It never occurred to me to become a teacher. I’ve always had such a weird relationship with teachers – some of them adored me and made me see the endless possibilities my life held, but a lot of them were really kind of awful, a few even stooping so low as to resort to bullying tactics. I was, admittedly, an outrageously annoying child. I talked incessantly to cope with my almost unbearable insecurities. I was, as I’ve mentioned here previously, super tall and pretty fat. For a while there I was also reasonably smart. My first grade teacher made a point of that last bit, pulling me apart from the rest of the class and bringing my reading level three grades higher than everyone else’s. Additionally, at story time she would have me read to the class. As you can imagine, this made everyone think I was awesome. Oh, how they’d cheer my name at recess.
“You’re not the smartest in the class. Nicky Takahashi (not his real name) is.” Nicky could do multiplication tables and play Beethoven on the piano when we were in Kindergarten. He was also, incidentally, ridiculously tiny and spry, with a cute little shaved head and this smile that could melt anybody. He was my polar opposite. I even sucked at math.
The truth is, I was never particularly intelligent in the first place – I just started reading early thanks to parents and big brothers who were book lovers themselves, and so had a tiny headstart on the rest of the class with that one thing. It all evened out within a couple of years – and my math never got any better – but the kids didn’t like me any more for it. And the teachers didn’t seem to like me very much, either. It’s really true that grownups treat bigger kids as if they’re older, even when they know they’re not, even when the grownup in question is supposed to be really good at understanding kids. Plus I really was annoying. I talked a lot and I was emo as hell.
But then I got to high school, where there were a lot more kids and a lot more teachers. And the effect this had on me was that I experienced a bit of a neutralization on the everybody’s-looking-at-me phenomenon that cruelly attacks teenagers all over the planet. Because for once, there was way too much going on around me for me to be the most awkward thing in the room. I felt more at peace in my surroundings than I ever had, and so while my hormones raged alongside everyone else’s, I was also undergoing this period of self-acceptance that counterbalanced it all.
Maybe because of all that, looking back at my high school teachers is a bit underwhelming. There were a few who were pretty cool. One of them introduced me to Kurt Vonnegut. Another one taught me to love Shakespeare. That was as life-changing as they got. The fact was that I was way too caught up in my own drama and the universe unfolding around me to pay much attention to them. I guess that’s the same for most kids at that age.
College was where I started to see teaching differently. My professors had my respect, and often everyone else’s. They were authorities not because they could issue a Saturday detention, but because they (generally) knew their shit and garnered respect for it. And so while I knew that I could never afford the cost of going to school long enough to become a college or university professor, if I ever thought about teaching, it was only at that level, and I saw it for the fantasy that it was.
So how is it that I’ve been working more or less seven days a week since the end of November preparing lessons, grading papers, and…teaching?
First of all, let’s be clear – I’m teaching English as a foreign language. And I’m a substitute at a middle school until the end of this year, a scheduled replacement teacher at a sort of trade school, and teach one-to-one at my dining room table and over Skype. I do not have my own classroom, and I don’t get very much respect from the students, though the first day is always great because they’re completely in awe of the fact that I’ve even been to, let alone hail from Los Angeles, California.
(It’s much easier than trying to explain Anaheim. Sue me. It’s all I’ve got.)
But at the end of the day, I’m a sub, and the year’s nearly finished. My students are way behind where they should be owing to a number of things way out of my control, and that makes my stomach turn. I’ve got some serious behavior issues in my classrooms and I’ve got no idea if that’s my fault or if it’s just because some of the students are right pains in the arse generally. And I’ve come to a realization I’m not sure I really needed to come to: I’m not sure I’m a very good teacher.
I find myself having panic attacks over the kids who aren’t trying. I take some of their misbehavior very personally. I feel burdened by trying to keep track of everything all the time. This is partly because I’m trying to teach without any formal teacher’s training. It is also because, despite the fact that I’m teaching English, I have to do everything else in French, including about 50-60% of my communication with the students. It is also because I am teaching 2 or 3 different classes at the trade school and four classes at the middle school, and because my personal students are scattered throughout the week, such that I never feel like I can have a minute to myself without worrying about what I should be doing because there is always, always something to be done.
