Ask most teachers and they will confess. They can’t sleep the night before the school year begins in autumn. I was no different, although I loved school, girl and woman, student and teacher. For most of my life September meant new notebooks, new personalities, and new challenges. But now, as September ends, the excitement of returning to the classroom has taken on an appropriately autumnal haze.
The sad news of the great comedian and actor Robin Williams’ death evokes memories of his role in The Dead Poet’s Society. His teacher character employed shock classroom tactics, like walking on the desks and having students rip up their text books. The element of surprise worked for me too, but in a quieter way.
Unlike my college professor daughter, who once lined up stuffed animals on her bed and gave them spelling quizzes, my early ambition was not to teach, but to write for a living. But as my college graduation neared I won a fellowship for a master’s degree for teaching secondary school English. I can do that for a while, I thought. It looked so easy: a short day, a long summer break, and nothing to do but stand in front of the room and inveigh against sentence fragments. A piece of cake. It wasn’t. But one thing I had going for me was the element of surprise.
I could not be Robin Williams walking on desks. That might work in the hallowed halls of prep schools, but not in the New York City public high schools, where I obtained a license to teach English. “Don’t smile till Christmas,” I was told. “You need to control them.” Before my first class I practiced speaking through tight lips.
But a wonderful mentor, Janet Mayer, told me just the opposite. “I control with love and kindness,” she told me. (Her book, As Bad As They Say, explains the techniques she shared.) Her license plate at the time began with PPP, and I thought it must mean Practically Perfect Person. When I told her that, she smiled and said to remember the word practically. No one was perfect all the time.
Throughout my years in the classroom I was far from perfect. Sometimes I was cranky, sometimes lazy, and, most regretfully, sometimes I was unfair. But I came to learn that, more than a common core curriculum or a battery of tests, my students needed someone to take their education seriously, and someone to smile at them. And when I did both of those things, that was surprise enough.