In this powerful, eloquent story of his return to the classroom, a former teacher offers a rousing defense of his beleaguered vocation
Perhaps no profession is so constantly discussed, regulated, and maligned by non-practitioners as teaching. The voices of the teachers themselves are conspicuously missing. Defying this trend, teacher and writer Garret Keizer takes us to school―literally―in this arresting account of his return to the same rural Vermont high school where he taught fourteen years ago.
Much has changed since then―a former student is his principal, standardized testing is the reigning god, and smoking in the boys' room has been supplanted by texting in the boys' room. More familiar are the effects of poverty, the exuberance of youth, and the staggering workload that technology has done as much to increase as to lighten. Telling the story of Keizer's year in the classroom, Getting Schooled takes us everywhere a teacher might go: from field trips to school plays to town meetings, from a kid's eureka moment to a parent's dark night of the soul.
At once fiercely critical and deeply contemplative, Keizer exposes the obstacles that teachers face daily―and along the way takes aim at some cherished cant: that public education is doomed, that the heroic teacher is the cure for all that ails education, that educational reform can serve as a cheap substitute for societal reformation.
Angry, humorous, and always hopeful, Getting Schooled is as good an argument as we are likely to hear for a substantive reassessment of our schools and those who struggle in them.
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Garret Keizer is the author of Privacy and The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want. A contributing editor at Harper's magazine and a former Guggenheim Fellow, he has written for Lapham's Quarterly, The Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, among other publications. He lives in Vermont.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
You go back, Jack, do it again.
In the fall of 2010, after a fourteen-year hiatus from the classroom and at the unpropitious age of fifty-seven, I began a one-year job filling in for a teacher on leave from the same rural Vermont high school that I’d entered as a rookie thirty years before. I signed on mainly because my wife and I needed the health insurance. The reason I trained to be an English teacher in the first place was my parents’ insistence that I graduate from college with a trade, "poet" falling short of the mark in their eyes. It’s fair to say that I have never gone to work in a school with what might be called purity of heart, though much of what I know about purity of heart I learned there.
It can still surprise me that I became a teacher at all. I could have satisfied my parents’ requirements by pursuing a different trade; sometimes I wish I had. With a push in either direction, I think I could have managed to become a halfway decent attorney or machinist. I am not one of those high school teachers whose teenage years evoke such an irresistible nostalgia that they enter the ranks mainly in the hope of chaperoning a prom.
Nor, when I say "surprise," do I mean to suggest that mine is the well-worn path of the marginal student who feels called to the classroom in order to help kids have an easier time than he had. That is often a noble story, among the noblest in the field of education, but it is not my story. I was a good student at school, and when I applied myself, an exceptional student. At the risk of sounding immodest, I should probably add that there are people who would tell you that I am an exceptional teacher. There are former students of mine who would find it difficult to imagine that I could ever have wanted to do anything else.
I never had that difficulty. In fact, there was never a time during the sixteen years I taught when I didn’t imagine doing something else. Even in the best moments, when teaching gave me the kind of rush some people find in skydiving or cocaine, I yearned to be at home writing. In the worst, I would imagine putting my name in at the local furniture plant, which I might well have done but for the impossibility of lying about my white-collar credentials to bosses whose kids, nieces, or nephews I’d had in class. I can’t recall a single year of teaching that I didn’t begin with a burst of enthusiasm accompanied by the fervent hope that come June I’d be done with teaching for good.
There is no simple way to account for that contradiction. From my earliest grades, I was fascinated with teaching and repulsed by school. By second grade I was asking my teacher’s permission to "teach the class" about my scientific passions at the time: dinosaurs, rocks, and planets. I still marvel at the number of times she yielded the blackboard—to say nothing of the rarity with which my classmates rewarded my efforts with a black eye. But as early as first grade, I was throwing up my breakfast every morning out of anxiety before the school bus arrived. I had no trouble holding down my food on weekends and holidays. To this day the mere act of entering a school—that first whiff of disinfectant, that crackling interplay of regimentation and anarchy—is enough to turn my stomach.
Becoming a professional teacher intensified, and complicated, the emotions I’d felt as a kid. Teaching could be wonderful, and even when it wasn’t, the students I taught could be wonderful. It made me sad to see some of them graduate, though in time I realized that part of my sadness had to do with being left behind. They were going on to do what they "really wanted to do," whereas I wasn’t. In a ridiculous but palpable way, I felt less grown up than the gowned graduates who shook my hand and embraced me. After all, an adult is someone who’s finished with high school. The distinction tends to blur when you find yourself matching wits with a mouthy fourteen-year-old or asking a principal if you can pretty please leave the building on your lunch break to run home and retrieve the corrected papers—your "homework"—that you left on the kitchen counter. The greatest challenge of teaching is not, as is so often averred, finding a way "to relate to kids." It is rather finding a way to relate to yourself in a process that often leaves you feeling like a kid.
