When I was in second grade we were asked to create a small biography of ourselves. We were to provide information such as “favorite color”, and “favorite sport”, and “favorite animal”, and “favorite book”. My grandfather had been telling me stories about these three bullfrogs sitting on a log since I was the age of 3 and therefore I had grown particularly fond of the children’s series “Frog and Toad”. However, I had also been thumbing through my brother’s books and listening to him talk about what he was studying in his political science classes. Rather than writing down one of the many books in the “Frog and Toad” series, I came to a toss up between The Gates of Fire, a fictional book about the battle at Thermopylae, and The Presidency of James Madison by Robert Allen Rutland. I chose the Madison biography because I didn’t want the trouble of explaining The Gates of Fire to my teacher. All I knew was that there was a lot of blood and cursing (which was probably more than I could say about the Madison biography at the time). Nonetheless, my teacher was still troubled with my choice.
That same year when we were doing times tables for speed during class, the kid across from me was teasing my classmate next to him in order to rattle him during the competition. I got angry and threw my pencil at him which landed me in a corner in the back of the classroom for the remainder of the year. She didn’t believe me.
When I was in the fourth grade I opened a business. I was bored in class- we mostly studied science and I had decided that I wanted to be a lawyer and study history in order to bide my time in lower school in order to prepare myself. During many of our class “experiments”, which consisted of the teacher explaining diagrams and we the students filling in work sheets, I would make what I then called “bookies”. In other words, I would create small comic books on notebook paper and sell them to students, who at first, I think, bought them out of their sense of charity, and who later bought them out of their desire to be fashionable, for 55 cents. I also had a small jar on my desk that would hold pencils that my mother had bought for me and I would sell those for 10 cents or throw them in to sweeten the deal for the bookies. I saw no problem with it. The students in PACE, who were said to be the advanced students, but in reality were the students whose parents had close connections at the school, sold lolly pops for 50 cents every day before school and the principal sold pencils in his office. My teacher shut down my efforts nonetheless.
When I had gotten to freshman English class I had a teacher that I particularly liked. We read Shakespeare and the Odyssey that year. I suppose the Odyssey reminded me of my adolescent love for the battle at Thermopylae. I can even remember that I thought so much of Homer at the time that I found that the textbook which contained the Odyssey left out a few scenes of the work. It didn’t say so anywhere on the textbook, but I found that some things in the text just weren’t adding up or painting a full picture of the story. I can remember my teacher telling me that we weren’t yet old or mature enough to read the entire work. I know what this really meant was that she didn’t have faith that we were “smart” enough to understand it- whatever that means.
My junior year was the year that all of us began to think about college. In my English class that year we read Gatsby and I fell in love. I can remember the movie, but I don’t remember any lectures. We were also asked, that year, to write an essay on a topic of our choosing. A rather vague assignment, but we were told that this was what we would be asked to do on the state tests, and this is what would be asked of us in college. I decided to write on Political campaigns. I was accused of plagiarism that year for my essay because my teacher said that the words “didn’t seem” like they were my own. I’m not sure how she would know- we hadn’t written an essay yet in her class and this was the end of the year, nor had we, to my knowledge, typed any true essays up until that point.
I don’t mean to insinuate that I didn’t have any good teachers in school. I can remember my third grade teacher inspiring me to collect coins, and I can remember my eighth grade history teacher and her love for Lewis and Clark. I can even remember my Math class from my eighth grade year. I couldn’t see the white board because I refused to get glasses and I struggled very badly. I told my math teacher and instead of having me take notes from the back of the class he would have me do a work problem on the white board every single day in front of my classmates. I loved him for that. He was a basketball coach at the high school and It showed that he cared. He and I would struggle together in front of the class. He would struggle to flex his art of teaching a kid who didn’t naturally get math. I would struggle on the math problem, and he would struggle to find what made me get it. Furthermore, he would reveal to the entire class, and to me specifically, what leadership was.
Although I don’t want to insinuate that I didn’t have any good teachers, I do want to say that I didn’t appreciate teachers because the bad ones had the ability to overshadow the good ones. They tinged my pallet so badly that by the time that my senior Spanish teacher prophetically told me that I was going to be a teacher I cringed. I also want to say that I had never known why I was doing the things that I was doing. I had asked teachers this before and they had taken my question as an attempt to lash out and demean them in front of other students. I may not have known it at the time, but the answer that I was looking for was one that I try to tell at least one of my students every day. The answer is either one of three things: “Because its good”, “Because its true”, or more importantly “Because its beautiful”. That was all I wanted to hear, alongside a defense of why it was one of those things.
Throughout the long history of teaching, one that stretches back to the conception of the first man, the art has shifted in terms of its aim. This is because teaching, despite the contemporary understanding of it, is an art. Like artwork, its focus shifts as the subject matter that it attempts to capture shifts. I was lucky to have my brother growing up. He is the greatest mentor that I have ever had, or that I will ever have. He taught me about character and love by simply being around me. He didn’t have to do anything special- he just had to be there and his being there was inspiring. The focus of teaching today is to do for students what my brother had done for me: to help me find my soul.
Unfortunately, today we lack older brothers as a society. Today we do not have leaders that we can look up to and that can teach us about character and what it means to be a man or woman who strives to do something good an honorable and just. We lack people that imbue our lives with a sense of purpose and meaning. School is at least partially to blame for this.
As a teacher I struggled a lot with this, and I still do. How am I to lead my students? I don’t particularly care about teaching them, for they have their whole lives to learn. I care much more about guiding them. I care about putting them on the right path so that their parents can draw the goodness out of them for the remainder of their lives until they must set them free. As a teacher I couldn’t do this, and this is why I gave up teaching. My soul was in pain because of this.
Teachers can’t be leaders today. The idea of school generally lacks purpose. It is a place that parents allow their kids to go during the day so they can go to work. We settle for this default understanding of what has been understood as the highest good of human life for the majority of the history of humanity simply because we are afraid to give up stability. But the problem is that our kids deserve better than mediocrity, and our nation can’t stand long if we only provide them with mediocrity.
I worked at the greatest school that I can imagine and I still struggled with this. Teaching is supposed to be team work; however, from my experience I have learned that much of the time I was working against the grain. There is not enough time to create community because we are concerned constantly with the practicality of doing things by the book. Because some bad teachers have treated students badly, teachers must refrain from becoming close with students. Because administrators are enforcing standards that they cannot explain and that they do not believe in there is tension between teachers and those who are supposed to support them most. Parents don’t understand that the process of learning and growing is painful and they resent when you foster children through the healthy pain of growth.
All of this needs to change. I did not get out of teaching to stay out, but I got out of teaching because I understand that we are wasting the human capital that we severely need as a nation. I understand that school is the most sacred institution on God’s earth, and I believe that wisdom is the most beautiful thing known to man. I got out of school because I hope to evoke the change that will bring education back to school. I am not sure how we get there, but I hope I can fight tooth and nail to do it.