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You go back, Jack, do it again.—Steely Dan
In the fall of 2010, after a fourteen-year hiatus from the classroom and at the unpropitious age of fifty-seven, I began a one-year job filling in for a teacher on leave from the same rural Vermont high school that I'd entered as a rookie thirty years before. I signed on mainly because my wife and I needed the health insurance. The reason I trained to be an English teacher in the first place was my parents' insistence that I graduate from college with a trade, "poet" falling short of the mark in their eyes. It's fair to say that I have never gone to work in a school with what might be called purity of heart, though much of what I know about purity of heart I learned there.
It can still surprise me that I became a teacher at all. I could have satisfied my parents' requirements by pursuing a different trade; sometimes I wish I had. With a push in either direction, I think I could have managed to become a halfway decent attorney or machinist. I am not one of those high school teachers whose teenage years evoke such an irresistible nostalgia that they enter the ranks mainly in the hope of chaperoning a prom.
Nor, when I say "surprise," do I mean to suggest that mine is the well-worn path of the marginal student who feels called to the classroom in order to help kids have an easier time than he had. That is often a noble story, among the noblest in the field of education, but it is not my story. I was a good student at school, and when I applied myself, an exceptional student. At the risk of sounding immodest, I should probably add that there are people who would tell you that I am an exceptional teacher. There are former students of mine who would find it difficult to imagine that I could ever have wanted to do anything else.
I never had that difficulty. In fact, there was never a time during the sixteen years I taught when I didn't imagine doing something else. Even in the best moments, when teaching gave me the kind of rush some people find in skydiving or cocaine, I yearned to be at home writing. In the worst, I would imagine putting my name in at the local furniture plant, which I might well have done but for the impossibility of lying about my white-collar credentials to bosses whose kids, nieces, or nephews I'd had in class. I can't recall a single year of teaching that I didn't begin with a burst of enthusiasm accompanied by the fervent hope that come June I'd be done with teaching for good.
There is no simple way to account for that contradiction. From my earliest grades, I was fascinated with teaching and repulsed by school. By second grade I was asking my teacher's permission to "teach the class" about my scientific passions at the time: dinosaurs, rocks, and planets. I still marvel at the number of times she yielded the blackboard—to say nothing of the rarity with which my classmates rewarded my efforts with a black eye. But as early as first grade, I was throwing up my breakfast every morning out of anxiety before the school bus arrived. I had no trouble holding down my food on weekends and holidays. To this day the mere act of entering a school—that first whiff of disinfectant, that crackling interplay of regimentation and anarchy—is enough to turn my stomach.
Becoming a professional teacher intensified, and complicated, the emotions I'd felt as a kid. Teaching could be wonderful, and even when it wasn't, the students I taught could be wonderful. It made me sad to see some of them graduate, though in time I realized that part of my sadness had to do with being left behind. They were going on to do what they "really wanted to do," whereas I wasn't. In a ridiculous but palpable way, I felt less grown up than the gowned graduates who shook my hand and embraced me. After all, an adult is someone who's finished with high school. The distinction tends to blur when you find yourself matching wits with a mouthy fourteen-year-old or asking a principal if you can pretty please leave the building on your lunch break to run home and retrieve the corrected papers—your "homework"—that you left on the kitchen counter. The greatest challenge of teaching is not, as is so often averred, finding a way "to relate to kids." It is rather finding a way to relate to yourself in a process that often leaves you feeling like a kid.
A good part of that challenge has to do with the burden of evaluation. A child's acute awareness of measuring up, and of failing to measure up, exists for few adults with the same remorseless constancy as it does for a teacher. Everything a student fails to learn is something a teacher has failed to teach. (And everything that might be construed as wrong with the society at large can be placed, and inevitably will be placed, at the feet of its teachers.) Work harder, you tell yourself, but hard work is not always enough. Knowledge of material and technique is not always enough. You can still fail. What is more, you will fail. Certain social conditions combine with certain working conditions to make failure a foregone conclusion. The realization that I could work every waking hour of every day and still fall short of the most modest expectations was the first great lesson of my teaching career. I ought not to have found it so stunning. A teacher in the ancient world might have had a handful of pupils; he would have eaten and even lodged with them throughout their tutelage. Jesus Christ had twelve. In his first year of teaching, Garret Keizer had around a hundred.
