Sunday, June 15, 2008

Fifty-One Minutes

Dear Jake,

So this is what you want, huh? What you told people you were going to do, what you always talked about? This is what you said you wanted, right? No, for reals – you’re gonna do this? You’re going to go be a teacher, stand in front of the kids?

Okay then.

You will need to get used to the bells. It wasn’t so long ago you were in college, those halcyon days of glorious waste when you refused to abstain from anything, when you did nothing in moderation or with restraint. There was a wide expanse of free time then, entire pristine prairies of it. They weren’t so long ago, those days, but you have moved far, far beyond them. Now, your life is divided into work-live-sleep, and work is further divided into these fifty-one minute chunks. Three-thousand and sixty seconds, one interval after another, bookended by a dull tone that isn’t, really, the sound of a bell. This is not what the hourly tolling of your gothic towered college sounded like. Those were bells; this is a bland tone not unlike the sound your building’s front door makes, that automatic buzzed-in noise.

Here are your six, fifty-one minute chunks. Five are for teaching, one is for “preparation.” This preparation time is when you urinate out the gallons of coffee you consume daily, and also when you read emails from the friends who don’t have real jobs. Not like your job. You can tell who has graduated onto a legitimate job by the email. Everyone you know who works in finance, who works in marketing, who works in fields somehow more nebulous than either finance or marketing, these friends write long, intricate emails. There are frequent links to entries from the urban dictionary, stuffwhitepeoplelike, or youtube clips you can’t open because the District’s firewall blocks pretty much everything. You feel guilt and panic each time you forget about the firewall and click a link from one of your artificially employed friends, immediately ex-ing off the screen and hoping no one is monitoring this. You imagine thick-necked cyber-security guys in dark rooms whose sole purpose is keeping track of how many times you generate the blocked by websense screen on your District-provided laptop. When you have the time to reply-all, the first-tier illusionary-jobbed quickly distinguish themselves from the second-tier illusionary-jobbed by replying-all to your reply-all in an incredibly short time span. Like, within ninety-eight seconds. This is especially remarkable given the inclusion of a thematically relevant link from craigslist’s “missed connection” section you won’t click because you know it will only trigger that blocked by websense screen. Again.

All other fifty-one minute chunks are reserved for teaching, not email. Please remember that the bells are in charge, not you. The bells decide beginnings and endings, not the extent of work completion, which sometimes takes many different sets of fifty-one minutes; not the desire to send the kids packing, which sometimes takes less than two minutes. Atonal chime and they burst out of rooms. Atonal chime and they drift toward the next room. One of those rooms is your room. Eventually they sit, at least until the next atonal chime. Then they leave and the whole process begins again.

You exist within this frame, within these constraints and limitations. Fifty-one minutes. It feels indescribably alien to have an external force shape your days like this. You will need to adjust.

You will need to adjust, also, to the commute. You live in San Francisco, but there are no jobs for inexperienced teachers in San Francisco Unified, the district that launched a thousand pink slips. There are jobs in the east 408, down the peninsula, away from the fog and the hills and the big window’d apartment you share with the fiancée, but much, much closer to the kind of poverty you had previously only read about in textbooks or first-person exposés by New Yorker staffers on extended leave. This is where the jobs are, so this is where you will go, steering your Subaru Outback south and into the flatland schools where no one wants to teach, not really.

Here is what it’s like to wake up in the dark every day, never ceasing to feel the tinge of guilt when the fiancée groans and rolls over, maybe digging her elbow, the sharpest elbow of any living adult female, into your back if you are too slow turning off the blaring alarm. The wood floors that are your favorite part of the apartment are always cold, never mind what month it is, and you shuffle to the bathroom to shower, to shave, to brush your teeth, eat vitamins, and inevitably forget to turn on the coffee-maker, even though you took the time to load it up the night before. On good days, you walk less than five minutes to your street-parked Subaru. On bad days, more. Sometimes much more. Stop for coffee and then get yourself going on the freeway. Getting there takes forty-five minutes on the straight-shot of 101. Getting back takes an hour and fifteen minutes on the curves of 280. It will take you eighteen months to quell the urge to backhand anyone who uses the phrase reverse commute, right? in that hopeful lilting way.

You will drive in a haze of sports talk radio, NPR, and the same loud music you listened to in high school and will never grow tired of, probably. Sometimes you take advantage of the commute and the time zone difference to catch up with friends on the east coast, but mostly you worry about how you will spend your six versions of fifty-one minutes. Sometimes this is productive worry, and it passes for what your teacher-credential program called planning. All such planning comes immediately after you say, out-loud, in the car, definitely loud enough to be heard over the NPR, you say: “What the fuck am I teaching 4th period?”

