When asked what led me into teaching high-school English as a career, I have several ready answers–I wanted to dedicate myself to helping young people; I loved reading and writing and was happy that I could make a career out of it; I liked the idea of having summers off—the usual. And while all of those things were true, I always left out one key factor because I didn’t want to admit it. I wanted to go back to high school. I wanted to go back to high school to see if I could achieve a level of “coolness” that had always eluded me as a student. I’m not proud of it, but there it is.
There were two teachers that most influenced my thinking about this because they provided models for how someone could be well liked and also be a powerful teacher.
Vic Player, geography teacher at Saint Augustine High School, was a man with a bold and playful sense of humor. I was a painfully shy freshman who just wanted hide behind a large person in class and go unnoticed. As he was taking roll one day early in the semester, he called out “Waldron? Waldron? You mean like walrus? You are the eggman, you are the walrus?” I sat in silent horror as I raised my hand to acknowledge my presence and my new connection to the popular Beatles’ song of the time. “Yeah, Waldron,” he said smiling, “from now on, you are the Eggman.”
And from then on, I was the Eggman. All of a sudden, I had an identity in the class. I was someone, and I could no longer hide, no longer wanted to hide. This man, with one silly nickname, transformed my first year experience in high school by giving me an identity that I could never have carved out for myself. He refused to call me by any other name from that point on, and I marveled as I watched his easy confidence in the classroom, how he teased, and taught, and cajoled, and nurtured his ninth grade class. He was by far, the coolest person in the room. I wanted to be like that.
Three years later I faced the terrors inflicted by John Bowman, my senior English teacher. The year before I had been in a class next door to his, and we frequently heard pounding, yelling, and then laughter coming from the class. We were terrified. All we could imagine was that someone in his class had said something stupid and had been thrown up against the wall, maybe pinned to a cork-board like an impaled butterfly, to be ridiculed by the entire class. We entered his room, already cowed by the legend and his fierce reputation, the knowledge that he did not suffer fools, and that he did not spare criticism.
To our relief, we quickly discovered that the pounding came from Mr. Bowman slamming his hand on his desk for emphasis, as frequently in praise for a good comment as in disgust for one that didn’t please him. Our written work was treated with contempt for most of the first quarter, but we quickly learned how to write and how to please the great man. There was no better day, no greater compliment, than the moment when he called on me and I ventured an answer to a question and he slammed his hand on his desk with satisfaction. “Mr. Waldron!” he shouted. “Say that again!”
It took most of the year to figure out how much he loved his class. We knew he loved literature. His passion swept us away—Sophocles, Shakespeare, Thoreau, Hemingway—all of them were heroes, giants. However, he was a consummate actor and hid his affection for us as long as he could. By the end of the year, when he handed out his own home-made awards for excellence, we were allies with him in his secret. The incoming juniors would never know. But I knew. And I wanted to be like that.
As it turned out, I could never “be” either one of those two exemplary teachers. However, I learned some of my key values from them—passion, humor, a dedication to excellence, and a commitment to making every student feel included, honored, respected.
If students remember anything from my classroom it will be the fact that for the last 15 years or so, I greeted every student, every day, with a handshake. It provided a short, personal moment of acknowledgement for every one of my kids. It became so ingrained as a classroom ritual that if I forgot and started class without having made the rounds, students would cry out in protest. One student described it this way in an end-of-the-year note to me: “Taking those few minutes out of your day to talk to each student, really made a difference especially during a time where every teenager is struggling to figure out who they are and where they fit in. It was nice to know that at least one teacher cared enough to take those few seconds out of their day to treat each student like a real person, not just another face in the crowd.”
So, did my 36 year-high-school do-over achieve its purpose of giving me a status I couldn’t quite grasp the first time around? Not exactly. While I gained a certain amount of notoriety for my classroom traditions such as the handshake, loud music to begin each day, Barry White Fridays, movie nights, and the year-end scrapbook, I pretty quickly realized that I was there to make my kids feel special as they tried to survive high school; to make them feel accepted, and cool, and as if they were in a place where they belonged. It was when I had a really good day in helping a student, that the Eggman felt cool once again.