Don’t Smile Till Christmas

Don’t Smile Till Christmas Don't Smile

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.


13 thoughts on “Don’t Smile Till Christmas

  1. Judy Rudnick October 2, 2014 / 9:23 am

    Great sense of humor! I enjoyed your writing. Our students were blessed to have such talented, caring, insightful teachers. Dodge really had the Cream of the Crop! And the English department….OMG, THE BEST!!

    I was heart broken when Robin Williams died. The Dead Poets’ Society was a great movie and he was the ultimate teacher. Loosing all our funny people makes life a little harder. Soooo, hit me with your humor! Have a great day! Love, Judy


    • Jackie October 2, 2014 / 9:49 am

      Thank you for this lovely comment, Judy. I’m glad you enjoyed Don’t Smile Till Christmas. What a pleasure to meet you here.


  2. Judy Rudnick October 2, 2014 / 1:07 pm

    I just shared your story with Howie Sirota! He in turn remembered barging into your class to look out the window. The things we remember? Crazy…. Anyway, FB has provided me a sight to stay connected with people I normally don’t get the chance to see. I would love to join you, Iris, Barbara M. And Linda Borenstein for an afternoon of fun. Maybe a walk by the Reservoir and a lunch, maybe a dinner at the Pines. Keep it in mind. A healthy New Year to you and yours. Oh, by the way, congrats to your daughter… professor!! SMILE


    • Jackie October 4, 2014 / 10:40 am

      Thank you Rickey. I will! But I am a little unbalanced. Need to call Nan at for assistance.


  3. Marlena Baraf October 4, 2014 / 3:05 pm

    Take their work seriously and smile at them. Why, Jackie, you practice these out of the classroom too. Terrific article!


  4. Jackie October 5, 2014 / 9:21 am

    Thank you Marlena Baraf for this gracious comment. Looking forward to reading your work when it is published in Blue Lyre. An occasion to smile. Seriously!


  5. Ines Rodrigues October 10, 2014 / 4:38 pm

    Jackie, the text is as good as you…it reminds me of my 10th grader who complains that all her teachers are “mean”. By January they invariably start to become human. Around May, they are all friends. Your post was a revelation for me, a fellow teacher who loves to deal just with students over 25 years of age.


    Ines Rodrigues


  6. Jackie October 11, 2014 / 8:39 pm

    Thank you Ines. Teaching adults also must have its challenges. Would love to hear about them.


  7. madeline denaro October 23, 2014 / 11:05 am

    With my hectic life and deadlines, I had never revisited your blog. I now am getting to gradually
    get a picture of the world of Jackie that I have not been privy to since our schooldays and this is only the October installment! I look forward to reading more and allowing a sense of yourself to come into my being.
    Lovely to rekindle,


  8. Jackie October 23, 2014 / 4:35 pm

    Glad you revisited, Madeline. Hope to see you here again, and looking forward to seeing more of your paintings.


  9. Susan Kavanagh November 9, 2014 / 5:28 pm

    What great fun to see a picture of you in your teaching role. I really enjoyed hearing your thoughts on your teaching career. Funny how we end up doing something unplanned but ultimately fulfilling considering how clueless we were when graduating.


    • Jackie November 9, 2014 / 6:29 pm

      Glad you enjoyed Don’t Smile Till Christmas. Yes, we were lucky to find fulfillment in our work. Thank you for stopping by the blog and taking the time to comment. My next one is scheduled for Thanksgiving. Hope to see you here again.


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