23 years after I started teaching, I finished a master’s degree in education administration with an action plan to increase teacher retention at my school. Though the main thing I had learned from my studies is that I did not want to be an administrator, the process of researching my action plan helped me realize that my mostly fun and exciting ride through teaching was not the norm. How did I not already know that? Well, for one, I wasn’t in the habit of hanging out with teachers—that can be trying after a long week of teaching—and, for another, the ones I was hanging out with really enjoyed it. Still, forced me to consider objectively the forces that were spinning (and still are spinning) young people out of the profession, I often wondered how I’d made it as far as I had.
Entering the profession is indeed a crap shoot. It’s hard to know how much you’ll love it until you have your own class, in your own building. Though both my supervising teachers abandoned me completely after watching half a lesson a piece—I believe they covertly “collected their data” (we didn’t talk like that then) through moles—today’s student teachers are probably oversupervised, which I’d argue doesn’t help with retention once they’re in the biz. I had always pictured what teaching would be like by putting myself behind the eyes of my best teachers, but then I tended to imagine looking at 30 students who were exactly like me, which was a monstrous distortion. From day one of my student teaching experience, though, when I introduced a Chaucer unit to a class of very jaded seniors, I felt more myself than I did in normal social settings (my buddy Ken tells me, “That’s power, man,” but I hope it was more complex than that). Classroom control, the thing all my cohorts in education at what was then Southwest Missouri State University were worried about, seemed a snap, though when I shifted to teaching 7th graders my last eight weeks I was forced to think harder, faster, and more imaginatively than I had wth 12th graders. Still, I walked away from the experience thinking, “Dang! That was fun and easy!” You will note that I had only been assigned two classes to teach, each of them with fewer than 25 students. Also, I taught at Greenwood Lab School, where there was reputedly a long waiting list mostly made up of professors’ kids. I had definitely not been put in touch with reality, and my methods classes hadn’t taken up the slack.
My first day teaching at Parkview High School in Springfield was, um, quite different. My first class opened with a local television station’s camera rolling into my room for a “first day of school” shoot—I had not been warned, but, in retrospect, I might well have been set up. Already nearly paralyzed with fear by the 33—33?—ninth graders confronting me, waiting to be entertained and possibly educated, I begin bleeding sweat into my grey three-piece suit; I felt like a 19th century British imperialist in the heart of Indian heat. I asked a student to pass out copies of my syllabus and turned to get a stack of To Kill a Mockingbirds off the shelf. The shelf was about seven feet high. Common sense having apparently flown from my being, I attempted to bring down a stack of 20 in one trip, which I did, but upon my head, as the stack immediately toppled. The camera still rolling and my students, who still had not heard me say my own name, giggling as politely as possible, I picked up the books from the floor in extreme panic and began sending them down the aisles.
“My name is Mr. Overeem.”
Rather less impressive an introduction than Eminem’s, wouldn’t you say?
Back then, teachers often got hard copies of their rosters on the first day of class. I hadn’t even had a chance to peruse mine, and, by the time I had crawled across the seventh-hour finish line, I was forced to come to grips with these numbers: 150 students. In five classes. 125 of them freshmen. Only my ignorance kept me from trying my hand at self-immolation; I assumed that what I had just survived was normal. I didn’t know I’d walked into the schedule no one else wanted, the schedule that traditionally awaited the “new meat.” Deluded in thinking that everyone had such a schedule, that this was the job, I put down the kerosene can and carried on.
I was also so absorbed with the challenge of just controlling so many freshmen that I had not fully considered some other unsavory aspects of my schedule. I’d been assigned two sections of 12th grade “Personal English”; any experienced teacher knows exactly what that euphemism means, but I wasn’t experienced: this was the last-chance class for seniors who’d already blown several credits and weren’t exactly the reading and writing type. (“Wait? You mean everyone doesn’t love to read and write?” Such are the thoughts of the previously self-absorbed when they embark on a career in public ed!) Sure, I’d inspected the materials beforehand: Forms in Your Future—that title is making me tear up in laughter as I type—the complete works of S. E. Hinton, a very thin Scholastic magazine delivered in the middle of the week, and—well, that was it. I had inferred from said inspection that that class would be “the easy class.” Silly, silly, silly boy.
