The Joke That Got Me Through My First Year

I wonder if I would have made use of this site, had it been around my first year of teaching. I like to think that I would have and that most of the details from my horrible, yet instructive, first year of teaching would have been preserved in a series of blog entries.

I look over some of the ‘recent posts’ and see a lot of excellent raw material that new teachers are posting when they get a chance and through them we get a pretty candid look at the first year. But still we know that we’re getting a filtered version. Most people don’t want to tell the exact truth of what’s happening with them. They edit it, embellish it, change it, maybe without even being aware of it.

When I was going through my first year of teaching, which I’ve written so much about since then, I didn’ t write anything down. I was too tired, and the idea of keeping a diary was a low priority. In the midst of the school year, a lot of important things become low priority — I remember that my watch band broke during my first year, and this was a real necessity with all the broken clocks in my school, yet it took me at least 3 weeks to get it fixed, I remember.

Well, I jotted down a bunch of ideas right after my first year ended, and I’m sure I had already forgotten a lot of what had happened. Then I wrote a very funny, yet very contrived summary of my first year, which became my first column, and which was published in a few magazines eventually, but it was run through such a filter, that it didn’t at all represent what it was like. (I’ll post that one eventually. I seem to have lost the original, but I’ll find it.)

There are certain things that I’ve never written about since they were just too sad, embarrassing, unmarketable, and possibly illegal. Certainly the 1992 TFA-Houston newsletter wouldn’t have wanted to publish that kind of stuff. Had this blog been around back then, I doubt I’d want these stories out there for the world to see.

The nice thing about a blog is that you don’t have to spend hours editing your work. You just type it and ‘publish’ and if you want to fix it up later, you can, but people aren’t expecting polished work, which is nice for me since when I try to polish, I am a very slow writer. Maybe I’d go through ten drafts for a 4 page column, and it would take about a month back in the day. Now, with a family including the cutest 2 1/2 year old daughter ever (she has a cold right now, so I’m staying up late listening by her door to hear if she has any coughing fits, so I’m writing to keep busy while I wait), I don’t have the time to perfect the writing — to read the stuff out loud to make sure that there’s rhythm and that the jokes are worded with words in the best possible order so the key word happens at the exact right moment — torture really.

I should let you know that this post is inspired by a recent re-reading of my favorite book ever ‘The Things They Carried’ by Tim O’Brien. I’m not much of a reader. Of the last ten books I’ve read, nine of them were about the history of Math. But O’Brien’s book really gets to me every time. He writes about his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam, and he writes a lot about how it’s impossible to write the ‘truth,’ and how writers take liberties with the truth, and it got me thinking about how I never really got the truth down about my first year which was like my Vietnam.

My first year was not as funny as I’ve tried to make it. There are a lot of things that happened that I never put to paper since I don’t think that I could put them into perspective so that anyone could really understand how I could do such things.

By December, I was pretty much out of my mind. I pretty much just screamed all the time. You do that enough, and you start to change.

I remember bringing a kid to the office — I taught 6th graders. At the time, I used to carry my stuff in one of those big briefcases, the kind that looks like a box with a handle on it. I was so pissed with myself and with the kids, and with this kid in particular that while I was walking next to him, he was on my right — I had the briefcase in my right hand, between us and I’d nudge it with my knee toward him so that it would hit him on the leg repeatedly.

I remember having to cover a music class and playing the piano for the students, and then a kid messing around and I chased him down the hall and when I caught him I actually slammed him against the lockers and screamed at him to get back into the classroom. The kid was sobbing and other kids were cheering him up by saying, “You should get him fired” and as the kid started to feel a little better and the sobbing went down, I walked up to the kid and leaned over and, the only time I ever cursed in school, said “I don’t get paid enough to take your sh*t you little b*stard.”

I remember sometime in April when I told a kid named Alex that I was going to call home and he came to me after class to beg me not to. I said I already made up my mind and he pulled up his shirt to show me bruises and told me, please don’t call. They hit me. And even though I didn’t call, I didn’t report it to whoever I was supposed to. By that time, I was so distrustful of administrators and guidance counselors that I just felt like it would make things worse for the kid. I don’t know if any current CMs with their high-tech training can understand how it could have made sense at the time for me to basically break the law by not reporting child abuse.

I remember the last week of school my first year. There was nothing left to do, but play games and a few kids were playing a reflex game, kind of like the game ‘slaps’, but the way this one worked was that you each put two fists out. One person had his fists below the others and he would try to flip his fists to hit the other persons before they pulled them away. Somehow I got invited to play this game with the very same Alex and I accepted. I had so much frustration from my failed year, and my students were just as frustrated to have to break in a teacher like me, and this game felt like it symbolized that struggle. And we played this game pretty fiercely. Me and a 6th grader and when it was over our fists were both bleeding, but we all felt a bit better.

And I remember the joke that got me through my first year. This might be the kind that you had to be there, but maybe not. At our school, we had the afternoon announcements each day, and each day they’d be said by a different guest teacher. My friend Jon and I had a fantasy that one of us would get a chance to do the afternoon announcements, and we’d be finishing up by reading the final announcement “and Mr. Kessler’s fourth period class are reminded to go to room 201 tomorrow. This is Mr. Rubinstein, and these have been the afternoon announcements. Oh, and by the way — I f*ckin’ quit.” Jon and I would quote that last sentence a few times a week. It reminded us that we weren’t trapped. We could escape anytime, and that we were choosing to stay.

Well, you can see, I guess, why none of these stories ever made it into my various books or articles, but I really think these stories explain me a bit — why after all these years, while working at the top high school in New York City, I still try to do what I can to steer TFA CMs in the right direction, by being ‘real’ with them. I don’t know if people think of me as wise or crazy or what, but what I went through the first year really shaped me and I don’t have much of a choice, but to do what I do. To write when I can.

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4 Responses to The Joke That Got Me Through My First Year

  1. Wess says:

    I really, really like this post. As honest as I try to be as I write, the raw experience is always filtered. It’s a protective filter of self-messaging and selective memory that I hope will help me make it through my first year.

  2. chrisb says:

    It’s tragic, isn’t it? That when things are so bad, the only thing that makes it ok is dreams of “f*in quitting”? And yet, when we talk to people outside of our immediate circle, we’re all like, “Oh, ya know.. I’m tired… but… it’ll be ok… I guess…”

    In retrospect, I now understand why my parents were so worried about me. I have a tendency to try to see the silver lining, but now when I look back at that first year, I have to face the reality that it sucked, plain and simple. I applaud your courage to admit that in such a public way.

  3. Abby says:

    I remember the moment I snapped, I told a kid he couldn’t go to the bathroom, he told me he was going to get me fired and I turned around and yelled “No one else wants this job!” That year at Christmas I cried for four days because I would have to go back.

    I appreciate the honesty, and I truly appreciate the joke

  4. J-Park says:

    Thank you so much for this post. Your blog and the resources within Teach For Us have been tremendously helpful in my decision making process to join (or not to join) the 2011 corps. I wonder, many of the comments throughout your blog are from CMs placed in inner cities. Do CM in rural areas have a different experience?

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