Teach to the Grave

Here lies your youthfulness.

When I was young, I was very often awed by my teachers. Not only were they tall and old, things that I was implicitly respectful but suspicious of, but they seemed to have mystical powers, ones specifically aimed at being better at herding children and knowing all of their secrets. They could sense when something was amiss, could see things even when their backs were turned or across an entire soccer field, and were walking human lie detectors with incredibly high accuracy scores. Their eyes were lasers, their spines were steel, and I was relatively certain that they never slept. When did they develop these powers? How did they acquire them? Could I pay to have them bestowed upon me?

As the years went on, they seemed to hone other powers. They readily waged battles of will against the toughest and angriest and stupidest among us, the clearly superior students, and won. They knew just the right words to shame and completely destroy our egos while still seeming like they were on our sides. In high school, even the tiniest could separate a fight if particularly pushed, and could somehow manage to intimidate their increasingly burly, smelly and foul-mouthed charges.

Entering teacher’s college, I was nervous. Where did you pick up these skills? Was there some sort of installation process, a kind of intensive surgery taking place over days or weeks? Was there a training program, occurring by dark of night and requiring the ritual sacrifice of at least seven sturdy, healthy goats? Would there be chanting involved? Invocations to new and terrible gods?

My first class was a group of Kindergarteners. Between 3 and 5 years of age, these are people who aren’t really people, in the strictest sense. Their brains were essentially piles of goo, their hands barely more dexterous or swift than cloven hooves. They were tiny, and covered in snot, and ran entirely on whatever impulses flowed through the haywire circuitry in their tiny, doe-faced noggins. And I had to somehow manage them.

One teaching power: hyper-awareness. Put a randomly selected group of 4-year-olds in a room. Give this room a set of stairs, a few faucets, toys that can be hucked, sand that can be flung, standing water to be splashed, stank-ass tempera paint that, once coagulated into horrific husks, can cut flesh. Allow these components to smash together in your brain in a simulation. What do you foresee? Blood, and tears, and untold tragedy? Boogers? Glitter?

As though suddenly awakening to my mutant abilities, I gradually began to notice that I simply knew what every single child was doing at every single moment. Sitting at a round table with five kids, I could watch each of them in turn, while noting the presence or absence of water-proof smocks around the water-table, if a kid prone to flinging was anywhere near the sandbox, and who was ferreting what out of which centre. Outside, it was as though I could sense their life forces as they dodged in and out of the playground, around corners, and directly into one another. Teaching simply makes you vigilant, like an owl thrown off of diurnal rhythms, constantly watching and ready with baleful hoots.

More than that, with children so young, you learn to read their minds. They have almost no ability to cover their emotions and thus their faces are practically translucent, allowing you to see the ticking clockwork gears inside of their tiny brains. I saw one boy snatch a book from another and across his face splayed the following things: hey what happened where’s my book it’s gone he has it HE TOOK I am not happy I AM ANGRY I am going to hit him— These things played out slowly, clearly across his features. I could read his every thought and, of course, could get all up in his grill before he had a chance to sock anybody. Teaching makes you into a telepath.

I may have also developed invisibility. So I can listen to all your secrets.

Teaching also makes you into a mind-controller.

Teachers seem to know all your secrets. They’re always listening, and they’re always scheming, and they always seem to find ways to get you to do what they want. Which is amazing, really, because they (we!) do it mostly through trickery and mind control. Teachers actually have no real authority, other than that which we convince those around us we possess. Simply by societal pressure and force of will we take on command and make those tinier than us bend to our will, with directions and marble jars and sticky tack. And sometimes, if they’re giving us lip, the Teacher Look. The teacher look is cold. It is the frigid, shredding gales of the tundra; it is the hard, unforgiving iron of a blade. It is someone dancing on your grave, the feeling of the very cosmic nature of the universe coming for you and your transgressions. It is the anger, no, the distaste of someone tall and old and who writes your report card and knows your mom’s phone number. Guess we’d better do what they say.

