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Recently, the high school I graduated from held a career day. They asked alumni of the school to come speak to students about their chosen careers. I briefly considered applying to share with students my experience as a teacher and how I found this career, but I doubted anyone would be very happy to hear what I had to say.
For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a teacher. Even as a little girl, I always wanted to play school with my brother and my friends. A woman who was a family friend was a principal and she would often bring me copies of sample workbooks and textbooks or extra copies of worksheets from her school and I would be giddy with excitement at these gifts. Interestingly enough, I also knew very early on that I wanted to be an English teacher. Science and history were interesting, math was a challenge, but reading, writing, and even grammar were so much fun for me! I was an avid book reader and creative writer from the time I could read and write. And if I’m being honest, there’s something fascinating to me about grammar and the way our language works. I get enjoyment from creating clarity of ideas from the way words are arranged on a page. So, English language arts teacher was my chosen career path from the very start.
Obviously, language arts class was always my favorite class in school. I was the dork who read every single book and story assigned to me and loved talking about them with people. I was the nerd who loved writing essays and research papers. I was the girl who wrote scores of poems -- most of them lousy, mushy love poems -- as an emotional outlet. I was the person who took meaningful moments in my life and tried to preserve them by writing them as scenes from a story. I was the one who heard a song with exceptional lyrics and thought, “How I wish I had written that song!” or, “I wonder what the backstory is for this song?” I would then proceed to develop a story for the meaning of the song if I couldn’t find one through research!
I’m the same way today as an adult. I love reading and discussing books. I love reading and analyzing poetry. I still become mesmerized by beautiful song lyrics. I love doing my own creative writing. I love doing research projects. And I love doing all these things with students as well as teachers, friends, and family. My love of the language, especially in written form, is just part of my fabric. But it took just one single teacher to almost rid me of that fiber.
She was one of my high school English teachers. Mrs. Jackson (not her real name) taught American literature. Since literature classes were always my favorite, I looked forward to this class very much. But it didn’t take long to discover that Mrs. Jackson didn’t appreciate literature the same way I did.
I can remember three very distinct experiences with her that could have broken me but instead increased my resolve. The first incident came during a class discussion of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown.” Mrs. Jackson was discussing symbolic elements in the story. She talked about the character of Faith and the pink ribbons she wore in her hair. Faith’s pink ribbons are traditionally seen as a symbol of her purity or innocence. I raised my hand and asked, “Is it possible that maybe Faith isn’t as pure and innocent as she seems? Her ribbons are pink, but isn’t white the traditional color of purity? Maybe Hawthorne was trying to show us that Faith isn’t as completely pure as we think she is. That’s why he had her wear pink ribbons instead of white.”
Mrs. Jackson’s response was swift and stinging. “Absolutely not!” she told me. She then went on a rant that sounded something like this: “Her name is Faith. The ribbons are pink, which is a color we associate with innocent little girls. For years and years, experts have explained how her ribbons represent her purity, but you come along as a teenager and think you know this story better than the experts? You don’t know anything. I know this story. I’m the teacher. I’m the expert. You need to understand this the way I teach it to you.”
Teenager though I was, I can remember thinking, “I don’t think that is the way a teacher should tell a student she’s wrong. I just had an idea. I just asked a question.” It was shocking and a little upsetting, but not demoralizing. Because I was a teenager and prone to being obnoxious, instead of being beaten down by Mrs. Jackson, I preferred to be a pebble in her shoe. I spent that year continuing to ask questions about literature -- sometimes legitimate, sometimes absurd -- just to irritate her.
The “Young Goodman Brown” incident quietly rallied my classmates around me. This was evident in the second distinct incident I remember. It was near the end of the school year, and being the grammar geek that I was, I had finished all the exercises in our grammar workbooks already. Mrs. Jackson had given us a few pages to complete in class. As my classmates worked, I made a little show out of closing my workbook and pulling out a novel to read. Mrs. Jackson glared at me from her podium for ten minutes. When it was time to go over the answers in class, she immediately called on me to read the answers, which I did -- and all correctly, I might add! When I finished, my classmates looked at Mrs. Jackson, who was clearly flabbergasted at not having caught me being lazy or defiant, and they broke out in spontaneous cheers. When they were finally quiet, Mrs. Jackson looked at me and said, “You’re not as smart as you think you are, Renee.”
The final incident came at the end of the school year when it was time to register for next year’s classes. Mrs. Jackson refused to recommend me for honors level English, despite having a high B average in her honors level English class and all the honors level English classes previous. She met with my parents and me and told us directly, “Renee doesn’t have what it takes to be an honors student.” That was the only rationale she offered. And just as an FYI -- my parents fought her recommendation and had me placed in honors English the next year, where I maintained a high B average.
When people ask me why I became a teacher, I tell them I was inspired by Mrs. Jackson. Often, people are taken aback by this. Mrs. Jackson was not a very good teacher -- it is easy to see this from the three anecdotes I just shared. How could she possibly be inspirational?
I always imagined that teachers are in a balance: good teachers on one side of the scale, bad ones on the other side. As long as Mrs. Jackson was teaching, then that scale would always be tipped slightly in favor of the bad teachers. I became completely resolved to even out the balance by being a good teacher.
I vowed to myself never to tell a student he or she is wrong, stupid, or silly for having an idea or asking a question. I vowed to myself never to make a student feel any of those things, either, so I would have to be thoughtful in my language and interactions. I vowed to myself never to play “gotcha” with a student or make a deliberate attempt to humiliate him or her. I vowed to look for reasons to help students achieve their goals rather than find reasons to squash them. I vowed never to let students know who I liked and who I didn’t like (because I am only human, after all -- there have been some students I didn’t like). I vowed to myself to be the things Mrs. Jackson was not -- open-minded, friendly, helpful, and most of all, kind.
Why do I teach? I teach to keep the scale balanced, and maybe even tipped in favor of the good guys!