Most disturbing was the amount of grading entailed in properly educating such a mass of humanity. I wasn’t calculating that accurately, if at all, because the homework of two classes (not taught concurrently, I might add) had barely interfered with my beer-drinking regimen when I was student teaching, and no mentor had suggested tricks by which I might reduce my grading load while still giving students necessary practice and holding them to a high standard. Then again, I never asked for suggestions. It was guesswork to me, and my arbitrary standard of eight full works of writing per student per year would carry to my final year of teaching, clearly demonstrating my taste for S&M. You do the math: 135 students a year x eight papers/writing-intensive projects x 30 years that you can’t really grade at school. The contract’s from 7:30 to 3:15, you say?
No choice was available but just to do it. In the opening weeks (though, actually, this phenomenon has never quite vanished), I was aided by the waves of sheer intensity, fueled by my fear, insecurity, panic, and nervousness, which I sent rippling out through the rows. I remember the eyes of front-row kids reflecting fear right back at me, which was fine by me. Fairly soon, though, my enthusiasm for literature and writing wedged its way into my attack—that’s exactly what it was. Attack, or be attacked. Within a few more weeks, I felt comfortable enough to crack the occasional joke, the earliest ones followed first by students exhaling with relief, then laughing. It helped, too, that my sense of humor roughly approximated that of a 14-year-old. However, just as I was beginning to feel that my teaching was actually working, serious difficulties began to arise.
My first paycheck was stolen out of my mailbox. By one of my seniors. He was caught trying to cash it at a convenience store about three blocks up from the school. Fortunately, I had enough Ramen to get me through the three days I had to wait to get my hands on the check; I’d taken a pay cut from the $880 a month I earned working in a cheese factory over the summer to the $865 that was my monthly teaching wage, and I was already running on financial fumes. On top of that, I was trying to figure out how I was going to keep teaching the kid. I went to my principal for advice, and she just shrugged and said, “Oh, he won’t be back.”
Not even counting the theft, “Personal English,” predictably, was not “the easy class.” These kids were rough as cobs. Initially, they would be attentive for my fancy set induction, then as soon as we moved to the real action, they zoned out. Before class and after class, they were quite friendly, but when it came to being asked to read and discuss a story or book, fill out a 1040EZ form, practice balancing a checkbook? No can do. And once they saw I was in quandary about what to do about that, they began ignoring my opening monologues, especially one student, Steve Patterson. As soon as opened my mouth to explain a lesson or begin a discussion, he would turn and start talking at party volume to the girl on his right. Like clockwork.
One day, I just lost it. Without any conscious consideration, I yelled, “Steve, you get up here and lead the lesson. Clearly, I am not making The Outsiders an interesting experience for you, and clearly, you must know everything Ms. Hinton has to teach us in the book, so you help us understand it and get better at reading it.” In retrospect, I can see why he—if not the entire class—might have been bored by the subject matter.
Brow furrowed for the first time in my experience with him, Steve replied. “Are you serious?”
“As a heart attack. I can’t do this as well as you can.”
I held out the book.
He scanned the faces of his peers, most of which seemed equally stunned, though a few others sported excited grins. “So I can get up and take the book and teach the class? I haven’t quite finished reading the assignment, though.”
“Don’t worry about that. You’re smarter than I am, so you’ll figure it out.”
He got up, walked up the aisle, took the book, and turned to the class with eyebrows raised. I walked back and sat in his seat.
He actually began. Or tried to. “Well—”
I immediately started chatting up his favorite listener. “So, how’s your school year going? Think you’ll graduate? Think Steve’s going to graduate?”
Steve looked up from the book in annoyance, our eyes met, and I became silent.
