Sometimes it’s the good memories that hurt, that confuse, more than the bad.
I’ve been remembering moments – call them oases – of inarguable good amidst the slosh and slurry of bad. This is how I commune with my past. I’ve been remembering, rather sweetly, my experience as a teacher. I remember students who accepted my authority and did as I asked, unlike those who never did the reading and thought they didn’t have to listen to me.
I’ve constructed a flinty resolution to accept my shortcomings, to stop trying to fool myself into thinking I “was happy” teaching at-risk kids.
So then what do I do with these happy anomalies?
Could it be that, shining in memory as they are, they’re not just anomalies?
It was in the middle part of my years teaching English at one school, then two schools, run by the Yavapai Accommodation School District, that I met Nora. I remember her tough beauty, fierce like a Mayan princess. Her skin was coppery, jaw outthrust, nose flat. She was a senior in a school where one person slung syllabi for a whole subject. In this community of alleged low reading, I discerned certain personalities who read with curiosity and absorption. Nora was one of those.
Yes, I had bored students. But I also had shining beacons who taught me a thing or two, not just about books but about life. (Deposit Photos)
My Senior Research Project focused on the horror story. The kids had three stories to choose among: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, and The Interview with the Vampire. I had wanted to include Dracula in the mix, but it was too long. I wanted them to read any two of the three and write a comparative analysis. The books themselves were primary research. I suggested that, as secondary research, they could, say, investigate scholarly opinion available in any of the books’ introductions, seeing if that scholar’s projection was borne out by their own scrutiny.
Nora came to me one day after reading Frankenstein and Vampire.
“Mr. Gitlin, I think I have a thesis. In both those books, you have a main character who doesn’t want to be this supernatural being.”
I sat amazed, reeling in my own awareness. She had nailed something that had eluded me.
I would suggest “The Reluctant Monster” as a title. The prose was utilitarian but shone with core insight. I required her to use specific textual references on a handful of occasions, to make sure she “arc” her thoughts to a definable point.
Her hard work and insight earned her an A. I glowed to hand her that mark on the revised, final paper.
Nora would grow to wonder about some of the things I did in that classroom, such as introducing girls to the movie Mystic Pizza, about the coming of age of three close girlfriends in a New England fishing port. Years later it hit me just how adult some of the content was; I blush to think about it. What possessed me? Something to do with At the Movies, that old PBS TV show, and what critic Roger Ebert said about this movie being an antidote to Hollywood trash that talked down to kids.
Many students loved Kerouac’s book. Hard to reconcile my awareness of its Benzedrine-abetted writing with my sense of its greatness. But I’d do it again. (Viking Press)
Two girls were watching Mystic Pizza near Nora’s seat, sharing ear buds, staring at the same perimeter desktop. I had walked by, patrolling the room as was my wont, and as I stopped to talk to Nora I admitted the movie was a bit risqué. I even said, “You’re probably wondering why I gave it to them.”
“Why did you?” Nora said, a little sharply. Nora was here at Yavapai County High School because she was a young mother. She was adult beyond her years. I explained myself as best I could. She was fairly conservative. I was a little red-faced before the stern admonition, though she warmed a bit at my rationale. Time and closely held standards about film have softened my self-rebuke. Movies are stories, and I was nobly motivated to want the kids to know about stories with heart, not just wanton titillations. Mystic Pizza is about truth and enduring friendship, f-bombs and sex references notwithstanding.
Then there was Emily, a young literary personality par excellence, who in fact Facebooked me not long ago from her home in Texas. Emily was joined at the hip to another student, her sidekick. Emily had sorrel hair and was roundly pretty; Stepanie was tall and slender, blackly Goth (she surprised one teacher, who expected trouble, with her friendly regard for me, chatting me up near my desk). I think of them together. Both girls had surely been friends at their last school, and stayed together upon being kicked over to us.
They accepted my curriculum. I remember having got (from both kids and staffers) some negative pushback over American Short Stories, a collection by Perfection Learning, but these two girls read the stories, answered the open-ended numbered questions at the end of each, and turned in their pen scrawls for high grades.
I got into an interesting discussion with students, including one very special one, about the relative merits of this movie and another about rapping. (Universal-Getty Images)
Emily, the shorter, quieter one, always had her nose stuck in a book. The whole school went ziplining and “team building” at some Christian camp and she wanted to stay back and read, and I found myself secretly sympathetic.
I brought in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, a teeming riot of a first novel about multicultural London, on a hunch, thinking Emily might like it. I told her if she did we could make a “unit” of it, she would write a summative essay. She devoured the book and wrote a high-level appreciation.