Sometimes, you come up with a good idea. Usually, your sleep-deprived, caffeine-addled, traffic-distracted brain comes up with very little that is even in the same genus as an idea, good or otherwise. Mostly though, you think about the kids.

There are more than ninety of them altogether, some of whom you teach in consecutive fifty-one minute blocks, some of whom who share, instructionally at least, with other teachers. The kids are an open wound of need and want. You will buy granola bars and carrots and apples for the ones who come to school perpetually hungry. You will stock pens and paper and binders for those who would otherwise never know what it is to own these materials, store them in a backpack, produce them upon request. You will plan to arrive almost ninety minutes before the first bell, because the kids will get there forty-five minutes before the first bell, and their insistent knocking, the desire to come in and out of the cold and use the Internet and tell you tales – this is hard to ignore. Not to mention completely incompatible with planning and preparation because you still don’t know what’s going to happen 4th period.

You will plan to stay well after the final bell has atonally toned, because a different group will wander through, knocking insistently. They want to listen to the radio and use the Internet and stand awkwardly by your desk to tell you tales. Daily, they will need to be chased from your room, often with the mock-exasperated tone that has nothing mock about it, often with threats of physical violence so extreme and out of place no one could mistake them for serious threats of physical violence.

Here are the kids. They are this deep, deep wound, and there is no free time, no mental energy, no chunk of your finances that cannot be poured in that wound like the most potent of Hydrogen Peroxides, a pouring that fuels the kind of consumption that only reinforces the pouring, justifies it, encourages it, emboldens future pourings and the expansion of the pouring into a variety of other areas.

You will need to educate the fiancée about the nature of this wound. And you will need to keep educating, because until you are there, doing this work, hemmed in by the bells and fighting the inarguable limits of those fifty-one minute, this is not something anyone can be expected to understand. Anticipate her lack of understanding and do not hold this against her, ever. Even with all your explaining and enlightening, she will never fully get it. This is not irony, your inability to educate the person closest to you during the time in which you are simultaneously capable of educating the children of strangers. It is not irony, but it is achingly lonely.

Sometime in the near future you will need to educate your own damn self on the merits of strategic withdrawal. You will need to learn about the digging of trenches, and the maintenance of equilibrium. Martyrs are fun to read about, not share a life with. But you can worry about that later, if there is a later. Most people don’t get that far.

Here is how you will teach.

You will teach vocabulary and spelling and phonics. You will teach past tense irregular verbs and persuasive essays and literature. You will teach cause-and-effect and confirming predictions and you encourage higher order thinking regarding a fictional immigrant father's assumption of bus driver authority in the American public school system. You will teach how to read questions and eliminate wrong answers, the difference in answering the why when you were supposed to tackle the how. You provide the data necessary to update Reading Goal Sheets and Big Goal Sheets, and reward progress accordingly. You will thank two students for arriving on time. You will send a student to copy The Reality of School essay after repeated disruptions and tell him to use his homework on which to write the essay because he previously demonstrated he did not value it as an instructional tool. You will teach myths and introduce the concept of point of view. You will look around at one point and some kids are finishing comprehension questions, some are independently reading, some are prewriting an essay that you’ll focus on later, some are taking reading quizzes, some are at the library or in transit, some are quizzing each other on spelling and vocabulary, and you will feel like a real teacher for the first time, no longer an imposter.

It will be life or death up there, always, in front of the kids. Life if the kids are moving with you, getting it, those glory moments when the hands go flying into the air. Life even if they don’t get it, but plow ahead anyway, offering you that eerie trust, that completely unearned vote of confidence that you know what you’re doing. Anything but that jaded stance, heads down and hoods up, unmoved by jokes or threats or injunctions that – for reals! – this is important stuff you need to learn.

Death then, fifty-one minutes thick.

Frequently, there will be a basketball game. The kids will show flashes of competence but will generally underachieve. You get into it with the refs a little bit, but restrain yourself, because you are conscious of your role as a leader of young men. And hey, someone write down the date, because here is the first time you ever thought about setting an example for anyone, anywhere.

Players will whine about being hurt and you want to repeat to them something a coach once told you about the difference between hurt and injured, but don't, because under the former condition it is still possible to perform a sex act with one's mother, while under the latter such activities are physically impossible, not just socially frowned upon. You won’t share this insight, because it is not a good idea to speak like that to 13 year-olds, even though you were spoken to in a similar vein and even though they will (clearly) remember, appreciate, and learn from the distinction many years hence.