A good part of that challenge has to do with the burden of evaluation. A child’s acute awareness of measuring up, and of failing to measure up, exists for few adults with the same remorseless constancy as it does for a teacher. Everything a student fails to learn is something a teacher has failed to teach. (And everything that might be construed as wrong with the society at large can be placed, and inevitably will be placed, at the feet of its teachers.) Work harder, you tell yourself, but hard work is not always enough. Knowledge of material and technique is not always enough. You can still fail. What is more, you will fail. Certain social conditions combine with certain working conditions to make failure a foregone conclusion. The realization that I could work every waking hour of every day and still fall short of the most modest expectations was the first great lesson of my teaching career. I ought not to have found it so stunning. A teacher in the ancient world might have had a handful of pupils; he would have eaten and even lodged with them throughout their tutelage. Jesus Christ had twelve. In his first year of teaching, Garret Keizer had around a hundred.
The teaching position to which I applied in 2010 would give me a mere eighty. And I knew more about how to teach English than I did as a beginner. I was also better at the math. I knew, for example, that asking my students to put pen to paper only once a day would give me four hundred pieces of paper by week’s end. Giving each piece of paper a scant ten minutes of my attention would require sixty-seven hours of correction. That’s a lot of homework, and it doesn’t count as preparation, which at its best ought to exceed correction by a factor of no less than two.
Within days after the principal called to say that I had the one-year job if I still wanted it, which is to say, within days after refusing my wife’s final plea not to take it, I began having nightmares. I often have nightmares, but these were less obscure in their meanings. Even the fantastic ones weren’t hard to figure out.
For instance, I am on a raft on the ocean a short distance from another raft. There is a creature slumped on that other raft that I surmise is either dead or close to it. Still, I hoist and flex the long metal pole in my hand so as to bring one of the leaden balls attached to either tip thudding down on its bowed shaggy head. I don’t know how long I’ve been at this methodical braining, but as soon as I deliver one blow, I hoist the undulating rod above my head, watching intently for when the ball is in the right position for me to deliver the next. I don’t dare to relax my concentration for even a second. If I don’t make sure to kill this thing, it will kill me. It is easily five times my size.
Suddenly, the creature comes to life, furious, rearing up on its hind legs and sucking the breath from my lungs in the same instant. With one easy leap it bounds over the water from its raft to mine. The weapon in my hand, awkward at best, is now utterly useless, too long to wield in close quarters. With my heart pounding, I wake just as I am about to be eaten alive. Right away I know that the beast is the job I "killed" fourteen years ago and will resurrect in less than six months’ time. The symbolism of the weapon takes longer to parse. Perhaps it is the ballpoint pen by which I have managed to earn my precarious living, mockingly elongated and flaccid, my years of hired scribbling revealed in all their humiliating impotence. Or maybe it is simply the ten-foot pole with which I had sworn never to touch teaching again.
Determined to enter my classroom as prepared as I can be, I make an appointment to meet with the principal and department head before the snow is gone. Here in northeastern Vermont that can mean a date as late as May, especially on the higher elevations where I live, but it’s March when I make my way off the mountain, along the winding ridge road, and under the narrow railroad overpass that still feels, as it did during my last years of teaching, like the arch of a castle gate: protective coming in, ominous going out. Four miles of the trip are done at that point, followed by another seven that will take me along the train tracks and over the county line, past a lonesome pond and defunct sawmill, the cluttered dooryards and sagging roofs of South Barton, toward the neater lakeside houses laid close to Crystal Lake. Hidden by foliage but known to me are a rusted, battered trailer and backyard scrap-metal business toward the south end of the lake and, with a grand view from a perch above the northern shore, a palatial house of stone and glass in which one of my students once lived. I remember climbing the steep drive to visit her parents one winter night, the tall windows blazing into view just as the radio began to play Mozart’s Requiem. It was like entering Camelot.
Today, though, I’m entering the village of Barton in Orleans County, its outskirts marked by the turreted Blue Seal feed store and the western-style Crystal Saloon, nicknamed the Snake Pit in former days, when it boasted numerous brawls and at least one homicide on the premises. In the very beginning, before my wife and I had managed to buy our long-desired "house in the country," I had come from the opposite direction, driving south from our apartment in the mill town of Orleans.