The teaching position to which I applied in 2010 would give me a mere eighty. And I knew more about how to teach English than I did as a beginner. I was also better at the math. I knew, for example, that asking my students to put pen to paper only once a day would give me four hundred pieces of paper by week's end. Giving each piece of paper a scant ten minutes of my attention would require sixty-seven hours of correction. That's a lot of homework, and it doesn't count as preparation, which at its best ought to exceed correction by a factor of no less than two.
Within days after the principal called to say that I had the one-year job if I still wanted it, which is to say, within days after refusing my wife's final plea not to take it, I began having nightmares. I often have nightmares, but these were less obscure in their meanings. Even the fantastic ones weren't hard to figure out.
For instance, I am on a raft on the ocean a short distance from another raft. There is a creature slumped on that other raft that I surmise is either dead or close to it. Still, I hoist and flex the long metal pole in my hand so as to bring one of the leaden balls attached to either tip thudding down on its bowed shaggy head. I don't know how long I've been at this methodical braining, but as soon as I deliver one blow, I hoist the undulating rod above my head, watching intently for when the ball is in the right position for me to deliver the next. I don't dare to relax my concentration for even a second. If I don't make sure to kill this thing, it will kill me. It is easily five times my size.
Suddenly, the creature comes to life, furious, rearing up on its hind legs and sucking the breath from my lungs in the same instant. With one easy leap it bounds over the water from its raft to mine. The weapon in my hand, awkward at best, is now utterly useless, too long to wield in close quarters. With my heart pounding, I wake just as I am about to be eaten alive. Right away I know that the beast is the job I "killed" fourteen years ago and will resurrect in less than six months' time. The symbolism of the weapon takes longer to parse. Perhaps it is the ballpoint pen by which I have managed to earn my precarious living, mockingly elongated and flaccid, my years of hired scribbling revealed in all their humiliating impotence. Or maybe it is simply the ten-foot pole with which I had sworn never to touch teaching again.
Determined to enter my classroom as prepared as I can be, I make an appointment to meet with the principal and department head before the snow is gone. Here in northeastern Vermont that can mean a date as late as May, especially on the higher elevations where I live, but it's March when I make my way off the mountain, along the winding ridge road, and under the narrow railroad overpass that still feels, as it did during my last years of teaching, like the arch of a castle gate: protective coming in, ominous going out. Four miles of the trip are done at that point, followed by another seven that will take me along the train tracks and over the county line, past a lonesome pond and defunct sawmill, the cluttered dooryards and sagging roofs of South Barton, toward the neater lakeside houses laid close to Crystal Lake. Hidden by foliage but known to me are a rusted, battered trailer and backyard scrap-metal business toward the south end of the lake and, with a grand view from a perch above the northern shore, a palatial house of stone and glass in which one of my students once lived. I remember climbing the steep drive to visit her parents one winter night, the tall windows blazing into view just as the radio began to play Mozart's Requiem. It was like entering Camelot.
Today, though, I'm entering the village of Barton in Orleans County, its outskirts marked by the turreted Blue Seal feed store and the western-style Crystal Saloon, nicknamed the Snake Pit in former days, when it boasted numerous brawls and at least one homicide on the premises. In the very beginning, before my wife and I had managed to buy our long-desired "house in the country," I had come from the opposite direction, driving south from our apartment in the mill town of Orleans.
Either way requires a turn, left from the present direction, right in the past, onto an uphill road that passes under the interstate. Route 91 reached the heart of northeastern Vermont a few years before our arrival in 1979, changing much though not all of what was then regarded as a wild place. By wild I mean both wooded and lawless. Some of the lawlessness was indigenous, typical of what one might expect of a region at the northernmost tip of Appalachia. Some of it came with the countercultural migrations of the early seventies, the disillusioned hippies and radicals on the lam. No doubt closeness to a desolate border was a factor too. Not far from the high school or all that long ago the maverick inventor Gerald Bull built the long-range "super guns" he sold illegally to South Africa and Saddam Hussein.
The abutments of the underpass were thick with black graffiti when I first saw them, the school's vice principal brazenly proclaimed as an inveterate sucker of "wet donkey dinks" on one cement surface and a more generic "big pud" on another. In later years a depressing run of suicides and drunk-driving accidents lent a morbid, almost macabre tone to the graffiti until the school authorities, apparently as dispirited by the memorials as I was—though I had taken my leave by then—inaugurated the custom of having each graduating class paint a mural on one of the four faces as a legacy to the school. Among those I pass this afternoon is a depiction of rainbow trout jumping the falls, one of the region's more celebrated sights. People still gather every April on the banks of the Willoughby River and watch salmon and trout as long as two feet leap their way upstream to spawn. The iconic trout is also pictured on a granite marker outside the Ethan Allen furniture mill, the area's largest employer, once the destination of most of the able-bodied young males who weren't marked at birth for college or their fathers' barns.