Here is how you will herd the kids through the hostile crowd after the game and toward the bus, mostly without incident. Later you will stand impatiently in the foul smelling locker room, breathing the odor of stale sweat coated by body sprays, which are not, contrary to popular belief, an acceptable substitute for a shower. You offer this mantra, to be repeated as needed: Axe is not a shower. Axe is not a shower. Is it possible the locker rooms of your youth smelled this bad? There really is no way they were this bad, is there? They were, but in this and other things, your memory is really not to be trusted.

After getting every kid out and using that absurd fork-key-janitor-thing to get the lights off, you will only need to go back and reopen the locker room twice. Once to retrieve an i-pod; once to get a math book. The forgetting of the math book will come shouted at you as you’re closing the car door, ready finally to head home, and you really, really want to say screw your math book because you don’t teach math and have a sneaking suspicion your back-up point guard probably isn’t the most diligent math student anyway. You don’t say screw your math book. Instead, you will praise your back-up point guard for his belated responsibility, climb out of the car, making the sound you remember your father making whenever he got into or out of a chair. Thoughts of this new, terrifying similarity between you and your father will not go away anytime soon. Just FYI. You will open the locker room again, use that awful fork-key-janitor-thing, and breathe that sour stench until your back-up point guard realizes his math book is actually in his backpack after all.

The return commute is an hour, and somehow, your fellow commuters afford you no special vehicular consideration for the day you’ve had, and the good work you did.

Here is how you will try to unwrap your mind from everything that has gone on between the bells, before and after the bells. You will be too tired to help with dinner, knowing that the too-tired situation cannot continue indefinitely, but somehow not too tired to share a few clever anecdotes with the fiancée, who still finds the anecdotes fresh and interesting. You will remember not to dominate the reminiscence and retelling of the day. But this was a good day, and it will be hard to disengage, especially since good days have pretty much been an endangered species.

1) Carlos brought a pen and a binder, for the first time.
2) Leshondra volunteered to read, twice.
3) You actually completed a lesson in 4th period, almost for the first time.
4) Berto was in school, again.
5) Marcus remembered to roll to the basket after setting the screen.
6) You recalled your credentialing program truism that voice-raising was a silly and ineffective means to address student misbehavior, a strategy that becomes self-perpetuating and useless after a remarkably short amount of time, and shockingly, this turned out to actually be an effective and sound piece of advice, for once.
7) You only forget to take attendance in 2nd and 6th period.

Here is how all these little successes will build upon each other, linking up like carbon molecules into endless chains. These chains are heavy, and clanky, and they wind and wind around your head. Understand that they will be hard to banish. You will be unable to stop thinking about them when the fiancée discusses something a coworker said; unable to stop thinking about them when she talks about a new restaurant she wants to check out on Saturday. You will, finally, stop thinking about them during the thirty-two minutes of sex and foreplay that occurs after dinner, thirty-two minutes that are thankfully unbookended by either a bell or a chime or a tone. You teach in fifty-one minute chunks and you have sex and foreplay in thirty-two minute chunks. You should probably not think too much about the amount of time you spend on sex and foreplay compared to the amount of time you spend on vocabulary development and attendance taking. Comparisons like that will only make you sad.

It goes completely without saying that you should not compare the amount of sex and foreplay your students have with the amount of sex and foreplay you have.

Thirty-three minutes after you banished the thoughts of your day, they are back. They linger in this strange postpartum separation you can’t seem to shake, this sense of just plain down that will come after every little vindication, after every little triumph, after every realization of the life and validity built into your attempts to make yourself into the kind of teacher you see in your head.

Here is how you will lay in bed, next to the sleeping fiancée. You will not think about how different your thoughts are, now, laying with an arm draped across her waist, how different than before, when you would endlessly replay the memories of kissing and touching and all the sexy whispery things she said into your ear, replaying the memories until falling asleep. You will not think of the difference because you will think of your day, and your list of successes. You did all this. Look! You did all this. You worked your ass off, not terribly creatively or innovatively, but bulldog style. You moved all of these kids from here to there. You will think about how awesome and great that movement is and how you’re proud of them and happy that in terms of academic gatekeeping and life-choice they are increasing becoming positioned for success.

But the best part is, you like, finished all your different fifty-one minutes without major interruption. Dig on that for a while.

