Posted by: M. Walgenbach | May 27, 2011

A Californian

I taught high-school English for seventeen years.  The first few years were pleasant enough.  The kids liked me.  They were patient enough with me.  The fact that only a fraction of the kids actually read and comprehended was tolerable because the kids were nice.  I arrived at a high-school with debt and with fantasies of making big money and enjoying fishing adventures with my friend Paul Parker in some remote lakes and streams in the Eastern High Sierras.  I did not know how to teach English to teenagers, what books they might be interested in or understand.  I had read a series of Ross MacDonald novels and I thought that they would enjoy these.  But the LA curriculum was liberal and progressive.  The pre-ordained skills of composition I understood.  But it was the district culture and the school culture that would turn out ultimately to be my real education.  My college education was only important for obtaining the degree.  It’s value ended there.  I made lots of friends in college.  I met and befriended a few teachers insofar as I liked War and Peace.  I liked The Autobiograph of Malcolm X.  I liked Elective Affinities by Goerthe.  I loved Moby Dick.  Reading Alice Munro was like watching adult late-night dramas.  When I read Elizabeth Bishop’s “Manmoth” I cried, I was that insect, a lowly creature whose life had been reduced to an insect, crawling, being pulled to the light, and whose capacity to fly was known only in dreams.  From “Manmoth” I understood the efforts of poets to churn beauty from inconceivable pain.  It is transmission of pain that is inconceivable, for who would care?  How does one make someone else care?  Even if they did care, what would they do?  Would they know what to do?  And would what they do be what you need?  Experience says no.  Maybe all of this understanding, this getting to the bottom of things is precisely where one ends up.  I have not resigned my search, my energies.  Everybody wants me to.  I have distilled them all into a single Cass Sunstein.  It helps.  I thought that literary comprehension, that the themes from the great works of literature would confer upon me some level of credibility or legitimacy that others would recognize and appreciate.  But the love from others has forever remained out of reach.  I thought that this love and understanding through second-hand experience would be my arsenal to spiritually convert kids from little brutes to loving, empathetic, and appreciative young adults.  It is that second-hand authority that screwed up my instruction.  It was a rejection of who I was.  I was pretending to be someone besides the real estate guy, besides the UPS guy, besides the short-order cook, besides the factory worker.  In a school culture where most teachers begin teaching right out of college and whom never held a position outside of a school, I was the ultimate outsider, messiah, ridiculed or sacrificed by insecure bureaucratically-minded insiders who want to restore a socialist order on any change to their system.  The career teachers, some very good, perceived me as a threat.  That I somehow would not serve the kids or that I would harm the kids.  I was ostracized.  Teachers prided themselves on exercising psychological terror.  I once stood on a football field during an earthquake drill and three teachers stood in phalanx style dogging me.  I looked back.  They don’t like that.  Is it true that terrorists are ultimately cowards?  “You’re not of us” was the unspoken mantra.  I wasn’t Jewish.  I wasn’t Mexican either.  I have a German name.  I am tall.  I am a man.  I was experiencing self-contentment.  Admittedly, I myself was a bit contemptuous of their drive for collectivism.  But they weren’t trying to collectivize.  Their efforts were only rhetorical.  Ultimately, they would sell out their best friend, which they do.  Do bureaucracy encourage treachery?

I thought that all that I had to worry about was teaching.  On that assumption, I was an idiot.  Unbeknownst to me, I stepped into English Department politics.  I could not know politics.  In business, the bottom-line was the overriding objective, not someone’s competition for the better people to make one’s job easier.  The struggle was over classes.  Honors classes were prized, and a few teachers competed fiercely for the “Honors” classes.  That competition involved demonizing and degrading of everyone else, everyone else who was content to teach and to help kids.  Ad hominem attacks were the daily bread.  Marty Buchman and Susan Cardona were cannibalizing each other with all of the sexual symbolism that that term permits, while preening themselves in their respective victories over each other with their small, oh so small, coterie of fellows.  Marty was desperate.  A week or two into my first year, he began bad-mouthing Susan to anyone who would listen.  He and Leigh Clark and Larry Welch would ridicule and criticize Susan for being unfair and “undemocratic.”  Like I said, their efforts were rhetorical.     

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