The trout is not the high school's mascot, however, that honor falling to the coonskin-capped "Ranger" of Roger's Rangers, a group of colonial expeditionaries best known for their raid on a tribe of St. Francis Indians beyond the northern shores of Memphremagog and their ill-fated retreat thereafter. I make my turn onto high school property past a granite monument with the Ranger logo carved under the school's name, an addition since I left Lake Region Union High School in the midnineties, when only a few gray hairs salted my head.
The building that emerges as I round the corner is a flat-topped brick structure typical of regional high schools built in the 1960s. But for an occasional tractor parked outside the garage doors of the ag shop, little about the place gives a clue of its geographical location or the diverse sociological profile of its roughly four hundred students. The sprawling grounds suggest an active athletic program and a conscientious maintenance crew. There are tennis courts. Acts of vandalism are not unheard of, but they're painted over or repaired as quickly as possible and, perhaps for that reason, infrequently repeated. There are probably other reasons too. For most of the students, high school represents a heady expansion from the smaller, often less well-funded, small-town elementary schools they attend till eighth grade. For at least a few of them, Lake Region is the warmest, brightest, safest space they know. Kids cry at their graduations all over the world, but they do not cry for all the same reasons.
When Kathy and I first ventured into "Ranger Country" in our late twenties, with newly earned master's degrees from the state university and our New Jersey accents even more noticeable than neighbors claim they still are today, we were searching for two openings in the same school or at least in geographic proximity, one for an inexperienced English teacher and one for a new speech pathologist. Candidates for the first were a dime a dozen, but the latter were and in some ways continue to be a rarity in rural parts of the state. I recall occasions when, after being perfunctorily instructed by a superintendent's secretary to send a résumé and letter of application to such and such an address by such and such a date, I would casually mention that my wife was a master's-level speech pathologist also in search of a job (and therefore able not only to meet new state requirements for special education but to pull in state funding as well), whereupon I was told to hold the line until the superintendent could come to the phone. It seemed we would get some interviews, perhaps even a few choices, though Kathy felt strongly that the state fellowships that had paid our tuitions and duty-free stipends at the state university obliged us to look at school districts where "the need was greatest," or at least beyond the relative affluence of the Champlain Valley.
Not to worry, it was only beyond the Champlain Valley, and quite a ways beyond, that we found a district able and willing to see us as a package deal. We were hired by the Orleans Central Supervisory Union in Orleans County, one of three that make up Vermont's so-called Northeast Kingdom, and one of the state's poorest. That distinction has not changed, notwithstanding the presence of some large prosperous farms (often the aggregated acquisitions of smaller, failed holdings), a solid middle class of small business owners, skilled tradespeople, and white-collar professionals willing to trade an upscale income for a down-home lifestyle, and even a few millionaire squires seeking the same dream on larger acreage. As of the last census, only one of Vermont's fourteen counties (Essex County, also in the Kingdom) showed a slightly higher percentage of its population living below the poverty line than Orleans. Orleans County leads the state in accidental deaths and in the percentage of its children receiving food stamps, is last in the state for longevity among males, next to last for longevity among females. It ranks third for suicides and prominently for drug abuse, domestic abuse, and teenage pregnancy. When Kathy and I announced to our professors where we were going to work, one of them claimed that the region's most popular graduation gift used to be a set of false teeth.
I began doubting the rumor almost as soon as we arrived—if only because I couldn't see how many of the parents could have afforded the teeth. We were not much better off. With a master's degree each, Kathy's and my combined gross salaries were a little over $18,000. We located a high-ceilinged upstairs apartment roughly two blocks from where the rainbows jumped and as many blocks from the furniture mill, whose humming sawdust chutes would become a familiar sound of our summer nights. (We were also within walking distance of a hilltop country club, though we'd live in town for over a year before we knew it existed and would never have guessed from our immediate surroundings that it did.) Our landlords, a first-grade teacher and a school custodian more newlywed than we, though neither was young, sized us up and charged us a rent even less than what our pathetic salaries could have borne.