He continued. “So—”
“Um, what kind of car do you have? I have a Lynx. It’s pretty rad.”
“Uhhh, Mr. Overeem…can you let me get started?” I had to give him credit: he was trying. I admired that.
After a few more ritual repetitions, which I ceased when Steve’s pal asked me if I got high, I stood up, walked back to the front of the class, took the book from him, and asked him, loudly, “How’d that feel?”
“It was frustrating as hell.”
“Indeed. So, could you give me a chance to teach? You might be surprised.”
To this day, I cannot believe that gamble worked. It was barely even a gamble, as I had not calculated any risk. Steve went on to make As and Bs for me; he needed my credit to graduate, and got it. Though he didn’t quite reform, he was very enjoyable to have in class, and too smart (as I had suspected) to be in “Personal English.” We stayed in touch for many years afterward, and he even invited me to his wedding. Most important, since it was clear he was the sole leader in the classroom, once he gave me breathing room, the rest did, too.
The class remained difficult to inspire, but few failed. They brought in their actual 1040EZ forms in February and knocked them out. In a job simulation, they interviewed each other, then I interviewed each of them, then Steve interviewed me—and had to explain to me that he couldn’t hire me: I was overqualified. Balancing checkbooks? I am not sure they mastered that skill.
Despite the fact that my ninth graders were far more numerous—those three classes housed an average of 32 souls—I found them far easier to work with. I fed off the collective restlessness they radiated, and, being less jaded, they were far more fun. If I was excited about a lesson or a project, most of them would be, too—and since I was designing all my own lessons, I was purt-near always excited. They, too, however, presented obstacles, ranging from pebbles in the road to boulders. One day, as students were finishing the first test I’d given them and possibly feeling altered from the fresh duplicator ink fumes rising from the pages, I strolled up and down the aisles. A scrawny, scrappy kid named Andy Rittershouse was chilling to the max in the seat nearest the door, hands cupped behind his head and, like Huck Finn, “gapping and stretching.” Before him lay a completely blank test.
“Andy, you haven’t even filled the test out.”
“I didn’t have a pencil.”
He was serious.
I’d barely begun my first unit, a study of To Kill a Mockingbird, when I was presented with my first parental conflict. The school day had ended, and, as usual, I was slumped, totally drained, at my desk, staring into space that, while empty, still reeked of sweaty freshmen (my students and I would not enjoy an air-conditioned classroom until 1996—12 years later). Suddenly, a strange man strode into the room and up to my desk, glowering at me the whole way. He slammed a copy of Mockingbird down on my desktop, jolting me out of my catatonic state.
“My son is not gonna read this trash!”
“Come again, sir?”
“MY SON is not gonna get sex ed in his P.E. class!!!”
OK, now I was really confused. To Kill a Mockingbird, trash? Yes, well, reading is a very subjective experience. But, um, P.E.? Sex ed? I was thinking, “What the fuck, dude?” and standing on the precipice of actually saying it, when I realized, “Ohhhhhhhhhhhh. I am a man. No man with any pride would teach anything but physical education; all others are pussies. Ah, yes, I get it. He thinks I am a coach!” One puzzle solved, on to the more titillating one!
“Sir, I am not a physical education teacher. I am an English teacher. So, can you explain what you mean when you say, ‘sex ed’?”
He slammed open the book to a page he had bookmarked. Taking a pen from his shirt pocket, he began repeatedly underlining a phrase, exerting so much pressure that the pen tip was tearing through the pages. He turned the book toward me and said, with utter moral indignation, “Right there!”
Readers of Ms. Lee’s famous novel may remember that, early in the book, a new teacher at Scout’s school, Miss Caroline, has a tense encounter with a poverty-stricken student named Burris Ewell. Lacking the community wisdom to handle the encounter gracefully, she blows it, and Burris calls her a “snot-nosed slut.” Ladies and gentlemen, meet the offending passage.
“Sir, have you read the entire book?”
“No, I don’t have to. It’s right there in black and white!” And blue ink, for emphasis.