More than anything, though: teaching makes you old. It has the power to age you like nothing else.

Part of that is simply being in contact with youth culture. Never have I understood the genuine horror with which my elderly relatives beheld cultural artefacts like the internet or a DVD player. These things elicited terror because they were misunderstood, because they generated the notion that the world is moving too fast, and out of their grasp: away from the world which they played so great a part of, the world which they helped to make. How could I possibly feel this in my early twenties? I am still making this! I’m hip! I know technology and music and food and culture…

I once had some of my grade six boys in Toronto go on a weeklong kick of singing Ke$ha lyrics, over and over and over again. As these puerile, childish words sluiced into my consciousness, and I became aware of how readily my kids consumed such things, I knew the same terror. Kids today: they like crap. My brain began to short-circuit. How could I still be young and hip, but also simultaneously be so repulsed by youth culture? Because, my brain tried to justify, this isn’t really music! It’s just noise! With this justification, I entitled myself to a walker, and access to the national pension. I just didn’t get it.

(When, later in the week, I banned singing the lyrics of any pop song under penalty of Fs in every class, one boy thought carefully, then approached me and proceeded to recite the lyrics to “All the Single Ladies” in spoken word.)

When you are around children long enough, when they are dependent on you for instruction and guidance and direction, you just get older. Suddenly you are confronted by emotions you didn’t think you could possess, emotions that only come with growth and wisdom and decades: long-sufferingness. Generativity. Pride in the work of others, of the next generation. And, more than anything, a rattling, long-winded preparedness to unleash your disappointment.

I stood in front of a group of 12-year-old Korean students and lectured them, discussing what, exactly, they had done to make me so unimpressed in our recent class. So displeased. Not angry, or sad, or pissed-off: not emotions so base, so crass, so young. I was disappointed. Their behaviour had been beneath what they were capable of, below how they knew they were supposed to behave. And I was compelled to inform them. It was my duty. My wheezing, miserly duty.

After class, I felt my face, as though searching for wrinkles. I could hear the creaks forming in my bones, the slow encroaching of cataracts, the very sound of my telomeres unwinding. Teaching gives you intense powers over the young: to read, and educate, and inspire, and castigate like no other. But it also makes you into an old coot with frightening speed.

No real relation to the current post. I just thought he looked like I'll look after a few more years of teaching.

20 thoughts on “Teach to the Grave

  1. Dude, you can really write. respect. As an English teacher myself (in Poland), i can relate to a large number of the things you write about. cheers! – Matt from Warsaw
    p.s. – you really need to write a book!

  2. Love this post. One who has not been a teacher does marvel at their skills — but clearly they do (must!) develop over time. I’m in awe of the emotional intelligence it takes to be a good teacher. You really have to be present for your students as they know when you are not. They need to trust that you always have their best interests/selves at heart.

  3. Oh so your first class was of kindergarteners, wait until you have one your own. 😉
    I always believed teachers are our modern unsung heroes or if there are singing already, it just isn’t enough.

    • I think having Kindergarten first was the best trial-by-fire humanly possible. Nothing like a swift kick of “Well, that kid crapped his pants and what are you going to do about it?” to really make you just get good at the job fast.

  4. Michael, made me think back on so many of my teachers, the good, the bad and the ugly (the old). By the way, your self portrait at the end does have a certain resemblance …..Glenn

    • I am horrified! How dare you encourage people to give me their viewership and attention! I hate attention!

      I kid. Only because I hunger for praise and attention like a balm for my chapped, whithered soul.

  5. Wait, so are you trying to say you don’t brush your teeth with a bottle of Jack every morning? And wow, “All the Single Ladies,” that must have been amazing… sort of.

  6. Pingback: Urination is for the Weak: Incidental Teaching Skills « Stupid Ugly Foreigner

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