Theirs was not untypical of the kindness we would meet in that town and in those years. In defense of an eighteenth-century schoolmaster accused of being overly harsh in his discipline, Samuel Johnson notes "with how little kindness, in a town of low trade, a man who lives by learning is regarded." In a region where zoning disputes periodically arise over unregulated junkyards and whose collective memory reserves a hallowed place for game poachers and whiskey runners, the Northeast Kingdom has plenty of what Johnson might have considered "low trade," but the disdain he observed was in our experience mostly confined to harangues against the school budget and mock-wistful references to our long summer vacations. So you folks are all done work now, are you? Mus' be nice. What might have been said behind our backs in those first years after our arrival we didn't know, but our faces rarely met with anything but respect. Carolers tramped up our wooden steps and sang outside our door at Christmas. Occasionally students dropped by unannounced, including one endearing, academically challenged lug who, when I choked on a morsel of food one evening, sprang up from our kitchen table and might have broken my ribs had I not recovered my voice in time to spare myself a bruising application of the Heimlich maneuver. When our daughter was born, the minister's wife, a no-nonsense mother of four who handled a baby with the businesslike dispatch of a pizza chef tossing dough and as slim a chance of dropping it on the floor, volunteered to give us a kitchen-table demonstration on bathing an infant (we jumped at the offer) and the owner of the local furniture store came by with his wife and a dozen of her homemade rolls, still warm from the oven. From the other side of the cultural divide, the founders of the famous (or infamous, depending on your politics) Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover showed up with congratulations and a silk-screened banner bearing a militant red flower and the word YES to hang above her crib. I was a great eater of pancakes in those days, but I can't recall that we ever bought a container of maple syrup. It came to us, the way venison steaks and fresh raspberries would have come to a doctor's back porch in previous generations.
But we were always mindful of something anarchic in the shadows, rooted mostly in stories of "what things were like back then," before the interstate was laid and the down-country bourgeoisie began arriving in droves to seek "a simpler way of life" or "an old house with character," but still in living memory and sometimes on open display. Even in our tamer time, Halloweens fell just short of what would have justified calling out the National Guard. Wooden bridges and abandoned barns were set ablaze, and the house of one unpopular teacher was so mercilessly egged that he'd gotten into the habit of suspending large canvas tarps from the eaves to the driveway. In the smaller hamlets on the farther edges of the district, the older ways lingered on, not only in midnight devilment but in the comparatively staid conduct of school business. A veteran teacher's aide we came to know liked to tell the story of showing up for her first day on the job in the 1960s, only to find the village school locked and empty. When she went to the superintendent's office to ask if she had misread the school calendar, his deputy ventured an educated guess that "Dottie must not have felt like starting school today. Try going over tomorrow."
The larger point here is that Dottie was still a few years from retirement when my wife and I arrived at the end of the 1970s. She no longer used a large handbell to call the students in from recess, perhaps in consequence of a mishap involving a small boy who'd ventured too close to the arc of her swing and been KO'd on the spot. As the story goes, the boy, questioned at dinner by his father as to the plum-sized lump on his scalp, began by saying, "Mrs. J. hit me in the head with a bell." Before he could elaborate further, his indignant father demanded, "What were you doing when she hit you?" The boy said he'd not been doing anything except standing too close to his teacher, but the father was unconvinced. "You must have been doing something pretty bad if your teacher had to bean you with a bell." The child might have gotten some additional knocks had Mrs. J. not rapped on the door just then, dropping by to check on her hapless pupil's head. She assured the parents that he'd done nothing to deserve a hiding.
When we first heard the story, it was used to illustrate how much times had changed—a parent wouldn't be so quick to side with a teacher these days, that's for sure, call a lawyer more likely—but it underscored how recently they had changed, recently enough for us to be part of the transition. Of course, we too were destined to be changed by our assignments, as much taught as having taught. By my count I have taken the equivalent of four degrees in my life, one from a college, one from the glue and plastics factories I worked in during college, one from a university, and one from teaching at a public high school in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, a region alternately as close to and as far from the Kingdom of God as any place I have ever known.
