April 29, 2013

GUEST ROOM: #Substories

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Whenever I pictured myself as a teacher, I envisioned a more bodacious, blonder Mrs. Frizzle who flounced around a beautifully postered classroom while her students gazed on in doe–eyed fascination. In my dreams I was also the most badass teacher in the world and peppered every worksheet I collected with gold stars and smiley face stamps.

Being a substitute teacher for six months was really the killing blow to my educator delusions.

Let’s face it: Funemployment is really not as fun as the prefix makes it out to be. Lucky for me, all is takes is a Bachelor’s degree and four hours of don’t–touch–blood–or–children–with–your–bare–hands videos to make $90 a day as a glorified babysitter, and that’s how I became Ms. Dean.

I was a little nervous at first, but the first class I ever taught (6th grade space science) was a class of pre-pubescent angels. I even got to throw out the line “When I was your age, Pluto was a planet.” Those little paragons lulled me into a false sense of security. My second class (8th grade science) was full of mini monsters masquerading as children. The switch was like starting out with Christina Aguilera in “Genie in a Bottle” and then going right to the assless chaps in “Dirrty.” One boy looked me in the eye and asked me if I’d “ever been drunk before.” Another girl with a wicked smile asked me what a “BJ” was. (“It’s a large chain boxstore similar to Costco.” Suck on that children). A third loudly begged me to explain to the class what exactly “MILF” meant. The crowning moment came when a boy, unrelated to anything we were discussing in class, asked whether it was “rape or stealing if you raped a prostitute.” It’s pretty difficult to leave me speechless, but somehow kids who hadn’t even developed secondary sex characteristics succeeded where many of my Ivy–educated friends had tried and failed.

Seeing as Cornell is one of the top recruiting schools for Teach for America, I’m guessing some of you reading this will soon be gallivanting across the country to try your hand at fostering the budding intellect of America’s youth. I’m not out to berate TFA, nor am I intent on dissuading you from your immediate future as an underpaid and overworked educator. I merely want you to know that as altruistic as being a teacher is, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns and kittens inspired by kittens.

I taught in classrooms where kids flipped tables while my back was turned and dropped F-bombs to my face. I had kids mutter mean things about me while they thought I couldn’t hear them (“She looks like she could eat us”). I had to break up the 4th grade version of the intro fight in West Side Story. I had a class where a 7th grader wrote that he disagreed with single–sex classrooms because he believed it would make more boys gay. Some days my classes took every iota of patience I possessed and then some by 10 a.m. I taught in your average, public, middle-class middle school. What I dealt with on a daily basis is probably nothing compared to the things you’re going to see and experience in a low–income school.

All I ask is that you don’t become too jaded. Being a teacher isn’t easy. You will struggle. But when you’re down, remember that you’re there to be someone’s Magic Carpet when they touch shit they’re not supposed to touch in the Cave of Wonders. You’re the Mr. Miyagi to their Karate Kid. The Yoda to their Luke. You’re there to be the teacher that once lit the insatiable spark of learning inside of you. Ok, I get that it’s one thing to wax poetic about “Being the Inspiration to the Youth of America,” and it’s an entirely different one the moment you have five first–graders crying in the fetal position on the floor. But don’t lose heart. I promise the kids will make you laugh enough that the bad moments will balance out.

Maybe you’ll be like me and fancy yourself the “hip” teacher. You’ll drop Pokémon and N*SYNC references to be cool and then you’ll feel super old when your kids don’t get them (Your parents will find this funny; You will not). You’ll ask the class about what they see in a historical photograph and then giggle along with everybody else when a smartass answers 50 Shades of Grey. You’ll find it amusing when your music class asks if Big Macs were around during the Jazz Age. You’ll wonder who in the world thought that a starfish would make a good school mascot (I think the most intimidating thing a starfish could do to you is give you a massive hickey). You’ll be weirded out when a 13–year–old hits on you in the principal’s office (you’ll also be a full 10 years away from appreciating that a much younger man wants to get jiggy with you). And you will have to try hard to keep your composure the moment you realize that Osmosis Jones has a dick joke in it, and you are inevitably the only person in the room who understands the one–liner.

Yes, teaching was challenging, but you’d be hard pressed to find a job worthy of your talents that isn’t. So seatbelts on class of ’13, ’cause you’re in for one wild ride. I’ll be rooting for you.

Sam Dean is a former Sun Columnist. She graduated from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 2012. Feedback may be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Sam Dean