You did good. Now do it again. No one will ever tell you this, because that’s not how schools work, but you did good. Seven things went right today, and tomorrow you will need to do it again. And the next day: Do it again. And the week after, the month after that: Do it again. In fact, all the years of fifty-one minute intervals that stretch before you: Do it again.

Except really, do it better.

You will need to turn those seven successes into eight, and then turn that eight into ten, then fifteen, then twenty. You will need to have so many successes, daily, it isn’t really possible to list them anymore, and this will need to happen sooner rather than later, and not just because you’re cashing checks for work that you aren’t doing so well, right now. There is, clearly, much more at stake than some simple ethical/ financial math. Do it better, and then do it better, again.

This is what you will think about as you glance at the alarm clock, those red-glow digits getting closer and closer to that horribly low number that sends you out of bed and across the cold wood floors. You will think of the ways your days have already begun to Lego-click together, this masonry of an ideal, thinking of old Celtic strongholds, their foundations slacked in the blood of strong men, of a scattering array of data-point days that stretch on without end.

Go do it better again.

This is what you always said you wanted.


Anonymous Kris said...

Once again you blow my mind with your writing and your ability to so precisely encapsulate in such a "few" words the second by second experience of a teacher. You have an amazing gift!
I can only hope this is an excerpt from the possibly forthcoming book?

6:49 PM  
Blogger posthipchick said...

I feel my meager words should not even deign to share computer space with this post. This is amazing.

7:56 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...


Kris, it's the preface, more or less.

8:39 PM  
Blogger Coach Brown said...

Simply outstanding.

You encapsulate the experience of a teacher oh so well.

Publish it.

9:32 PM  
Blogger Jenny said...

Do it again. I'll think of that often this summer as in the future. Sometimes it will depress the hell out of me when I'm exhausted and worn down, other times it will be a joyful refrain as I face a new day with my students. It's a powerful phrase that has great meaning to me as a teacher. Thank you.

7:31 PM  
Anonymous Jeri said...

You have found a good, good thing to do beside teaching.


9:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

aren't you kinda teaching this way,too?

3:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for describing my 22-year teaching career. I especially identified about the part of anyone not in the classroom getting what you are talking about - so wonderful and emphatically written.

3:42 PM  
Blogger nbosch said...

I read all the time. I have either read or listened to every teacher written book ever written--I think you should write one. I'll read it. N.

5:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While you write well, I have the perception that the kids exist for the words; it should be the other way around.
You are the center of your universe. To teach, you must see yourself as just an electron -- the spark that gets your students thinking, moving, wondering.

4:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After 43 years I am going back for a 44th next year. But it's always about the kids. They get needier every year and resources get tighter. Keep teaching. We need people like you.

5:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow Kris, you said it all amazingly well. As a first year teacher, beginning a second career after experiencing the coorporate world- your impressions are very accurate!

10:19 AM  
Blogger Tracy said...

It's amazing anyone lasts in the classroom for longer than a year.....

9:55 PM  
Blogger Rhonda said...

OMG that was a wonderful post! My neck is sore from all the nodding in agreement!
"Axe is not a shower!" I am going to make a poster of that and post it over my front board!
Your post describes it all so well -- even for those of us closer to retirement than starting out.
Thank you!

6:53 AM  
Blogger anna said...

wonderful. I wish I could have put it as perfectly -- you just made my day.

10:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm in the final week of my first year teaching. You just described my life over the past year and its effects on my relationship with my fiance better than I ever could have. Thank you.

12:07 PM  
Blogger jasekj919 said...

...and yet, I cannot wait. Thank you.

1:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. I wonder if your kids picked up on how miserable you were. I'm sure it made everyone's day worse.

9:00 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

For sure, buddy. I hated every minute. Kids hated every minute, too. Didn't make my colleagues very happy either.


1:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


What do you mean, "It didn't make my colleagues very happy either"?

I just finished my first year. Almost every thought/situation you wrote, I identified with. Except maybe the part about the students before/after school chatting with you.

I hated every minute of it, too. I mean, maybe not EVERY minute, but of my 10 months teaching, I'd say there were about 3 that I was feeling okay.

I don't know whether to continue or not. I know the first year is the hardest, but it seems as though the issues I had with teaching will not go away -- and do I really want to deal with that? I love the kids though. So...

In any case, I feel you. Or, rather, you spoke to me. Sort of made me go, "Oh man. So... this is the way it is?"

Not quite sure what to do with that, though.

7:55 AM  
Anonymous Tom said...

