This Word Is Teach

by Harmony Button

I was in the back of the bus, and I didn’t know when to get off. I couldn’t see out the front — there were too many kids in the way — but the houses and trees I could glimpse looked familiar. I pulled the yellow cord above the window — the bell went ‘dink!’ — and I began to gather my things. That’s when I realized that I was holding an open can of Strongbow Hard Cider: cold, delicious, totally-illegal-in-a-moving-vehicle-because-it’s-quite-alcoholic cider.

I had to drink it before anybody noticed! — but the bus was already coming to a halt, so I poured the perfectly golden bubbly brew into the two potted trees that I was (suddenly) carrying. It fizzed into the soil and I was sad, but I threw my beach umbrella over my shoulder, held my three-hole punch under my armpit (because you can’t leave those things laying around — they get “borrowed” if you turn your back and you’ll never see them again) and picked up a tree in each hand.

I had to get off that bus.

The driver’s eyes flicked up to his mirror, impatiently. I was trying to make my way down the aisle, but the trees were unruly and difficult to carry. Their drooping branches blundered into other people, catching in hair and smacking at faces. My potted trees were drunkards.

The bus driver asked who had signaled for the stop. Me! I shouted. I’m coming! But there was too much noise. He didn’t hear me. The other kids watched me struggle, their faces blank and pitiless. The bus started rolling forward, past my parents’ house.

Wait! I called. But it was too late.

*

It’s a common thing, the back-to-school dreams. For many teachers, August is a month of dreams, some dark, some truly weird. The intensity of the dream does not correlate with the skill level of the teacher. One of my favorite dreamers is a teacher who has seen her three children grow up and graduate from her school — and yet, she still dreams: the school has traded her, NBA-style, to another district. “But you should be proud,” they tell her. “We got two teachers in place of you!”

Another long-time teacher dreams that on the first day of school, she’s suddenly giving birth, without knowing that she was pregnant. Another dreams that she has to call up an administrator in the middle of the night to help her hide a dead body. Another suddenly realizes he has to take a final exam for a class he didn’t know he had registered for — usually in German. Yet another faces down a never-ending sea of footwear, unable to choose what shoes to wear. The children have come and gone, and there are no shoes, and too many. What shoes? What shoes? How can we go on.

*

But wait. These are teachers. Grown adults. People who forged the path of their careers through many moons of Augusts and Septembers. Shouldn’t their back-to-school dreams be filled with the nerdy pleasure of new textbooks and the satisfactory swipe of a juicy Expo marker across an impeccable whiteboard?

Of course not. Because the truth is, teachers are students who never, ever graduate. No matter how many times students grumble about the perverse pleasure teachers must take from assigning homework or giving tests, I assure you, any teacher worth her salt can still feel in her bones what it is like to be a student.

*

I was chewing chalk, which was odd, because my classroom doesn’t even have a chalkboard. My mouth was full of it, but when I tried to spit it out, one of my teeth came with it — a molar, with a sharp, thin little root, so that it looked for all the world like a pushpin. The students were aghast. I was standing in front of the class, but I was suddenly struck with fear — I didn’t want to be caught up there when the teacher came in.

*

Me, I’ve been teaching long enough to see kids I taught in 6th grade graduate and go off to college. I’ve seen students finish college and get internships with senators. I’ve seen weddings. I’ve seen funerals. I’ve seen students have children. Some day soon, I’ll see students become teachers, too. It’s only a matter of time.

Every year, I see high school seniors run the gambit of emotions as they make peace with their own burgeoning adulthood. I see them love and hate the school that raised them. I see them take ownership of that school, and then say goodbye to it, as if it will cease to exist without them.

And then, there is September.

And back we come, the teachers. Good old us.

*

The verb “to teach” has morphed quite a bit over time. The earlier usages were often directional — you could “teach” someone the door, or “teach” them the way to Scarborough Fair. In this way, it was a synonym for “show” or “point out,” but it also carried the connotations of a process: to teach something was not just to identify it, but to guide, facilitate, to give complicit approval of someone else’s arrival at that thing. If you “taught” someone the way to your heart, you were okay with them being there.

Occasionally, to “teach” is a threat. I’ll teach you to talk to me that way means the opposite of what it says: it is a warning not to talk in that particular fashion. In this case, the object and process of the teaching are both invisible, but the imagination can provide the necessary details. Usually, the kind of people who say they’ll “teach” you like this are also the frequent customers of words like “whup” and “lick” and “upside the head.”