I walk from my car to the building with my resurrected briefcase (a leather, brass-buckled KPMG "audit bag" given me by my accountant brother and a signature accessory in my former teaching days) and an empty milk crate for lugging home as many course texts as I can carry. On the way I check to see that my old friend Donna Underwood is still included among the various memorials in the grass circle under the flagpole. It seems the school's untimely deaths are now consolidated in one upright monument, and Donna's name is there. Much beloved at the school, she was my department head until she died of cancer in between my seventh and eighth years of teaching. She'd been missing from my application interview—on medical leave to handle her first, nonfatal bout with breast cancer—and was reportedly against the hire, her disapproval probably overruled by my charmed status as the husband of a speech pathologist. In addition to my lack of teaching experience, she was concerned, as she later told me when we had become friends and could treat her confession as a joke, by the number of straight-A semesters on my transcripts. "You proved me wrong, but frankly, I didn't think our kids would relate to an egghead."
I sense the current department head also has reservations about me, and she does, though hers are of a different order, having to do with my ability to adjust to current trends in education rather than with any distinctions of my transcript or deficiencies in my toolbox. I will not learn of her caveats until later, when she no longer has them and I am just beginning to. For now I'm hoping that by showing up so early to learn the details of next year's assignment, I will put her at ease.
All trends aside, one thing has stayed the same. As I'm crossing the parking lot, the intercom squawks an announcement from the outdoor speakers. I have timed my visit to correspond with the end of the school day, so I can sense the more driven of the teachers inside the building sighing as the last three minutes of their lessons are lost—can feel something sigh deep in myself. "Without the loudspeaker we never would have conquered Germany," Hitler said, and on that point I've always been willing to give the führer his due. I hated that sound almost as much as anything else in the school routine, even if I liked the person whose voice was barking into the microphone. The kids knew I hated it, and the more sympathetic ones would join in groaning with me, a few hinting that in exchange for some extra credit they might be able to arrange a little accident with the wiring. This afternoon's message, "Seniors, remember your picture money for tomorrow," comes with a subtext: Garret, are you sure you want to do this?
I am no stranger to the question. I heard it even in the Donna days. After seven years of teaching, I took a sabbatical to write my first book—No Place But Here: A Teacher's Vocation in a Rural Community—returning to my classroom refreshed but more convinced than ever that I wanted to write full-time, wanted to work alone, wanted to wake up early with a tranquil feeling in my stomach and to work with no intercom squawking above my desk. I was now the head of my department, Donna having died near the close of my sabbatical. I had fewer classes to teach and thus fewer papers to correct, but more headaches, which is to say, more exposure to problems that were not of my making. What had been my working motto all the years before—stay in your own classroom and out of other people's affairs—no longer sorted with my job description. Nevertheless, I managed to last another eight years, six beyond the two-year commitment required by the sabbatical, largely by alchemizing what was supposed to be "administrative time" into extra tutoring time with kids. But the chairmanship was the beginning of the end for me. I don't think I was an especially awful chairperson, just an awfully unhappy one.
It was my daughter who helped me escape. One evening when she was in fifth grade, slumped as usual over her prodigious homework—it is virtually a natural law that the less educated or educationally involved the parents of school-age children are, the more they will tend to see "lots of homework" as a sign of effective teaching and the more likely their teachers will be to take the hint—I heard her say tearfully to her mother: "I'm not good at anything."
At that point in my career, I was teaching mostly advanced-level courses, a newly devised AP English among them, filled with kids who were "good at everything," or at least had been led to believe they were. Every year I added to my vanity files letters from college admissions offices written to me in praise of the detailed letters of recommendation I had written for my students. Every year I received a visit or a letter from a former student or a former student's parent, thanking me for my part in their preparation for college. You were a good teacher—but was I an attentive father? If teaching was the best thing I knew how to do, didn't my own child deserve a better share of it?
