I got my first teaching job on Christmas Eve, 2001. I had graduated from Yale Divinity School a few months before, and my father was in prison. Unless you’re the type for whom your father being in prison is par for the course, finding out that my dad was going to jail felt about like it would feel for you. In other words, it was the shock of my life. I still remember the call from my mom. “Your father has something he needs to tell you.”
The best thing, I thought, would be to move closer to my mom in Lancaster, to be supportive, but there was no way I was living in Lancaster. Philadelphia was the closest city with what I imagined to be exciting possibilities, so I dusted off the teaching certificate I got in college and started looking through the want ads. I found one for an “academically enriched” charter school serving a predominantly latino community in North Philadelphia. That sounded promising. The day I got off the bus for my interview, I walked past some boarded-up houses next to a lot with barbed wire, empty but for some old tires, and across the street from that was the school. The principal called me on Christmas Eve. “You still want this job, hon?” Hon. There aren’t many cities where you can get away with addressing someone as “hon” in a professional context, but Philly is one of them.
It’s weird to start teaching on January 2nd, because everyone is in that post-holiday funk, and if you’ve been going since September, you can kind of fake your way through the day. Read this story on pp. 193-197 and answer questions 1-8 on p.198. If you need any help, I’ll be over at my desk reading Pitchfork reviews. But this was my first day as a teacher anywhere, ever. I’d been feeling lost since the first time I tried to find the building. On the afternoon of my interview, I got off the train from Swarthmore at Market East and thought maybe I could take a nice walk up, walk the nerves out. I asked a cop at the corner of 5th and Market how far Hunting Park Avenue was, because the interview had been in about 10 minutes. “Oh, that’s way the hell up there!” was all he could tell me.
There I was on day one. I wasn’t sure where to go, so I skulked around the principal’s office for a little until she showed up and said, “Get out of my office!”
My first period class was in the library where the art teacher, who had been covering the class in the interim, was writing the words, “Do Now” on the whiteboard. He handed me the dry erase marker without much ceremony. “You have them do the Do Now, then you read with them for a little, and then you try to get them to do some work. You gotta be pretty relentless. Especially with Juan. Juan doesn’t like to do too much. They’re good kids, but they’ll give you a run for it.” He told me that they were supposed to be doing Frost but that he wasn’t sure where the books were.
We started with “Mending Wall.” Would anyone like to read “Mending Wall” aloud? A kid with jheri curls in the back suggested that I place my mouth on a certain part of his anatomy. Then he went to sleep for the rest of the period. About ten minutes in, the principal came in with a big black clipboard, took a seat next to my buddy in the back, and started scribbling notes.
“So why do you think Frost says good fences make good neighbors?” This is what you’re supposed to do, right? Ask them questions? Get a convo going? I couldn’t for the life of me remember what we did in my English classes when I was in high school.
“So their dog don’t come and shit on your lawn!”
Hey hey! It was Juan who contributed this! Who says Juan doesn’t like to do anything? The principal scribbled in her notebook. Rivulets of sweat poured down the sides of my 50% polyester shirt. I wasn’t sure what the move was from there. Almost from somewhere above, I heard myself say, “Can you extrapolate?” Damn Yale Divinity School! Extrapolate?! The principal’s pen etched deep angry grooves into the surface of her clipboard.
Things kind of went along from there for the rest of that year. I won’t say they got better. Sometimes they got worse. There was Diane, the slightly manic ex-opera singer who was assigned to be my teacher mentor – and who was also a first year teacher, uncertified – who once told me in complete and terrifying earnestness that I was going to marry her. There was the time the principal stomped down the hallway between classes screaming, “Where are the teachers! Where are the teachers! These kids are tearing ass up and down the halls and where are the teachers?!” and then she shattered the yardstick she was carrying against the wall. There was my 6th period class, last of the day, the worst one by a long shot, who one day played football during my lesson with a maxi pad, and who convinced me that they’d attended some meeting during which they’d caught wind of my imminent firing. It seemed completely plausible.
Then there was the last day of school when we had a student faculty basketball game in the public gym at Hunting Park. The cheerleaders got suited up for it and all. It was fun for about an hour or so, then two of the cheerleaders started some beef that ended in all sorts of hair pulling and face gouging. The players and spectators caught wind of it almost instantly with that lizard-instinct kids have for such things, and pretty soon it turned into an all-out, full-school brawl. One of the math teachers who played rugby in college got himself right into the middle of the scrum and earned himself a split bottom lip. Pretty soon the paddy wagons showed up. Kids got thrown against hoods of cars, hauled off in the backs of the wagons. Some of the instigators got expelled.
This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you why I went back the next year. Mostly it’s because of my complete and utter inability to make a master plan. They offered me a contract, I had no other ideas, so it seemed like the best thing to do. I didn’t know at that point that I was called to teaching.
That word has always made me a little squirrely. During orientation week before the start of divinity school, they split us into small groups one afternoon and had us share our “calling stories.” I hated that moment. Unlike a lot of the other people in the room, I hadn’t come to divinity school to get ordained. There was no writing on the wall, no blinding flash of light. I just thought it would be cool to do the integrated program in religion and literature, maybe do a PhD afterward. That’s the sort of white noise that was playing in my head as the first guy started sharing about how he used to be an investigative journalist but then discovered the ultimate Truth. . . I didn’t have a story. There was nothing special that brought me to that place. No voice calling my name in the night. Other people had stories. Not me.
