Class Act

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During a recent ceremony honoring the old-timers on the faculty, I was forced to recall that I have been a high school English instructor for nearly 25 years. My name was just one of a dozen or so shouted out over the gymnasium loudspeaker, but it was the only one I heard, and its echo reverberated in my head the rest of the day. I had become a teacher rather casually, almost accidentally. I certainly never intended to remain one. Not for a quarter of a century.

I found myself thinking uneasily about an old World War II newsreel I saw once with footage of a blimp landing. A Navy ground crewman foolishly had held on to an anchoring line too long when the blimp aborted its descent and suddenly found himself dangling several hundred feet in the air with nothing to do but hang on. Like that crewman, I felt hauled away before I'd had a chance to consider what I was getting into, and in both our cases it was a life that was at stake.

I had been a reporter on the now-defunct Pomona Progress-Bulletin in California before I became a teacher, and I had always planned to get back into journalism one day. Well, way leads on to way, as the poet says, and here I am an aging pedant who has disappeared into his own life. Nowadays, on the rare occasion when I suffer an impulse to write, I wash the car instead. Actually, I take the Camry to the carwash and grade papers while I wait--that is to say, I consider other people's writing.

I wonder how many of my fellow veterans are as surprised as I to have remained in teaching so long. Some of my colleagues seem to have been born to it, so gifted and talented that I can't imagine them doing anything else as valuable or as satisfying. Those are the famous underpaid teachers you read about: They come early, stay late, sponsor clubs, serve on committees, chaperone dances, and sometimes forget to pick up their paychecks, so lost in their work are they.

Too many teachers, unfortunately, are overpaid. I wonder how the completely devoted instructors--those for whom teaching is a calling rather than a job--avoid becoming cynical and jaded when they spend their weekends planning lessons, grading papers, and writing letters of recommendation while the teacher down the hall hasn't wielded a stick of chalk since the Carter administration. In spite of this inequity, there are teachers who haven't taken a sick day in 30 years and arrive every morning as ebullient and confident as a Bible-thumping faith healer.

Why do they do it? It can't be the money. Those letters of recommendation they write are for students who will, in about four years and at the age of 22, be making twice a starting teacher's salary. They don't do it because they are ambitious; on the day they are hired, professional teachers have just received their last promotion. And they don't do it because they fear for their jobs; in my district, teachers are evaluated or observed for as little as one hour every two years.

They do it because they can't not do it. It's in the genes. You cannot turn a gifted, inspired instructor into an insipid one, though education schools, indifferent and arrogant administrators, and aggressively ignorant teenagers certainly have tried.

There are only a dozen or so of these prodigies on any given campus, and everybody knows who they are. I wish I could claim to be one of those teachers born to the manner, but I know full well I cannot. I do, however, admire, respect, and celebrate them, and not just during ceremonies.

And I urge my only son to do his best to emulate them, for as I am ending my 25th year as a teacher, he is ending his first. Who knows, maybe Patrick will turn out to be one of them and outstrip the old man who is just doing his best to hang on.

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