“Sir, the young man is not held up as a character for admiration. In fact, he’s more to be pitied.”
“I don’t care. My son will not get sex education at school. Period.”
“Sir, I can’t excuse him from the unit.” Out of the clear blue sky, just like the impulse that pushed me to ask Steve Patterson to teach The Outsiders, an electric jolt of problem-solving mischief was visited upon me. “However, I could assign him alternative reading, something with similar themes and style.”
“As long as it doesn’t have sex education. What do you suggest?”
“Have you read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? By Mark Twain?”
“Oh yes. That’s perfect. That’ll do. Way better than that book.”
Feigning disappointment, I blurted, “Oh wait, he can’t read that. It’s got the word ‘nigger’ in it on almost every page.”
“Oh, that word’s fine.”
Oh, it is? Just as I suspected. Not that I have any issue with Twain’s usage; you understand me on this, right? The imp of the perverse within me just had to see a little more of what this fellow was made of.
We shook on it, but, the next morning, when I explained to his son that I was assigning him an alternative book, I saw the face of heartbreak. If you teach, you eventually will.
“But Mr. Overeem, I love this book.”
“Your dad paid me a visit, and he doesn’t want you to read it, and I could not convince him otherwise. I can’t force the issue, because no one will back me up. But I did assign you a fantastic book, in fact, one of my personal favorites, and I’ll work with you on it independently while we finish up Mockingbird.”
“Do I have to leave the room?” This was uttered in abject fear—the fear of missing out.
“Of course not. If we distract you, though, you are certainly welcome to.”
“No, no, I won’t be distracted. I want to stay in here.”
“OK. Don’t worry—you’re gonna dig Huck Finn, and I’ll write you a great test.” Cold comfort, that.
So, as we finished the unit, the young man sat at his desk, pretending to read Huck Finn, but in actuality absorbing every drop of discussion and reading we engaged in as we moved through Mockingbird. Peering over the top of his alternative book, his eyes met mine about five times a class period, and it made me mad and sad, and worried for him.
After we finished the book and students took the test, I rewarded them for being very decent learners with a viewing of Robert Milligan’s screen adaptation. After I announced the event and the bell rang, I saw our young man still lingering in the room. He shyly shuffled up to the desk and, eyes on shoes, asked a question I had saw coming:
“Can I watch the movie, Mr. Overeem?”
I thought for a second.
“Yeah, but if you tell your dad—I will kill you.” The mid-Eighties were less sensitive times.
The kid sat so close to the VCR I thought the cathode rays would burn his retinas out. I don’t think anyone has ever watched a film so intently. I never did hear from Pap, and I have always wondered if our young man ever checked the book out later in life and read it on his own. I suspect and hope so.
Oddly enough, To Kill a Mockingbird was also the springboard for the most difficult problem I encountered that year—and it ranks with the most difficult I’ve ever had to solve in a classroom. In my most populated class sat a young lady who vibrated with tension. Blonde, troubled with acne, astoundingly gifted and naturally pugnacious—I had witnessed her thoroughly kick the ass of the class bully under the bleachers at a football game—she’d identified with Scout, the novel’s protagonist, and actually bought in to the class. She’d also, following with a heavy tread in the footsteps of her literary kin, found her way to the office multiple times by mid-first quarter (a few of them at my expense—and it was indeed at my expense). Julie’s nervous system featured many subtle triggers a mere greenhorn like myself could not divine, and I had an oaf’s tendency to trip one nearly every class. I would be sailing through a lesson, or she would be working (sometimes, not so quietly) on an activity, when, upon a mere guiding comment to another student or a mild wisecrack on my part, she would erupt, springing out of her chair by the window and spewing verbal lava in my direction. Sometimes, I later realized, she was perceiving an injustice I’d committed, and she was so acutely sensitive she may have been right; I blanch when I think back on some of the things I casually said and did when I was paying my dues. Sometimes, she was looking for an excuse to blow out build-up from her difficult home life. Sometimes, it was too quiet in the classroom and she felt an explosion was required. And sometimes, she just wanted to assert her existence. Trouble was, I had a class to teach, and, as classes will, this one was looking at me to seal up the mouth of the volcano. I could feel my ever-so-tenuous control slipping.