With my wife's support, in both paychecks and lesson plans, and our daughter's poignantly enthusiastic assent—her only question was whether homeschool would also include "snack time" and if that might be scheduled a little earlier in the day—I took the plunge, requesting a year's unpaid leave and forfeiting a salary that was at the time roughly equivalent to a year's tuition at Harvard. Thus began a labor of love and what I recall as one of the happiest years of my life. I divided the days into halves, with mornings given to conventional, skill-based lessons in basic subjects, and afternoons devoted to hands-on, long-term projects: an archaeological excavation at an old house site in the woods, running our own restaurant for an evening (on the premises of an actual restaurant and after weeks of lessons on foods and finance), and studying "babies" (which included shadowing a pediatrician on his hospital rounds). The local public school agreed to let our daughter come for art and music classes and thus to maintain ties with her classmates. I turned our tanklike '78 Malibu (destined to end its long and illustrious life as the winner of a demolition derby) into a mobile classroom, outfitting it with map assignments and flash cards for long trips and a jerry-rigged bike rack for physical education classes. I resisted the urge to draw up and affix a perverse if altogether accurate bumper sticker—"I'm a homeschoolin' gun-totin' Bible-bangin' . . . SOCIALIST"—though I was not always able to resist giving my stock rejoinder to some acquaintance's sniffing, hackneyed caveat about "the loss of peer interaction": The inmates at Walla Walla state prison get peer interaction too. There are few more trenchant giveaways as to the lack of confidence so many parents have in their local public school, and the anguish they experience in consigning their children to its care, than their readiness to construe another parent's homeschooling as a personal attack.
It had always been our intention that our daughter should return to public school, an institution we strongly believe in. Accordingly, she rejoined her classmates the following year. It had been my plan to return as well, but due to a fortuitous publishing opportunity, I did not—except for teaching an elective first-period course gratis for a single semester, a parting gesture of thanks to a school system that had treated me well. By the end of my semester with an overcrowded and dubiously motivated class, I was readier than ever to be done. And done I was, at least for the foreseeable future. What I could not have foreseen was walking back into the very same school, fourteen years later, and also on another mission I like to think was motivated by love.
Kathy and I had started our teaching careers in the same school district, with the same level of preparation and on the same salary step; for a while we even drove the same type of car, a VW Bug, mine beige and hers white, with a child car seat passed back and forth between them. Notwithstanding the unfair advantage I had in teaching upper-track teenagers capable of singing my praises or at least remembering my name, both of us managed to achieve a comparable level of excellence according to our formal evaluations and community standing. Beyond that our trajectories were very different. For one thing, hers lasted twice as long as mine.
She had started out as the itinerant speech pathologist for seven schools, with a seventeen-mile spread between the most outlying two. One of our first chores after moving into our apartment was to construct a user-friendly map of their scattered locations and various dirt-road connections, to be kept in her car along with a snow shovel, a thick blanket, and a candle (the heat of a single candle flame reputedly sufficient to prevent hypothermia in a storm-trapped car). After a while her position shifted from working with students K through 12 to working exclusively with preschool children. This had been her aim even before taking her degree. At first she was dividing her time between students enrolled in a preschool classroom and children who received their services at home. When the preschool program began to move away from home visits toward the safer model of site-based delivery, she was also able to reduce her time on the road.
She would soon be spending most of her time in the rented rooms of a church basement, not an ideal site, though preferable to some she had known in the past. In her itinerant years, for example, she had given therapy on the stairwell of a two-story school that would soon be condemned as unfit for human occupancy and had delivered services at another school through whose playground a farmer took his dripping manure spreader every spring.
There was no manure in the church basement but that's not to say it was free of shit. The gatekeepers of the congregation were habitually snapping at the teachers—this trifle or that falling short of their standard of "acceptable" housekeeping—even as the Sunday school felt free to leave the classroom areas in disarray for Monday mornings. Basically there was one classroom and an adjoining room that served the dual purpose of storage space and office for as many as six teachers, aides, and specialists. Whenever I dropped by to deliver some teaching tool forgotten at home or to make a car switch, I'd enter a small metropolis of stacked toys and games, hang a left and then a right past the rainbow-colored skyscrapers, and find my wife (or a chair with just her sweater) sitting in a corner at a broken wooden desk that most people would feel embarrassed to leave on the curb with a FREE sign.
And yet, in spite of the physical circumstances, those years in the basement would be viewed in retrospect as the heyday of an exemplary program. Kathy's closest partner, the program's early-education specialist, was a master teacher (once the district's Teacher of the Year) and also her dearest friend. The other teachers and even the teacher's aides were all seasoned and impressively knowledgeable, as aides often are. (The widespread use of so-called paraprofessionals as underpaid substitutes for teachers is public education's best claim to a racket.) If it's cant to say that women work together more collegially and less "hierarchically" than men, it's a cant these women made it easy for me to believe.
But, just as the beginning of the end came for me when I was promoted to the head of my department, the golden age of my wife's thirty-year job came to a close with what felt at first like the fulfillment of a dream. The program was going to have its own building. The preschool was going to have the amenities of every other school in the district and perhaps even an approximation of the same respect.