And here’s the best bit: I’m teaching English, yeah? And I love English – I do. I love reading it, writing it, singing in it, even. I’ve always said I was grammar-obsessed, and it’s true. But what I didn’t realize until a few months ago was that I’ve either forgotten, or was never properly taught, a whole crapload of incredibly important grammar points in my mother tongue. Consequently, I’m simultaneously learning how to teach, how to teach in France, and how to teach the subject I’m supposed to be teaching.
All this when I never particularly wanted to teach in the first place? In the words of the great Liz Lemon, what the what?
Here’s what happened: I wanted to work with homeless kids in the Philippines. So I got my degree, but along the way I decided that I wanted to go to South America instead, since I spoke decent Spanish and grew up close to Mexico. Also along the way I met and fell in love with Chris, who later moved to the UK, where he continued his own education. I met with him there thinking that London would be a great place to get a foot in the NGO door, and proceeded to work with homeless kids there. Then London was getting close to being done, and we’d built up some really good experience, and we were planning the next step, which was going to be Latin America, but a couple of twists of fate brought us back to the Philippines. Six months to a year. And by that point I thought that it would be better if I kept a bit of distance from the beneficiaries as my time there was limited and I thought local support was more appropriate, so opted to try my hand at management consultation, in a voluntary capacity. And that was okay, and I got this close to getting paid consutation work out of it (visa issues), and then our time was up, our money was spent, and we were both exhausted from trying really hard to give our hard work away for free against many odds. So we decided to try to figure out how we could work from anywhere in the world, ergo enabling us to travel as widely as we pleased. For Chris, this was IT. For me, it was ostensibly writing. Chris’ efforts have been quite fruitful; mine took a rewiring, and English teaching became my fallback option. But wait. I never really wanted to be a teacher. So what the what?
Is this what happens? Do we all wake up one day and say, what the what? The thing is, it isn’t that I don’t like teaching – it has, in fact, been some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done, though I must admit that I prefer teaching one-to-one a thousand times over teaching a classroom. But then I feel like the odds are stacked against me. I can’t teach as a ‘real’ teacher because I don’t have the appropriate qualifications, and from what I’ve heard, they can take years to get here. And at any rate, that kind of destroys the whole live-wherever-we-want idea. But if I keep up teaching this number of hours and under these circumstances I will burn out in another year – no doubt about it. I’m not making a lot of money, but I’m getting by which is 100% more than I could say for when I was writing. Still, getting by is not how one saves money, and saving money is the only way out of this conundrum. Now I’m wondering if I have to start all over again, and that’s kind of contributing to the panic attacks. Because I have no answers to any of the subsequent questions: What will I do? How will I do it? When will I start? Where will we end up? Why am I doing it in the first place?
Walking home from work, I have been getting that old nursery rhyme in my head quite a lot lately. I figure the old lady can totally explain it all up to the point where she swallowed the fly. And I want to wring her neck! Oy! Lady! What the what? And then I wonder if there’s a fly somewhere along the way in my own story…like, some point where I don’t know why I did this-or-that, and it’s bound to lead to my imminent demise (because we all know the supposition at the end of each stanza, right?). And I don’t know if I want there to always have to be a reason why we do things, or if that reason always has to measure up to the other extenuating circumstances when we made the decision. I’m not saying I’ve got no regrets and I feel no shame, but for crying out loud, we gotta be where we are at some point, right?
So this is where I am. I haven’t written more than a couple of poems and a few journal entries in the last 5 months, and it is what it is. I’m not sure what the next stage will be, but I know that for now, I’m trying my damnedest to make sense of this senseless, beautiful language for a few people who desperately want to learn it and a few others who couldn’t give a rat’s ass if English was the next language to die in our lifetimes. Actually, I think they’d be quite pleased.
And if there’s any potentially unjust irony in all of this, it was that I had just finetuned my realization that I’d been in the process of having all along – that the most precious commodity we have is time, and the thing to do with this life was to figure out how to make more of it, and how to use what we’ve got in the best way possible. Right now I feel like I’ve got none. But I know that’s not true, and I’m still the drama queen I’ve always been. I’ve got time, and this is what I’m doing with it right now.