The month after I graduated from Yale Divinity School, my father was sent to prison, as I said, and I had even less of a sense of what the grand narrative might be. For the next few months I was basically slogging it out. Going to work, getting my butt kicked by the academically enriched latino youth of North Philadelphia, and coming home to my studio apartment with red painted floors and a downstairs neighbor who collected porcelain unicorns and listened to Yanni. This felt like my world entire.
There was that one moment, though, just before the end of the school year when Yessenia of 6th period fame spoke to me. It was one of those moments that you only really assign significance in retrospect. It was a typical 6th period with the Pokemon geeks trading cards in one corner and the hip-hop heads trading Fabolous lines in the other corner and girls with their compacts reapplying makeup and shedding hair extensions and the general talking of trash. I’m not quite sure what set me off, maybe Jorge calling me “son,” for the umpteenth time or Hector pretending I couldn’t see him fondling his neighbor under the desk, or Tatiana incessantly “coming at my neck” like she was wont to do, but I was tired, I was fried, and I snapped that day. I threw my dry erase marker at the back wall, where the cap flew off and zinged past Jimmy’s afro, and then I screamed – maybe sobbed is a better word – “What do you want from me?!”
Things got about as quiet as I had ever heard them. Edwin stopped slapping Tone in the back of the head. Tatiana stopped putting on lipstick and gave me the stink eye. Augusto picked his head up from the desk for the first time in about two weeks. You could hear the sound of cars passing over a metal grate out on 5th Street. After a while, Yessenia broke the silence.
“We’re kids, Mister. This is our job. We’re supposed to see how far we can push you before you leave. The guy who was here before you? He stood on that radiator over there and put his head out the window one day. Said he was gonna jump. That’s how far we pushed him. He ain’t here no more. Now you here. To tell you the truth, you ain’t doin’ so bad compared to that guy. We wanna know if you gonna leave us too. Or if you gonna stay.”
It was maybe the most surprising moment of human connection up to that point in my life. It was like that old cartoon where the sheep dog beats the snot out of the wolf while he tries to steal the sheep, and then they clock out at the end of the day and go home and are good buddies. In that room, I played the role of the teacher, and the students played the role of students, and we weren’t supposed to see each other as real people, but somehow, in that moment, Yessenia broke the fourth wall and spoke directly to me as a person. I don’t want to put too fine of a point on the moment or turn it into the epiphanic conversion experience of my career as a teacher. Let’s just say that it was one small experience amongst lots of other small experiences that were maybe calling me to teach.
The transformation was about moving from basic personal survival towards something far more creative, productive, and interrelational. In the months before Yessenia’s message for me, I had spent all of my energy just trying to make it through the day: driving to work in the morning with dread in my heart, standing in front of classes over which I felt no control, hoping that nothing too horrible would happen, praying for the last bell to liberate me, going home wasted and waiting for it all to start again the next day, all so that I could earn a paycheck and keep surviving towards who knew what end. All of this in the face of a personal and familial crisis that obliterated a large chunk of the meaning I had previously found in the daily rigmarole of life.
What Yessenia revealed to me is that it wasn’t all just about me, that there were other people involved here, other people also looking for meaning. In the case of the academically enriched Latino youth of North Philadelphia, these were people who – by and large – had learned to not expect much from the adults in their lives, other than abandonment. Whether or not they showed it most of the time, they were looking to me for meaning. Was I, too, going to cut and run, or did I actually have something to give them?
Back in that Yale Divinity School orientation, I thought of “calling” as something Big and Miraculous, like a hand writing on the wall, or a mysterious voice speaking from a dream. But maybe calling is more about hearing voices like Yessenia’s. I’ve always wanted so much for Someone to tell me what I’m supposed to be or do that I haven’t always been able to hear the voices of those around me telling me what they need. And what else is there, really? What more important calling?
I won’t go into how I evolved as a teacher. Remember that scene at the end of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure where they still suck at playing guitar and George Carlin winks at the camera and says, “Don’t worry, they get better?” It was kind of like that. But my triumphs can’t really be told through my pyrotechnics in front of the classroom. Mostly they’re told through the voices of my students. I think of the Liberian immigrant who wrote an editorial for my journalism class that won a city-wide award from the Philadelphia Notebook. I think of the once-homeless boy who won a writing award from Temple University. I think of all the students who were the first in their family to attend college. The role I played in their success was only one small part, but I couldn’t have played it without learning to listen very carefully to who they were, where they were from, what they needed.
I had a lot of great moments as a teacher in Philadelphia. Now I’m in Seattle. Originally, this little essay was supposed to be a comparison between schools in Philly and schools in the Pacific Northwest, but that’s not the way it shaped up. I’ve landed myself a job in Bellevue, one of Seattle’s wealthier suburbs. The differences, as you might imagine, are dramatic. I now have endless resources at my fingertips and work with students who, by and large, might be described as “privileged.” To tell you the truth, I haven’t felt this out of place since my first year of teaching. I’ve struggled, this past year, to keep a strong sense of my better self in the classroom. I’ve felt lost. I’ve felt demoralized. I’ve also had plenty of good moments. Still and all, I leave this year questioning my calling as a teacher. If you’re the praying type, I certainly wouldn’t mind being remembered. What I do know now is that I can be called in the most unexpected of ways. My ears are open.
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