Real teaching has no room for threats, only consequences, and these can not be ambiguous. Healthy classrooms balance predictable structures with pathways of wonder. Good teachers ask questions that they can’t answer — even if it is just “how did you figure that out?” or “why do you think that?” Good teachers wait for the answers. Good teachers teach towards something, but they’re never quite sure how their students will decide to get there.

*

Often, the dreams are dreams of control: losing it, getting it, keeping it. Sometimes, the children light books on fire, they break windows, they laugh in your face. Sometimes, they bite each other, they draw on walls, they find pictures of you naked and email them to everyone they know. They pull the classroom carpet back to reveal trap doors with heavy metal locks and you say don’t you dare unlock those locks and they do, anyway, and then the spider-zombies come. Sometimes, the students catch you crying in the custodial closet and they say don’t worry, don’t worry, do you want me to call your mom? Sometimes, you really wish they would.

*

If you want to be mean about it, you tell a high school teacher that they were an academic that didn’t make it, and now they’re a washed up nobody, a glorified babysitter who spends their days teaching ungrateful children how to do the things they failed to get “real” jobs doing, themselves.

And I’m sure there are some cases in which this is true, but those kind of teachers usually don’t last long and they are rarely memorable. There may be as many bad teachers out there as there functional ones, and the really inspired ones may be few and far between. Trying to group all teachers into one category is like classifying all farmers, forensic analysts, new moms, and sanitation workers as People Who Deal With Poo. The craft and purpose behind the action seems to be critically important to the nature of your job description. Even the fact that we, as a society, have not come up with a more descriptive system of titling our teachers beyond basic subject matter is telling — we, as a whole, lack the ability to describe the how of teaching, so we fall back on the what: math, science, English, history.

And so we see to the heart of our nation’s education crisis: teaching is seen as a simple skill set, not a craft. It is a thing you do to the children, not an art form that you cultivate with them. At times, it’s even treated as a talent, or something intrinsic to your personality, like charisma or charm. We think good teachers are the likeable ones, or the ones who can command the attention of the class, or the ones who get you to score well on state tests.

Until we treat education as a career path, not a spiritual calling or a personality quirk, we will continue to struggle to distinguish between different kinds of teachers, and we’ll be completely baffled as to how to evaluate their efficacy.

*

For me, there was Margaret, my elementary teacher, who didn’t give a hoot about how well you organized your cubby, but who wouldn’t let you off the hook when it came to sloppy thinking. Think what you think, and think it thoroughly, think it through to the end of the thought.

Then there was Mr. Lasser, the six foot tall pillar of integrity who scared the crap out of me not just because he could eviserate a snarky student with a single look, but because he would call me out on any fluffery that I could pass off on other teachers, and because he cared so damn much about the state of our young minds. I was one of his last students, ever — the year I graduated, he retired from a lifetime of teaching high school English. So we were a special class: his last chance to save the world. He pushed us harder than anyone. He brought us strawberries and powdered sugar to eat outside on the lawn in the spring. He told us, “a little soul searching is good for the soul, if not for the search.” He taught me to write like myself, not like I thought a smart person might write. He taught me that I was a smart person.

Then there was a series of college professors — ones who coaxed and listened; ones who inspired and pounded and performed. Ones who fed me books and said, “I know, right?” when I was struck speechless by beauty. Then there were graduate professors, dear friends and mentors who taught me that to be a good poet you need to be a good person, and that being good doesn’t always mean being good. There were teachers-on-fire who were so brilliant and damaged and full of love and hurt that I didn’t know how long I could live in the crucible of their presence.

And then, there was me, being me, as a teacher. Teacher-me.

*

I think a lot about what my students think of me. Veteran teachers often tell new ones not to worry about such things — that it’s not your job to make your students like you. But wanting them to like you, and thinking about what they think about you are two totally differernt things. And I hadn’t ever met a teacher quite like me before, so I didn’t know how to think about myself. I wasn’t intimidating. I wasn’t overly wise. I didn’t have a ton of life experience. I often forget authors’ names or titles of books or even whatever it was I was talking about before I got distracted by that kid who made a mobius strip out of a fruit roll-up and is proceeding to lick it round and round into infinity. I’m not particularly well-spoken or charasmatic — I grew up with an adorable speech impediment that still humbles me in moments of stress or fatigue. As a teacher, I experience a lot of stress, and fatigue.