The idea and much of the labor that followed came from Kathy's teaching partner, who at times was working round the clock on the project while still holding her full-time job. Her colleagues took on extra duties in order to free her up for writing grants, consulting with architects and early childhood experts, and pacifying state officials whose greatest single fear seemed to be that a new building funded for direct services to children and families would wind up shanghaied by school administrators for their own purposes. Her colleagues also stirred their ideas into the brew.
Though the plans were repeatedly scaled down from the Reggio Emilia–inspired structure called for in the original blueprint, the building eventually came to be. It included multiple classrooms, individual or small-group therapy rooms, a storage space worthy of a medium-sized hardware store, office space for teachers, additional office space for social agencies (who it was hoped would offset building costs by paying rent and provide the equivalent of one-stop shopping for parents in need of broad-spectrum social services), a combination cafeteria/activities room (for work with gross motor skills), and a cushioned playground with brand-new equipment. Parents of the children, husbands of the teachers, and local business owners all lent a hand in assembling furniture, putting up shelves, moving equipment from former sites, and donating materials not covered by grants. It gave me particular pleasure to sit on the polished floor one evening and screw together my wife's new desk.
With the public declaration of an innovative new model for early childhood education—including the coordination of services between the public school, Head Start, and a nonprofit agency devoted to the area's migrant-worker families—reporters came to snap the pictures and write down the names of the superintendent, the director of special services, the state legislator for our district, and a host of other luminaries (say "cheese," as in "big")—everyone, need I add, but the women who had brought the building to birth. But the building was a reality. A new day had dawned.
It would be a short one. You can build a school from the ground up, but the directing of its destiny will always move from the top down. You can say "the kids come first" till the cows come home, but in practice the kids come fourth behind administrators, parents, and teachers—or fifth, in a dairy economy, behind the cows. Within the space of about three years, a new superintendent relocated his offices to the building. The social service agencies vanished. The storage room was emptied and its contents squeezed into outdoor storage sheds in order to make additional office space. The office for the preschool staff became nearly as cluttered as before with the overflow from the storage sheds. At least one treatment room was rededicated as a transition space for obsolete computer equipment. The spacious "gross motor room," to which children would go for their exercise on days too cold for them to have recess outdoors, was regularly commandeered for district-wide principals' meetings. Worst of all, three out of three extraordinarily gifted preschool teachers had left for other jobs. First to go was the woman whose brainchild the building had been and whose visionary capabilities included that of being able to read the writing on the wall.
Kathy stayed. Now the most senior member of the operation, the go-to person for day-to-day problems, though never for any programmatic decision that might plausibly require some rudimentary knowledge of early childhood development, she was often the first to arrive at the building and the last to leave. She was also one of the few people left under its roof who could recall what the place was originally intended to be. Returning from a sabbatical granted for the purpose of adding to her already considerable knowledge of autism spectrum disorders, she found the building altered and her new proposals ignored. The sabbatical felt like a practical joke. By then the "new initiative" within the district was for "all-day" (as opposed to half-day) preschool, ostensibly predicated on the belief that pre-K education is of vital importance and actually predicated on the belief that pre-K education is nothing more than glorified day care anyway. No one troubled to ask Kathy or any of her frontline colleagues about the appropriateness of a thirty-five-hour school week to a four-year-old. And why should they, given that a teacher of four-year-olds is frequently afforded the status of a four-year-old?
When Kathy dared to tell her imperious new supervisor that she was always open to constructive criticism but not to being snapped at like a stray dog, she was rewarded with the added chore of helping to set out hot lunches, buttering crackers, and wiping plates while postponing the treatment needs of the quasi- and nonverbal children who crowded her roster. Unlike my wife, the quasi- and nonverbal children could be counted on not to complain.
As my daughter had once awakened me from my stupor by saying "I'm not good at anything," my wife roused me to wakefulness by an equally affecting refrain. "Just once before I die, I would like to have a job where I'm treated like an adult."
William Carlos Williams told us that "so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow," and I have wondered if he said so because, as a physician, he wanted to distract us from the fact that so much more depends on a Blue Cross insurance policy, glazed with J-Rider, beside the chickenshit job. As my wife continually reminded me when I told her to quit and that I would welcome her home with roses and a loud hurrah if she did, we needed health insurance. My quoting of Thoreau's magnificent line about the folly of working yourself sick in order to have money to pay the doctor wasn't much help. Though Kathy never would have said so, the simple fact was that for years I'd been able to play Thoreau and pay the doctor thanks to her.