Either way requires a turn, left from the present direction, right in the past, onto an uphill road that passes under the interstate. Route 91 reached the heart of northeastern Vermont a few years before our arrival in 1979, changing much though not all of what was then regarded as a wild place. By wild I mean both wooded and lawless. Some of the lawlessness was indigenous, typical of what one might expect of a region at the northernmost tip of Appalachia. Some of it came with the countercultural migrations of the early seventies, the disillusioned hippies and radicals on the lam. No doubt closeness to a desolate border was a factor too. Not far from the high school or all that long ago the maverick inventor Gerald Bull built the long-range "super guns" he sold illegally to South Africa and Saddam Hussein.
The abutments of the underpass were thick with black graffiti when I first saw them, the school’s vice principal brazenly proclaimed as an inveterate sucker of "wet donkey dinks" on one cement surface and a more generic "big pud" on another. In later years a depressing run of suicides and drunk-driving accidents lent a morbid, almost macabre tone to the graffiti until the school authorities, apparently as dispirited by the memorials as I was—though I had taken my leave by then—inaugurated the custom of having each graduating class paint a mural on one of the four faces as a legacy to the school. Among those I pass this afternoon is a depiction of rainbow trout jumping the falls, one of the region’s more celebrated sights. People still gather every April on the banks of the Willoughby River and watch salmon and trout as long as two feet leap their way upstream to spawn. The iconic trout is also pictured on a granite marker outside the Ethan Allen furniture mill, the area’s largest employer, once the destination of most of the able-bodied young males who weren’t marked at birth for college or their fathers’ barns.
The trout is not the high school’s mascot, however, that honor falling to the coonskin-capped "Ranger" of Roger’s Rangers, a group of colonial expeditionaries best known for their raid on a tribe of St. Francis Indians beyond the northern shores of Memphremagog and their ill-fated retreat thereafter. I make my turn onto high school property past a granite monument with the Ranger logo carved under the school’s name, an addition since I left Lake Region Union High School in the midnineties, when only a few gray hairs salted my head.
The building that emerges as I round the corner is a flat-topped brick structure typical of regional high schools built in the 1960s. But for an occasional tractor parked outside the garage doors of the ag shop, little about the place gives a clue of its geographical location or the diverse sociological profile of its roughly four hundred students. The sprawling grounds suggest an active athletic program and a conscientious maintenance crew. There are tennis courts. Acts of vandalism are not unheard of, but they’re painted over or repaired as quickly as possible and, perhaps for that reason, infrequently repeated. There are probably other reasons too. For most of the students, high school represents a heady expansion from the smaller, often less well-funded, small-town elementary schools they attend till eighth grade. For at least a few of them, Lake Region is the warmest, brightest, safest space they know. Kids cry at their graduations all over the world, but they do not cry for all the same reasons.
When Kathy and I first ventured into "Ranger Country" in our late twenties, with newly earned master’s degrees from the state university and our New Jersey accents even more noticeable than neighbors claim they still are today, we were searching for two openings in the same school or at least in geographic proximity, one for an inexperienced English teacher and one for a new speech pathologist. Candidates for the first were a dime a dozen, but the latter were and in some ways continue to be a rarity in rural parts of the state. I recall occasions when, after being perfunctorily instructed by a superintendent’s secretary to send a résumé and letter of application to such and such an address by such and such a date, I would casually mention that my wife was a master’s-level speech pathologist also in search of a job (and therefore able not only to meet new state requirements for special education but to pull in state funding as well), whereupon I was told to hold the line until the superintendent could come to the phone. It seemed we would get some interviews, perhaps even a few choices, though Kathy felt strongly that the state fellowships that had paid our tuitions and duty-free stipends at the state university obliged us to look at school districts where "the need was greatest," or at least beyond the relative affluence of the Champlain Valley.
Not to worry, it was only beyond the Champlain Valley, and quite a ways beyond, that we found a district able and willing to see us as a package deal. We were hired by the Orleans Central Supervisory Union in Orleans County, one of three that make up Vermont’s so-called Northeast Kingdom, and one of the state’s poorest. That distinction has not changed, notwithstanding the presence of some large prosperous farms (often the aggregated acquisitions of smaller, failed holdings), a solid middle class of small business owners, skilled tradespeople, and white-collar professionals willing to trade an upscale income for a down-home lifestyle, and even a few millionaire squires seeking the same dream on larger acreage. As of the last census, only one of Vermont’s fourteen counties (Essex County, also in the Kingdom) showed a slightly higher percentage of its population living below the poverty line than Orleans. Orleans County leads the state in accidental deaths and in the percentage of its children receiving food stamps, is last in the state ...
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