I knew I had to act, but I honestly had no answers. I’d tried everything: rap sessions, calls home, referrals to the office, incentives, classroom responsibilities, seating chart chess moves. I lost sleep dreading Julie’s next outburst, and, inevitably, it came. I was handing back a test and explaining the curve I’d applied—a curve that left Julie a mere point away from an A-. Her overall grade was still an A-; believe me, I’d checked, anticipating her dissatisfaction. Upon scoping her score and letter grade and absorbing my explanation, she informed me, and the class, in a serrated tone, “This sucks. You just made up that curve.” I patiently reminded her it wasn’t made up; I curved it to the class’ top score, so everyone benefited.
“Nope, it sucks, I got the shaft. Fuck this!” The F-bomb had made its first appearance in my journey, as it does in every teacher’s.
Breaching the cardinal rule of disciplinary engagement, I replied, as she sat there steaming, arms crossed, “It’s over. I’m done having to cater to your every whim at the expense of the other 32 kids’ education. Get out in the hall—I’ll be there in a minute.”
She flipped me off, spun out of her chair, and ran out the door.
After begging the shocked class to simply talk amongst themselves quietly for a few minutes, I headed out the door myself, having no clue what I was going to do now that I’d drawn a very faint line in the sand, and hoping she hadn’t just bolted for home.
To my somewhat ambivalent relief, she was waiting, red-faced, outside the door. The crimson shade was not wrought by shame; she clearly wanted to kill me. I inhaled—and winged it.
“Look, Julie, I love you, kid. You are smart, passionate, funny, and talented. You never miss a class and I’d miss you if you did. I know things aren’t easy for you outside of here, and that pretty much the whole world is pissing you off. On top of that, I’m not perfect. But seriously, this can’t go on. I am losing them just trying to keep you. And I have tried everything.”
I clammed up as a student runner zipped past us. And inspiration hit.
“So, how about this? What if, when you feel you are about to lose your shit [I have cussed in speaking to students in the hall—many times—because, sorry, it works like a charm in the right situations], you just get up, quietly walk out of the class, and just do a few laps, then come back in when your blood pressure’s normal?” I said this with the ease and matter-of-factness of one who had it all figured out.
Julie narrowed her eyes. “You can’t be serious.” Yes, I have heard that response many times in three decades, but probably more often my rookie year than any other.
“Yeah, I absolutely am. I know you could just leave the grounds. I know you could just go hang out in some nook and cranny in the building and not come back to my class. I know you could fake it just to blow off work or hearing me yammer. But I am going to trust you on this. I know you could get busted, but I am going to make you a permanent pass.”
“You are kidding me.”
“You think it’ll help?”
“I hate to admit it, but I think it will.” She liked me, but she really didn’t like me to win.
“OK. Starts tomorrow. Can you come back in and let me salvage the last seven minutes of class?”
“Nope, just let me stay out here and I’ll listen to you through the door.” I was just smart enough to recognize this as face-saving, so I went back in to finish class.
Next day: no blow-ups.
Day after: no blow-ups.
That Friday: stealthy exit, fellow students barely noticed, back in 5, raised her hand to answer a question (correctly!) that she hadn’t been present to be able to know.
And that was it. For the year.
Later, I realized that student runner had helped me subconsciously tap in to something buried in my memory: my great high school art teacher Howard South’s strategy of letting us go out in back of the art annex and take his sledge hammer to a stump when we became creatively frustrated. It had worked for me, though I was stupider and less volatile than Julie, and though it would also lead me to one of the most egregious and imbecilic acts of my high school career (more on that later). In this case, it sealed the deal between me and one of the best students I’ve ever taught. What’s more, it convinced me, finally, that I was going to make it to May.