On Teachers

It had been one of the great mysteries of my lifetime – one day she was there, the next she was “sick.” Days went by, then weeks. Lincoln Logs rose and fell, and before we knew it the year was over and our substitute teacher had become our real teacher. She even appeared at the top of our yearbook page.

I never knew what happened to my Kindergarten teacher until many years later when I was ringing up my boss’s wife’s soy milk at the health food store I worked at during high school. She was a veteran Kindergarten teacher at the same gradeschool I’d attended, from the days before the peanut butter sandwich was a chemical weapon. “Oh wow, you had Mrs Gerber? Huge scandal; the poor old woman had a pill problem.”

And just like that, the greatest mystery of my lifetime had been solved. I felt a deep sense of loss; life ought to be full of mystery and wonder and pointless conjecture. In the time it took to apply a paltry employee discount to a dairy substitute, I’d been robbed of fodder for my wayward imagination (a feeling which lasted until 2014, when my conspiratorial gears creaked into motion again following the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370.)

I recall the ceremonial meet-and-greet before the first day of school. I was staring at the kind of linoleum that would serve as the stage for the next 17 years of my life. My mother pried me off her leg and made me “say hello to Miss Gerber!” Miss Gerber was old, her skin mottled with sunspots, her hair an unkempt space helmet affixed to her head by gaudy geometric earrings. Her left arm was in a cast slung across her matronly midsection. She looked at me with glassy eyes and tightened her features across her face in one of those closed-mouth smiles that kind old women make.

Ms. Gerber had been in a car accident and broken her wrist and had subsequently been prescribed opioid painkillers. She was positively swimming through the first 6 weeks of the school year. She spent most of her time doting on us rather than teaching. “Oh, you’re all so special,” she would say. “Just wonderful.” I’m sure we did seem like an awfully special class since every other class for the past 30 years of her career had been presided over in a state of dull sobriety.

Then one day Ms. Crock showed up. “Ms. Gerber is sick,” she said. “I’ll be your substitute teacher today.” Ms. Crock was nice enough; she was younger and seemed – well, sober. She did a good enough job reading children’s books and disciplining Christopher Suppelsa, who had a habit of cutting off his shoelaces with safety scissors. The administration offered Ms. Crock a permanent position. By the end of the year, our inquiries about Ms. Gerber had slowed to a weekly occurrence rather than hourly. Still, the mystery loomed over us. It reinforced the youthful delusion that the adults in my life lived only in the moments spent in my presence – if Ms. Gerber was no longer in my classroom, she ceased to exist. Matters of object permanence aside, a goodbye would have sufficed.

Constance Blair’s character flaws were obvious enough that there could be no conjecture about her status as a basketcase. She was my second grade teacher and an absolute sadist. If you had the misfortune of having a birthday between August and May, you were liable to find yourself braced against the ledge of the chalkboard, ass facing the class while “the Blair Witch” delivered “birthday spankings” using a wooden ruler. She didn’t cause any physical harm, just the kind of emotional trauma that starts as a salty burn deep in your eye sockets and spreads to the top of your skull and down to your sternum until all 40 pounds of you is hot and inside-out and and inflated from holding back the confused rage for which, by second grade, you feel you’re too old.

One day, I spilled a drink and I found myself kneeling on the cold floor and swabbing ineffectively at the spill, using dozens of shitty recycled paper towels while the entire class watched. Mrs. Blair stood over me and criticized my technique, which was to push the mess around and wait for this defining moment in my childhood to be over. My face burned and my eyes started leaking into the mess. The saving grace of this memory is that I and my peers had not yet reached the stage of pure sociopathy – that would come in a few short years. We all understood on some level that she was deeply flawed and emotionally unstable. Their sympathy aside, the feeling of smallness stuck with me and worsened with each of her many acts of classroom sadism.

My middle school employed an elderly woman who occupied a useless administrative position that left her with enough free time to “watch” us when a teacher had to step out of class unexpectedly. She would amble in and spend the first few moments threatening repercussions before plopping down at the teacher’s desk and slipping into a sound sleep. Her head would tilt back, falling away from her jaw to reveal a quivering uvula. We behaved, for the most part, but tested the sonic limits of her unconsciousness – if the noise level got too out of hand, she would come to and claim to have been watching us the whole time. Had we been a few years younger, we might have believed her to be some kind of mystic, but we were old enough to know that she was suffering from a health condition that made it impossible for her to be fired.

My memories of school are these supercuts of wonder and embarrassment, lunchroom laughter and tears choked back; fresh pine woodchips in the fall and honeysuckle nectar in the spring. As for teachers, I remember the good, the bad, and the weird. The good teachers are the ones who love their jobs, who give a shit about their kids. The ones who cultivate a sense of wonder in us.

In elementary school, Mr. Avery handed out oil pastels and made Van Goghs of us. In middle school, Ms. Smith demonstrated her love for her job that I all but forgot that I hated math and, for once, felt capable of it. In high school, Mr. Glenn, aware that I was perpetually stoned and disinterested, woke me up by blasting the Grateful Dead’s Box of Rain and launching into a lesson on transcendentalism. The common denominator among these teachers was this intuition about what exactly it is that makes a kid feel capable and cared-about. They knew how to ignite our curiosity and make our failures feel less like failures and more like learning.

As a new teacher, I fall somewhere on the spectrum of utter mediocrity. At this stage, I’ll likely be forgotten completely, as are most average teachers. Maybe someday I’ll be good enough that I’m remembered the way I remember the good teachers in my life. In any case, I’m not a sadist, a narcoleptic, or otherwise afflicted with something that will forever etch me in their memories as a whackjob. For now, I’ll probably forgotten like yesterday’s breakfast. And for now, that’s okay. I’m happy to leave each of my lessons having learned more than any of my students.