Whether it matters or not, I found that to be one of the best things I've read in a long time.

Hard to believe it's been five years since I've been in the classroom full time (I still work in education but it's not the same). I still think of those needy kids, still beat myself up over not doing a better job (as a teacher and as a person), still wonder if I made enough of a difference and I still feel bad about leaving.

I also feel like a fraud when I talk to people about how to teach considering I'm not in the classroom anymore.

8:17 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Poetically challenged:

That comment was coated in heavy sarcasm, a response to the immediately foregoing annonymous commenter, who read those 3,200 words and came away with wow-you-hated-teaching-huh?

What I was trying for here was that push-pull of the work, the mildly schizophrenic path of teaching and loving it, but dreading it a little, too, and dreading what it does to you, how it drills into how you start to live, how you see and experience other people and the time you spend away from the kids and the work and the constantness of it all.

Tom, it always matters. Thanks.

9:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe it says more about me that I read it wrong then. I did pick up on the sarcasm, but I wasn't sure where it began and end. My sentiments were true though, and so I wonder where that puts me. I read this and reassured myself how difficult the job was for little reward. But, as I said, it's my first year, so maybe I am being to hard on myself and the profession.

9:56 AM  
Anonymous dkzody said...

Inner city high schools, they're all alike. I went to see "No Child" at the Berkeley Rep and was amazed at how well she nailed each of the characters. I read your prose and thought, "that's exactly what happens."

I wonder, who will come and stay in teaching? And what will they accomplish? What will become of the inner city high school and kids who attend?

3:42 PM  
Anonymous Christian Long said...

A few years back, I spent my M-F 5:30am-6:15am stretch driving a very dark parkway from B'more to DC to be in the trenches with my kids (who rarely saw beyond the few square blocks near their apartments). Your paragraph about your similar morning drive had me biting my lip in nostalgic awkwardness; a seering truth that I am both proud of and still itch scar tissue from whenever it comes to mind.

@nbosch was spot-on in his comment. Publish. Beyond the blog-space. Real paper. Real publisher. Real readers sitting away from computers.

If one of my English students came to me with a similar piece of reflection, I'd suggest that they look at every paragraph (even the 1-sentence ones) as a separate page. I'd tell them to edit the current draft into a copy with a blank page to the left, the single paragraph to the right. I'd tell them to print it out on smaller paper, like a typ paperback for summer reading. I'd turn it into a PDF. I'd send it to everyone I know with a "please give me feedback" request. I'd simultaneously send it to the ChangeThis manifesto gang led by Seth Godin. I'd simultaneously self-publish a real 'book' version via or or (or all 3, and beyond).

And then I'd tell them to wait. For the responses.

And then I'd tell them to consider doing a narrative voice over version with simple still images (possibly Ken Burns'd if you'd like) that is shared via Vimeo, YouTube, et al.

And then I'd tell them to wait, once again. For the responses.

In a phrase, one of the most striking/searing/riveting pieces I've read from inside the teacher's mind/heart in a long, long time.

Personally, I'm hoping you go with a re-format of this so it can publish on a wide array of levels. I'd buy a copy. Several.

Hard core piece, tmao. Thanks for putting it out there for the rest of us to embrace.

7:34 PM  
Blogger Miss Rebecca Mullen said...

What a wonderful post!!! You definitely make me feel understood....a very eloquent and accurate portrayal of the moments and life of a teacher.

This is what I want, and I will do it better!!!

Thank you:)

7:32 PM  
Anonymous Church Pens said...

Overall, I like the lifestyle that a teacher lives. I could not imagine myself behind a desk all day; I love to be around children and to be a part of their maturation. Children are so uncanny and naïve that it helps me to remember that life does not have to be completely serious. I cannot imagine another job that would keep me young at heart. Not only do I like the fact that children keep you young, but a career in teaching does not end your education. A teacher is a professional learner and that also appeals to me. In the educational setting, the methods in which you perform your job are always changing. A teacher is never done learning, is always adapting his point of view, and using his imagination constantly.

To me, choosing a career in teaching is the most important job one can hold. Teachers are the people who produce future doctors, lawyers, politicians, and other various important people that make our society as powerful as it is today. Teachers may also be the only people that can help a distraught child and keep them from becoming our future criminals and abusers. No matter the background of the child, his race, his gender, or his societal worth a teacher is able to give a child a chance at future success. That is a gift of a lifetime that no other career can provide.

12:34 PM  
Anonymous Promotional Pens said...

And the Teacher... is teaching!

12:57 AM  

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