebrates the legs that got under that poem, he’s no one-trick pony. He’s a poet in Walt Whitman’s line, and like Whitman his poems are poems because of their ecstatic colloquial voice.
“I teach for the fire, the moment of ignition, the spark,
the light bulb of cognition going on in the dark over an adolescent’s head.
O beautiful incandescence, dazzling the dead air all around the room; he tries
and he tries and he tries and BOOM, he gets it and you can see it in his eyes!
I teach for that moment....”
Mali’s voice is so loud and clear that we listeners can’t avoid it or pretend it’s not addressing us. It’s the engaging voice of that persistent teacher who knows all our tricks of avoidance. He knows evasion, meanness, and double-talking when he hears it, and in national media and political debates about education, we all hear it all the time.
“The only thing that surprises me is the characterization of teachers as lazy and greedy,” writes Mali. “Only someone who had very little understanding of what teaching requires would say such a thing. Certainly, teachers themselves can do a better job letting the world know how hard their profession is, but frankly, they have real work to do and a lot of it so they don’t have a whole lot of free time on their hands. Whenever I hear someone on television talk about how easy teachers have it, I want to put them in their own classroom for a year to see how they survive. Of course, that wouldn’t be fair to the students. An idiot might learn his lesson, and it might make for captivating reality TV, but it would come at the cost of a classroom full of students who deserve better.”
His admirable “New Teacher Project” came about after young people started telling him how his poem célèbre inspired them to become teachers. “When I was done, when I had finally convinced 1,000 people to become teachers, I would cut off my hair ... and donate it to a program called Patene Great Lengths, which makes wigs for kids battling cancer.” He’s a loud, likable do-gooder, so his renown is gratifying, because we teachers need his voice out there. At the same time, it’s a shame he’s not in the classroom every day to inspire students.
The book’s wee size, not to mention the “Teachers Make a Difference – To: ___ From___” signature page, suggests the publisher has designed "What Teachers Make" as a gift, and it really will be a sensible gift for anybody who is, was or could become a teacher. (Grading time: Some of the pieces in the second half lack his customary gusto and are not A+ material.) But a very nice book, indeed! Yet ... I prefer his volumes of poems, especially "What Learning Leaves" (2002), whose cover resembles a composition book; it’s full of, but not exclusively made up of, classroom-poems and is almost as good as being in the presence of an impertinent, hilarious and challenging teacher.