*

The school principle has joined forces with Nevada’s Cliven Bundy, who has convinced his heavily armed supporters to leave the land they haven’t paid grazing fines on for twenty-five years and pick up the hobby of holding kidnapped people hostage inside the school building, which actually turns out to be a spaceship. So you, hero of your own dream, join the resistance movement and manage to escape the school-spaceship, at which point, you go to Whole Foods and buy some really, really gourmet produce. Would the kids like this $275 bottle of olive oil? Do we have the kitchenware to prepare this handcrafted designer pasta? And then you pack your supplies into recyclable brown paper bags and return to the spaceship, with the rest of the drones.

*

There was a time when you could say that “Grammar was taught him” — which, oddly enough, instead of being passive, actually put the power of the teaching into the hands of the subject (the grammar) instead of the teacher (who is noticeably missing from the sentence). Teach-ing, then, was an action that existed outside of the need for a teach-er. The verb “to teach” had its own agency, free of the teacher. Teaching could just teach, like rain can rain and shouts can shout. Grammatically, all it needed to drive it was its own objective: whatever was meant to be learned. In a way, then, the lesson itself takes on the power of the teaching. In the sentence “Grammar was taught him,” look at the kind of verbs that you could substitute for “was taught” in order for it to make sense to our modern ear: grammar saw him, grammar recognized him, grammar loved him.

To teach is to make introductions, and hope for beautiful relationships.

Grammar slapped him, grammar bit him, grammar left him.

To teach is to be unable to make any promises about the nature of the relationship.

There are moments, few and far between, when I feel this: the teach-ness in the classroom, out of my hands, doing its work. There are days when writing is taught them, despite me, and damn if it’s not awesome.

*

There is a black cat trapped in the Theater department. It holds a microchip with all my lesson plans. I must rescue it from the dark, windowless storage space below the stage, but I am afraid of getting caught — this place is Off Limits to all other teachers. I am doing something elicit. I have rallied several students to my cause! We have a dark sedan parked out back. We go in under the cover of night. The theater director is sleeping on a cot perched on top of the hatch that leads under the stage. There is a distant yowl. The theater director rustles in his sleep. I hand him a diet Coke and he drinks it. The cat appears in my arms.

*

Teachers love to talk about teaching. How fulfilling it is. How frustrating, yet inspiring. How nobel. But here’s the thing you should know: it’s hard work, yo. And it should be hard. Every day. Every year. Every single August, you should feel like your mouth is full of chalk and your teeth might fall out. Because it’s so easy to give up and fall into mediocrity, even for those teachers who face down September with earnest hopes and pure hearts. What teacher does not want to make every class feel like it is the most important thing her students will do that day, as if every single day could bring her students to the edge of self-discovery, as uncomfortable a place as that might be? What teacher does not want her students to like her not for her charisma or kindness (or the candy in her desk drawer) but for her ability to alter their mental orbit, to add variation and control to their understanding of their universe?

Everyone should have had this kind of teacher. The world would be a better place if this was so. And this is the teacher I so, so want to be —

So of course we dream of failing tests, of losing teeth, of getting stuck on buses. Of course. Of course.

*

It used to be that “to teach to” meant to train, or to make someone accustomed to something: my dog comes when he is called because he is taught to it. Notice the odd lack of the infinitive “to do” — he is taught to it, not taught to do it. In this usage, “taught” could be replaced by “used” or “accustomed,” or even “in the habit of.” To be “taught” is an adjective, like being savvy or hungry or wise — very different from having been taught to do something, like smile or fetch or say please. To be taught to something is to have experienced it, to be unflustered by an encounter with it in the future. I am taught to killing spiders in the bathtub, but I sure wish I didn’t have to be.

There is something reassuring about this construction. It works as a reminder that good teaching stays with you, sticks to you, and continues to teach, long past the initial lesson. Effective teaching builds habits, sets pathways, finds familiarity in processes and motions. This use of “teach” has long outlived the teacher — she is not even anywhere in sight.

*

The day before school starts, I come into my classroom to find it filled with desks — big, long, heavy, 1970s Teacher Desks. They fill the space, lining the walls, blocking traffic, leaving no room for the children whatsoever. I call Maintenance to report the problem.

“What’s wrong what that?” they ask.

