As a teacher, you develop a lot of useful abilities and habits. You know how to run a room full of children, you know how to scaffold learning, you know how to lead a herd of horses to water and how to cajole them, carefully and fitfully, to drink the damn water. You gain responsibility, a sense of reciprocity and generativity with the next generation, and a deep investment in the future of society through your work with the tiny people who will make that future. You learn how to seem bigger and more powerful and more mature and more sensible than you really are, and you learn how to be something that is somewhere nebulously between parent, textbook, coach, and judge.
You also pick up a few weird other things along the way.
1. Never Peeing
They were a small cadre of preening engineering students, in hardhats and full jumpsuits, there to do science demonstrations for my kindergarteners. They remarked, several times, how easy my life must have been, teaching this class, and how they would kill for such a breezy workload. Because I was in a school and thus beheading was frowned upon, I let the comments slide. In time, they began to pester me and the educational assistants about needing to go potty. It would be difficult, they noted, using the in-class bathroom, given how low the toilet was, its dimensions meant for bottoms generally far closer to the ground.
I frowned, and could barely understand what they were talking about. It was barely past nine. They needed to go to the bathroom already? They thought, for an instant, that we actually could use the kinder bathroom, or that we had the luxury to flounce about whenever our body demanded it of us? We are teaching today, buckos, and we don’t have the time for silly things like biological needs.
I’ve always had a strong bladder, mostly from years of avoiding the filth-encrusted, dilapidated hot-box bathrooms of my high school, and thus my transition to denying my biological functions was fairly simple. As a teacher, often you have no time to pee. Every second you are in a tiny room by yourself is a second in which the students can set one another on fire. You’d better learn to hold it.
2. Being a Robot
As the major adult in charge of a fleet of marauding crackpots desperate to get a rise out of you, you can’t really afford to seem human. If they’re crying or they’re upset, you can show that you care, if they do something good, you can show a certain sense of pride. But if they are acting like snots, or breaking the windows, or smashing your soul into tiny pieces with their words, you can’t let the cracks show.
Because a cracking teacher is one who is going to lose. A cracking teacher is one that lets a bunch of 10-year-olds make them mad, when disappointed is a far more terse and robotic thing to feel. Humans crack. Humans can be manipulated, can be swayed by emotional response, can be brought down a peg. Robots have no pegs. Only cold logic and your parents’ phone numbers.
3. Amazing Handwriting
When you’re forced to write parallel to your own body on a chalkboard all the time, in enormous letters, clearly and crisply enough that a room full of soft-spotted nuggets can possibly comprehend, you get a real nice printing style. I could make banners professionally.
4. Blue Steel
While its utility is usually constrained to the classroom, where I can fire a teacher look so intense and withering it stops fights, quiets up to thirty individuals, and can put out electrical fires, my glare has its outside uses. Under my testy and unimpressed stare, I can halt all sorts of obnoxious intrusions on my life. Solicitors step back. Line-butters re-think their life choices. I can rot fruit. I can cause plants to die. I could probably take down large aircraft.
5. Out-of-Brain Experience
My friend Thanh once described something I had had difficulty putting into words. She was in class, teaching the kids, yammering on about English verbs and when to add the critical –ing, when she looked at the clock. She made some rough calculations, and noted that she would almost certainly run through her planned activities in a short time, and be left with time to fill. Now, lest she seem like a human and capable of erring, she needed to think of a way to fill up that time. She began formulating alternatives, thinking of ways she could stretch the activities she had planned, finding ways to bridge the gap between the now and the end of class smoothly, efficiently, and without anyone knowing. Also, she did this while still teaching, because sometimes you just need have two separate brains going.
6. They’re Illusions, Michael
Possibly the greatest incidental teaching talent is just tricking other people into believing things that aren’t true.
You do it on the job basically constantly: do this thing, children. If you don’t do it, I’ll count to three. And at three, something terrible will happen. What is it? You don’t want to know. You don’t want to find out. It might involve lasers. Sharks. Space monsters. Al Qaeda. All the chocolate milk in the world evaporating.
We thrive on the mystery of our own power, which is essentially not real, a weird construct instilled by the nature of authority and how we socialize children in the first place. Why do you respect your teachers and do what they say? Because you should. We don’t have all that much real power, and thus we must exercise so much careful trickery, in-depth psychology and posturing to make everyone believe that we do.
Not possessing a terribly intimidating shape, this power to cast such a huge shadow works wonders. I can turn on the stance, the glare, the tone, and suddenly I seem tougher, stronger, larger, smarter. I am superior. I am an educator. I am a robo-educator, and I will eviscerate you with my acid spray detachable arm and my knowledge of grade six geometry.
I sat in the park with a friend, and was soon spotted by a student. He and two friends, from different schools, sauntered by onto the street, obscured by shrubbery and thus, they thought, safe. One began to swear at us in English (badly—he couldn’t swing the f-sound, and thus his mewling “you pucking guy!” couldn’t raise my ire), and eventually switched over to Korean swears, in which he was far more deeply versed. As am I.
I slammed down my book and tore into the street, and at the look on my face, the other boys fled, not before pushing the perpetrator directly into my path. I began to castigate him in Korean—not angrily, but with shock and dismay. Fear causes fight or flight. Shame is the greatest weapon “Why did you swear at me? Why were you speaking so rudely? I don’t know you. You can swear at an adult? You can swear at a stranger? You can swear at a teacher?” I invoked not just the rules of polite Korean society, but the very nature of the universe. Don’t you sass your teacher, sonny Jim. It’s not going to go well.
He began to sputter – overloading other people with questions to which there is only one acceptable answer, to which you won’t even deign to here, frustrates and terrifies. He looked into my eyes. I knew the rules. If I needed to, I could wheedle his name, his school, his homeroom teacher, his parents out of his buddy with barely an effort. The whole weight of the adult world would come crushing down upon him.
Now, I could probably do those things, but I don’t know exactly how. Of course, he didn’t know that. The very prospect, the looming possibility of all of my teacherly power, seized him. He began to apologize in two languages, bowing and scraping, looking for an escape route. The illusion had been broken, and I repaired it. I pointed away from the park, and he fled into the sunset, away from the seemingly powerful teacher in flip-flops and shorts.