Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Write Club is a monthly, literary bloodsport in which contenders face off against each other with 7-minute essays on competing topics. Below was my combatant essay based on the prompt “TEACHER,” facing off against “STUDENT.” This essay was performed on September 17, 2019, at The Hideout in Chicago, and was victorious in its bout.
What Bullshit This Is.
The temerity of demanding anyone stand onstage before a paying audience and spend seven minutes expressing an argument this obvious. In a better society I wouldn’t even need seven seconds to state this case. “TEACHERS!” I’d say. “Right?” Ecstatic nodding! Standing O! Microphone held aloft and microphone given to gravity! Mr. Host, Madame Timekeeper, I return to this committee the remainder of my allotment and I will meet everybody at the bar for cocktails and high-fives.
Oh, but that’s not where we live, is it. This is not Norway, or China, or Luxembourg, no; where we live this is a thing that still needs be said. Where we live, the statement Teachers are Outstanding Persons Who Deserve Our Respect is neither objectively understood or empirically expressed, where we live one must occasionally spend seven minutes to push back against the lingering skepticism. Where we live, we might even recognize the nobility of the profession and its practitioner, and yet in a manner both ironic and painfully on-brand we extract the wrong lesson entirely. Because where we live, we absorb the generosity and resilience of our educators and then alter our policies to test the limits of that generosity and resilience.
Surely you don’t mind that we’ve packed your classrooms from wall to wall! Surely you’re willing to have your pension raided every now and again! Surely you’ll replace your crafted lesson plans with this grossly inaccurate Texas textbook, and a standardized test that was sold to us by one of the Minority Whip’s most dependable donors! “You are teachers!” we proclaim with game show grins. “Your intentions are heroic and your actions admirable! And you’ve done such a great job with the wolves that we threw you to that as a reward we are giving you more wolves!”
We do this. We do this why. When their union threatens to go on strike for just compensation of their efforts we let our opinion columnists call them glorified babysitters who get to spend their summers off. We blame them for the extra day we had to get childcare during their negotiations instead of asking why our prevailing, predatory capitalist paradigm is so much more concerned about a minor dent in corporate productivity than it is about the well-being of the families we supposedly value. We do this because at some point we swallowed the narrative of teachers as a faceless mass, as a voting bloc, instead of the way we originally perceived them. We forget that we once knew them with persona and specificity.
I’m seven years old and Mrs. Roberts gently refuses to let me go to lunch until I tell her another joke I’d found in the latest Reader’s Digest, because she understands that I need the practice in front of a friendly audience more than I need the extra 30 seconds with my sandwich.
I’m eight years old and Ms. Southard is helping me understand what I feel after seven astronauts, including another teacher, disappear in a fireball in the sky above Cape Canaveral.
I’m 12 years old and Mr. Theis hands back the 110-page, handwritten super-soldier action melodrama I’ve asked him to read. Mr. Theis spent World War II deciphering coded German communications and he ignores everything I get wrong about the military to encourage me to keep writing.
I’m 15 years old and Mrs. Boyd pulls me aside to inform me how even the third person on a prop crew needs to take their job seriously or the story we’re trying to tell will not be told, and it’s the last time I treat the work of making theater as anything less than a responsibility.
I’m 20 years old and Mike Madonick is issuing devastation upon the fragile psyches of his fiction writing class using only the word “clever.”
I’m 27 years old and an entire ensemble of Chicago-based writer performers, two of whom are currently standing less than ten feet away from me, shows me what my voice actually sounds like when I excise the unnecessary syntax and speak with honesty directly into the faces of the people in front of me.
You have your own, you know you do. You have at least one name in your history, and from that name there’s a moment, and in that moment there is a lesson. Think of that name. Say it out loud right now.
That chorus, that collage, that collective expression of the way you were chiseled, bit by bit, into the person you are. That is you as an individual and it is everybody around you as their own individuals and it is how you all act together as society, because teaching is not just a job, nor is it just a profession, nor just a practice, nor just a calling. Teaching is the cultural contract. It is intuition and inspiration, it is the evolution of implements from stone to bronze to steel and the difference between a letter that took two months to arrive and a letter that takes two seconds. Everything we are right now, everything we have, is the result of somebody once saying to somebody else, “let me show you how to do that.”
I’m 39 years old and my son is four years old and for the first time since I showed him how to play the game he takes advantage of a mistake I made to place my king in checkmate. He surpasses me at this and at so much else and the only honorable way to meet this reminder of your mortality is with exaltation. Teachers know in their core that not every effort is going to be rewarded, so the best of them make the effort its own reward. The best of them are beings composed not just of determination but of hope for societies they will never be alive to witness.
So I say to you: This place where we are, this place where an argument like this needs to be made, is not a place we have to be. We do not have to live in a country that names as Education Secretary an off-brand bad-faith Totenkinder, the sort of villain who doesn’t lure children into gingerbread houses to slaughter them but instead invites them into buildings made of rags and exhaustion and leaves their minds there to rot. We do not have to live in a city that so misunderstands the keystone qualities of a community school that it will close FIFTY of them at once and later allow some of the hollowed-out classrooms to be turned into luxury mayorfucking condominiums. And when I tell you that we do not have to live in this place I am not saying that as a call for exodus. I am saying this as a call for metamorphosis.
We do not have to live in this place because enough of us know better and enough of us have been given the tools to do better so that we may change things for the better. And the reason we have that knowledge and those tools is that somebody taught them to us.