“There are too many desks!” I say. I am flustered.

“We can’t take them away,” they say. “If we take them away, the students will see that you’re not a real teacher.”

I know in my heart that they are right, but it makes me angry. I am upset. I try not to cry.

“It’s for your own good,” they say.

*

In an imperative construction, the infinitive form of the desired skill set (what is taught) is almost always more process oriented than the gerund form. To say, “teach me to write” is to request a process. You expect to engage in a series of lessons, of practices, of conversations. “Teach me writing,” however, requests a product, as if this “writing” was a bunt cake that could be baked and handed off like a party favor at the threshold of the House of Education, thus requiring that the visitor never need to actually set foot inside: they need not wander the long corridors and the winding staircases, nor fear the mice that scurry in the walls, nor come to charish the way the sun dapples itself through the leadpane windows. In these examples, both the infinitive (to write) and the gerund (writing) function as nouns — yet the suggestion is that “to write” is a practice while “writing” is a piece of knowledge that can be transferred and owned.

Perhaps we teachers should stop claiming ownership of our subjects. Perhaps we should coax our fickle verb “to teach” to join forces with a preposition, so that we can teach to or teach for something, instead of simply teaching. I teach for English! rings of virtue and loyalty, rather than ownership. What would happen if teachers everywhere stopped identifying themselves by classroom subject, and embraced the (however awkward) preposition of process: what if, instead of being a math teacher, you were a teacher to math? This suggests a reason for teaching — I teach, in order to promote and celebrate the principles of math. The teaching, suddenly, is something other than the subject. The teaching is visible. The teaching is real.

The pleasure in this grammatical quirk lives in the playfulness of the preposition: if “to teach” is to point, then “to teach them to write” is to point out the road that leads toward the marvelous kingdom of Write. Being a teacher to math is to be a lighthouse, signaling the way to the land of Math.

A teacher goes to work with empty hands — she has nothing to give you. A teacher is a sign post, a map, a voice over a crackling walkie-talkie, an emergency dispatcher coaxing you to just keep talking, just stay on the line — but when the EMTs show up, they aren’t your teachers: they’re Think and Ask and Listen and Revise.

*

I dreamed I was the teacher who told you that every mind is a labyrinth in which there are no dead ends, only blind corners and false walls. I dreamed that I was the one who pushed you uncomfortably close to yourself, until you squirmed in the heat of your own awkward self-awareness. The one who didn’t judge you for whatever you discovered about yourself in the midst of that heat. The one who forgave you for not doing your homework, but who still gave you a zero on the assignment. The one who never shushed or yelled or treated students with anything less than the respect that you would grant a real human. The one who coached you in how to tell your mother about that thing you needed to tell your mother, without you even having to define what the thing was that you needed to tell. The one who respected your privacy, who listened to your stories about friends but never asked their names. The one who taught you how to email a teacher and how to ask for what you needed. The one who always responded to your emails. The one in whose classroom you occasionally felt a Very Big Thing, a sensation of dizziness in the stomach, a dawning of connection, of importance, of something simultaneously in and out of your control — a completely secular kind of faith in the human-divine. The one who noticed when you were feeling this thing, and who helped you come back down to earth and find the words to write about the what and the why. The one who reminded you to get sleep, to eat lunch. The one who let you come into her classroom to eat in a quiet space if you needed it. The one who was quiet in this space with you.

Why do I teach? Because I believe that until you learn to listen — really listen to someone, whether it be verbally or through written communication — and until you learn to trace the traipsing and the lilting wander of another person’s mind, you will be, on some basic human level, very lonely. A well-crafted essay is an invitation to dance, and while the author might be leading, you, the reader, must still move; you must be moved. Because the children always need saving and the teachers always need saving and the whole world is spinning and at least at school we can stand in the windows and point at things and say whoa, did you see that? as they fly by.

Harmony Button is a contributing editor for Paper Tape. She has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Web awards, and was awarded the Larry Levis Prize (Academy of American Poets). She attended Middlebury College and University of Utah (MFA). You can find her work in Colorado Review, Southwestern American Lit, Ithaca Lit, BlazeVOX, and other publications. She is currently English Department Chair of the Waterford School in Utah. More of her work can be found at harmonybutton.wordpress.com

Follow along as Harmony takes the 30/30 challenge to raise money for Tupelo Press!  She’ll write and publish a poem a day for the month of September.

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