I had begun both a school newspaper (more like a magazine) and a literary journal, and Emily contributed a poem to the latter, an impressionistic sketch about bird hunting. It so impressed me with its poignance and shock and onomatopoeia, and all in such plain language, that I sent it in to a contest sponsored by Voices of Young America, a national library organization. When I called to see about it, the woman on the phone spoke raptly about the submission. Emily was less crestfallen than I at its not winning.
I assigned different content to different students. Some, you just let them slog along on Plato or EdOptions or whatever the computerized English class was. There was an algorithm by which I factored in the level of challenge a student was facing. I got some heat from one teacher about my various and sundry hand-scribbled “individualized” syllabi, but I stand to this day by my method.
Both Emily and Stephanie loved One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But only one of them loved On the Road, whereby I backed up further from Beat-inspired Kesey to Kerouac gospel itself. I saw now the sophistication of Emily, who in the speedy rush of Kerouac’s sentences saw the terrible discipline, one might say athleticism, like Hemingway. Emily saw in the set pieces, like the drive down into the Mexican jungle, a universe lush with poetry. She saw in the sometimes gleeful, sometimes sonorous prose a Romantic journey with few parallels in American literature. I daresay Emily would have agreed with something I’d read by Beat scholar and chronicler Ann Charters: On the Road takes its place as a seminal American novel along with The Great Gatsby and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Emily’s essay about Kerouac’s masterpiece bristled with insights.
The third student who comes to mind is a boy I met during what we might call the penultimate chapter in what had become a sad career.
By now I taught between two schools. I had Miguel at Aspire, the second school run by the Yavapai Accommodation School District.
Though this school wasn’t a one-room fishbowl, like the other one, it wound up not being that much different in practice. Students gravitated to teachers they liked, and – despite scheduled times to be in discrete classrooms running off a main hallway, English or math or science or social studies – we wound up letting students go to whatever classroom they liked best. Classrooms weren’t classrooms so much as competing entertainment venues. Mr. Lopez was perhaps the most popular teacher, with his beloved sixties and Motown music playing on a sophisticated sound system, lyrics and videos projecting on a wall screen, but Mr. Newell, who’d commandeered the Smartboard and showed AC/DC vids and POV car races, drew many students as well.
I sat alone in my room, reading what student essays I could elicit, grading quizzes, peering at my computer’s online news sites, wondering why.
One day Miguel and his homies burst into my room and, knowing how much I loved movies – I’d had some success screening The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, even got a little class discussion going about the American mythos and the requirements of manhood – Miguel said they’d seen Straight Outta Compton, and had I seen it?
This rite-of-passage classic won the hearts of some girls I introduced to it. I had to defend the decision to show it. (IMDb)
“Yeah I saw it,” I said. “You know, I thought it started off pretty hot, but then it went downhill for me.”
The boys got their back up.
Miguel said, “Yeah, why?”
“Once it got to be just about that music executive who screwed them out of their money, it lost something.”
“But that’s what happened!” a few of the boys said.
“That may well be, but that didn’t help the movie. It doesn’t propel interest and suspense.” They seemed dejected at my dismissal. “Hey fellas. I’m not a big rap guy. Maybe you’re talking to the wrong person. But you know, I loved 8 Mile!”
Miguel said, “Why’d you like that?”
“I’ll tell you why. It was its theme of interracial friendship. That Mekhi Pfifer character was beautiful.”
They left muttering.
I went back to whatever I was doing, alone in my sad room. I think they went to Mr. Lopez’s crowded den. Mr. Lopez let them sit wherever they wanted, let them talk, music washing over everyone enough to assuage any reservations he might have had about student noise.
Half an hour later, Miguel came back to my room, alone. A lanky kid, he lowered his butt onto a desktop in the back, feet dangling over the front.
“Hey Mr. Gitlin.” I looked up at him, a handsome boy with caramel skin. “Mr. Gitlin, what you said about those movies …?”
“You were right.”
He smiled as he left.
Later that same year I became so outraged – some of the kids stuck with me were throwing food bags at me — I stormed out and lost my job. I took a year off and, after subbing and working at Dillard’s, which I hated, took a job as student aide in a middle school room of emotionally disabled kids who took pleasure in spiting me. Then, believe it or not, I got another teaching job, which started okay but, after two years, left me knowing I was done, emotionally depleted. I had nothing to give those kids.
I worked at Walmart for four years.
And now I’ve retired.
I walked up Granite Mountain yesterday. I was smiling as I hiked, smiling past the hurt in my hips and thighs, and past the hurt in my soul. I was smiling because I remembered Nora and Emily and Miguel and the other good kids.
AA’s Ninth Step Promises say, “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.”
If “dark and melancholic” colors most of what you remember, colors it enough to headline the memory, what do you do with the good memories? I guess you let them be there, like little candles lighting your way through the gloom. Because without them you wouldn’t be able to see at all.