Indignant and discouraged but not yet beat, I devised two plans of emancipation. Neither one involved my return to Ranger Country, I might add. First, I would try to write my way out of our problem. I seemed close to a solution when the offer of a magazine column promised more income stability than I can usually count on as a freelance writer. The offer seemed almost too good to be true, and it was. The column was given to someone else.
The second plan was to parlay my modest publishing credentials into some kind of prep school or college teaching job. (The expiration of my teaching certificate several years previous made my employment at a public high school seem unlikely.) True, I had no college teaching experience, no PhD either, but creative writing positions sometimes waived those requirements. And hadn't I prepared kids for college for years, including some who were now professors with PhDs?
Knowing this was a long shot but not without confidence, I shelled out for a year's membership (at the peon level) in the Modern Language Association, without which mortals are not permitted even to weep over its want ads, and applied for positions at universities, colleges, and private secondary schools. I'd love to tell you some of the impressive things I said in my interviews, but that would require me to have been invited to an interview.
After every option I could think of had dead-ended, I learned there was to be a one-year opening at the high school where I'd taught, the only place I'd ever taught for pay. Suddenly there was a new and fateful nuance to the title of my book about teaching, now more than twenty years old: No Place But Here. For a fee and some hoop jumping, and with the superintendent's approval, the state was willing to grant me a two-year provisional license.
So, you might ask—echoing Dylan's taunting refrain in "Like a Rolling Stone"—how does it feel to be walking across the high school parking lot on a balmy spring day in the autumn of my life, just ahead of the school buses now blocking any chance of a hasty retreat, with my old nemesis the intercom blaring at me across the lawn? How does it feel to be back in the building from which I'd ventured fourteen years ago to earn my living with my pen? How did it feel to sit at a table at the one interview I'd managed to garner after all my exhaustive searching, across from a principal, a director of guidance services, and two out of four school board members who are all not only younger than I but also former students of mine and, without telling any lies outright, hedge the desperation that led me to apply? And what did I feel when one of the board members, not a former student, I'm relieved to say, expressed her concern that I might treat the post as a poor relation to my writing career, shortchanging the students while living on the taxpayers' dime, as had been the case with one schoolteaching real estate agent she'd known in the past—a bitterly ironic insinuation given that my refusal to do that very thing in all the years I taught at this school is quite possibly a reason for the arrested development and equivocal success that have brought me hat in hand to the interview?
Ambivalence. That's what I felt at the interview, that's what I feel walking into the school this afternoon, and that as much as any other single word is my best recommendation to whoever gets the chore of coming up with the Library of Congress subject classifications for this book. Teachers—rural high schools—midlife predicaments—freelance hacks, plight of—ambivalence.
On the one hand, I feel a sense of futility and failure, a sense of having been cut down to size, the victim of bad luck, of "systems" both educational and economic, of my own delusions most of all. This has nothing to do with thinking that the profession of teacher is beneath me; I have always said that no book I've ever written or will ever write is as important in the scheme of things, as venerable in the firmament of human accomplishment, and as much sheer fun in its finer moments as teaching the young. I will believe that till the day I die. I would believe it were my name to eclipse that of Joan Didion or Philip Roth. Rather, my discouragement has to do with my apparent failure to live up to the motto I now find blazoned in large letters in the school's main lobby: MOVE FORWARD.
At the same time, I feel an emotion difficult to express without sounding maudlin. As happened more than half my lifetime ago, when no one seemed to want my services or to be willing to give me a chance, this small rural high school is once again opening its doors—and not reluctantly, or on the whole suspiciously, but rather as if little besides its own good fortune has drawn me (what other word can I use?) home. I never felt it was a sin to leave the school behind once I was brave and solvent enough to do so, but somehow coming back calls to mind the parable of the prodigal son. Unworthy as I am, Lake Region Union High School has put a ring on my finger and health insurance under my feet. And there may be a more applicable parable. Even as I write this I wonder, honestly for the first time, if I have misinterpreted that nightmare about the beast I was trying to bludgeon to death out on the open sea. Had I dreamed but a moment longer, might I have realized that it leapt to my imperiled raft for no other purpose than to take me in its arms?
Copyright © 2014 by Garret Keizer