Teacher (a Short Novel Under Construction)
He locked the door and tested it as usual, smiling to himself for all the routines now so ingrained they took no thought.
Running on automatic.
He hurried down the stairs and out into the winter sunshine, refusing to think what he always thought, brushing it aside, burying the memories, shoveling routine on them. Three years, more than three, almost four now, hard to believe. Maybe it's all a dream.
Oh that it were.
Some jacketed kids threw hi's at him, and he nodded and smiled as he neared the school, wondering how girls could wear such tight jeans or boys go with their coats unzipped. He shivered. Who said that it was wasted on the young?
He had thought about quitting and leaving several times, moving west, someplace new, disappearing, Tucson, Washington State, not California he was sure of that, too many fires, too little water, Eugene, Spokane; places he'd never been, mountains, where nobody would know, remember, shake their heads, pity him. Where he might not think about it. Montana, nobody lived there, just a filler on the map, a rectangle. He smiled.
Shaw, that's who said it.
But he did have tenure, there was that. Security plus longevity. That stirred another memory, another embarrassment. He had a huge collection of those.
Now they had elected Reagan, and that was hard to believe. The Gipper. And damn the Iranians anyway - the Ayatollah's choice, good old smiling, empty-headed Ronnie. Oh well, his wife will run things.
Up the worn cement steps and through the push-bar doors, same smells, same sounds, same walls, same stained terrazzo floor, nothing ever changed except the bulletin boards. He signed in, waved at the busy secretaries, picked up his mail and as he opened the door, one of the office phones rang. His left knee trembled, and he clenched his teeth and closed his eyes. The policeman's calm voice echoed in his head. He took a deep breath and swallowed it. Not now. Not here.
He had bought a Princess phone to use at home; that had helped. He could turn it down.
He moved through the halls to his homeroom, up the wide stairs, dodging kids and sorting through a pile of Xeroxed pages, tuning out the noise, the familiar adolescent sounds, grunts and squeals, earphone music, the ubiquitous Walkman, and the smells, the wondrous collection of adolescent smells.
Just the usual, the unending usual and there was an echo in his mind, faintly, a distant phone, the unending cacophony, the constant, never-changing usual. He shuddered involuntarily, a frisson he labeled it. Good word, no way to use it, maybe later. Filed, top of the pile.
He dumped the bulletins and his briefcase on his always cleared old desk, just a gray stapler and a stained coffee mug full of Bics. Another Monday, how many Mondays had it been since that Monday? He felt himself actually shiver and closed his eyes as his belly knotted. Damn.
Some days were much better than others; a few were impossible, and he took sick leave.
Kids started coming in, sitting, talking, laughing as he sorted out of folders of work, his weekend output of carefully corrected paragraphs for his two tenth grade English classes and quickly marked quizzes for his three history classes, mostly juniors with a few repeaters - ready to go, to start another week. How many weeks had it been? How many hours had that taken, minutes, seconds? Burning them off, using them up. Nothing in the bulletin.
He wondered again what he was making by the hour, minimum wage at least, three bucks these days, seventy-five cents when he started. Hod carrying. Bet no kid knew what a hod was. He turned his back to the class and said his brief prayer, his only prayer, a plea for faith, another routine that made him feel like a relief pitcher. But no rosin bag. He toed the rubber.
He sat, adjusted his trousers, put a tolerant smile on his face and waited for the bell, and then the announcements, the hurried flag salute and then the scramble. This was his room until lunch and then Miss Collins had it until three. Second-year teacher Collins was young and pretty and engaged and smelled good, almost astringent. Sometimes she put notes or cartoons in his desk drawer. She had a wicked sense of humor, and she always left the whiteboards clean. A good girl, a keeper.
Wonder what they did with all that slate the last time they renovated this place?
He checked attendance with the seating chart, noted a couple of missing boys, marked the dates in his grade book, reminding himself he had to be better at that job. Last marking period he really got chewed out for missing a kid that was skipping regularly. He didn't miss him and, he admitted ruefully, he was happier when the bastard was absent. But he sure didn't like that note from the attendance office. Snide was the word. He had blotted his copybook. Damn, how old was that phrase?
He walked the aisles handing back marked paragraphs, lots of red ink, no grades and then sat on the front edge of his desk and smiled. "Not bad, scholars," he said, forcing a light tone, "really, not bad at all but, of course, you can and will do better. Still, some decent description and actually a few signs of thought and organization - topic sentences. Proud of you, I am, really. Decent spelling too, most of it. A start, but we have some problems." He wondered where that odd phrase had come from.
He paused and took a deep breath, theatrical he knew, aware that he was pretending, always pretending. "There's this business of subject-verb agreement and pronoun antecedents." He stopped and saw blank looks and blinking eyes. "Those are serious mistakes, the errors of the illiterate.
"How far back to we have to go? Mason, what's a noun?"
"Name of something, or, well, of somebody I guess."
"Very good - person, place, or thing - usually. Now Jimbo, what's a verb?
The big kid blinked at him and opened and closed his mouth and blinked some more.
"Verb, you've heard of verbs, right?"
The boy nodded.
"Action words plus is, are and such."
"Very good. How come girls are so smart?"
That got smiles.
"OK, when you write the noun, or subject of the sentence and the action word, the verb, they have a relationship; they're going steady. Do you guys still say going steady?
. "Anyhow, the noun and the verb are related." He wrote "Bob ran" on the whiteboard with a black marker. "OK?"
He wiped out the "a" and put in a "u" so it read. "Bob run."
He added an "s" so it read "Bob runs." "That OK?"
"Why? No, somebody other than Marcie."
He drew looping red arrows between 'Bob' and 'runs' and said, "These words are related, subject and verb. They have to agree. If this is singular, just Bob, than the verb has to be too. If two Bobs, then it's a different verb. No, wait, in this case it's still ran isn't it?
"English is so much fun. It has more rules than baseball."
Lots of nods. He smiled, his long-suffering smile, a real one nevertheless. It was moving, rolling. Once a lesson got going, it had inertia, rolled along and flattened the rest of his worries.
Or it imploded.
"How do we tell? Usually from experience. Little kids talk funny. We know what sounds right. So we know it is not Bob runned. That doesn't sound right. But there are rules too. Some of you made mistakes like that, and I want you to fix them. I put the letter A in the margin for agreement mistakes. Now, what's a pronoun?
A couple if hands went up and he nodded at the boy in the back. "Mike?'
"Word that stands for a noun, a name, like he for Bob."
"Very good. Now your pronouns have to agree, that is have to properly relate to the word they stand for. If it's Bob it's he and not they or she, if it's faculty then it's they or them or maybe sometimes its. OK?" He looked around. "And every pronoun must have an antecedent, must stand for something or somebody." He paused and sniffed. "They can't just float."
He waited. "And, of course, there is spelling. Some of you are very creative, imaginative. Get a sheet of paper and rewrite the paragraph, correct all errors, including spelling, and we'll staple the new one on top of the old one and give it a grade, a good grade, promise." He crossed his heart ostentatiously. "The stapler will be coming around. Oh, and put your name on it, will you; my Dick Tracy skills have went." That didn't even get a smile. To the bottom of the pile with it.
He checked that it was full and handed his stapler to the boy in the front of the row by the windows and sat down as they got a sheet of paper, or borrowed one as some always did, and everybody got to work. That wipes the memory bank, all that jabber, nouns and verbs, can't work and think about it. Work was the answer. Work, work, work and more work.