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Why I Teach

January 14, 2011

I had been mulling another rant about the institution of education, when it occurred to me that I haven’t had much positive to say about my profession.  My last entry was extremely positive about my writing, but I haven’t really talked about why I became an educator, and why I still love it.  So I thought in the interests of equal time, I should go to there (thank you, Tina Fey).

I’d like to be able to tell you that I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, and am happy to have the career I set out in—but that would be a lie..  I have great respect for individuals who are able to be that certain about a career choice at a young age.  Many people know what they  want to do in high school, and pursue their education with that in mind.  Many people know their going to college right out of high school, and worked hard to get in to the college they wanted.    For me, I didn’t know what I wanted, and I certainly didn’t work hard.  I graduated from San Diego High School with a GPA of one something something (when it starts with a one, it doesn’t matter what the other numbers are).  Out of a class of 593—I finished 577—proving the cliché things can always be worse.

Oh, a little side note:  San Diego High School’s mascot?  The Cavemen.  When I got to the University of California Santa Cruz, I discovered the mascot was the Banana Slugs.  Only in California could you go from Caveman to Banana Slug.  Anyway…

My lack of motivation of success was, apparently, not lost on one of my school administrators:  Vice Principal Nancy Moreno.  Nancy Moreno was my vice principal from 7-12 grade.  She was my vice principal for three years of junior high school, and then when I moved on to high school–she followed me.   She was, to put it mildly,  a terrifying individual.  First of all, she constantly wore mirrored sunglasses—even indoors.  I may not remember this correctly, but I think she posed in them for her yearbook photograph.  Her face was perpetually stuck in a smirk I can only describe as “barely tolerant.”   And for reasons that shall remain forever murky, she sang an ear-splitting rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” at every school Christmas show. All six years.   Outside of those performances, though, I had no idea what her voice sounded like, because in all that time of her being my vice principal she never spoke to me.  Not once.

Until the day I graduated.

It was after the ceremony.  There was the usual amount of  frivolity, horseplay, high fives, and of course, silly string.  I was, in fact,  high fiving a friend of mine, the unfortunately named Mark Lemongello (whom we had nicknamed “The Gel.”)   Immediately afterwords, there was a forceful tap on his shoulder.  We all turn around to be confronted fact to face with mirrored sunglasses, and a barely tolerant smirk. Ms. Moreno  just stood there looking at us – for a moment I thought,–oh my god, she’s going to sing.  Happily, she instead congratulated Mark, and then turned to me. She extended her hand and said the following words:

“Congratulations. Although, I don’t know why I’m bothering.  You’re never going to amount to anything.”

Then she sauntered off.  I don’t know where she went after that. Perhaps to stop by a local animal shelter to kick some puppies, or to find a senior citizen in a wheelchair to shove down a stairwell.   I laughed, and pretended it was funny, but mostly I remember it being awkward as hell.  As I walked out of the stadium, I was comforted by one thought:  at least I’d never have to set foot in a high school again!

There are some life lessons I’ve gleaned from this experience.  Number one:  Don’t make bold declarations about the direction of your life when you are 17.  Lesson number two: There are good ways of being honest and direct, and there are not so good ways.  Some might look back on this event and say that Vice Principal Nancy Moreno was giving me some tough love, being brutally honest, so I’d get the kick in my backside that I needed.  Perhaps.  But if your idea of tough love is “I’m going to make you feel worse about yourself, so I can feel better about myself”–that’s not actually tough love.  That’s narcissism.   That experience, though, always reminds me how important it is what I say to students, and how I say it.  It’s a maxim that doesn’t apply just to my students–it applies to anyone, really.  Oddly enough, that’s a harder lesson for me to remember outside of the classroom.  As I get older, I find I am much more patient with my students than with the adults I know.

The third lesson is this:  When I tell my students the above story, they often suggest that I should find Nancy Moreno and tell her how wrong she was about me.  While this thought has a certain appeal, I have my doubts that she actually remembers me, or even the words she spoke.  The worse thing that happened is not that she said it—the worse thing is that for while, I believed it.  It’s not important  that she knows she was wrong; the important thing is that I know.  Four:  it’s really important not to give up on someone. It’s so easy to make judgments, especially if those judgments have ever been proven right.  There was one student I had a couple of years ago who I made up my mind about.   He had done nothing in class, except give me a lot of attitude and treat many of his classmates with a lack of respect.  Desperate to graduate he came to me after midterms and asked if it was still possible to pass my class. I told it him it was, but that he was going to have to do a great deal of work–more than is classmates–and make a sincere effort to treat me and those classmates with respect.  He readily agreed, so I signed the contract with him, then waited for him to fail.

He didn’t.

He did everything I asked of him, and more, so when the year ended, he passed my class and graduated. I was happy for him, but of course, he never showed me the slightest bit of gratitude.  That was okay–the important thing was, that he kept up his end of the bargain.

When I was grading his final exam, I noticed something he scrawled on the last page.  I thought it was just a note he may have written to himself–it certainly wasn’t put in a place where he ever really wanted me to find it.  I would have ignored it if  I hadn’t seen my name:

Mr. Brodie:

I remember back in tenth grade you told us you didn’t give up on students.  At the time, I thought that was just the usual teacher bullshit.  But this year I realized you meant it.  You didn’t give up on me, even when everyone else did.  Including me.  I’ll never forget that. 

There.  Right there.   That’s why I  teach.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Melissa Nosal permalink
    January 15, 2011 1:10 am

    I remember this story! lol 🙂
    I didn’t know the second half though. Very nice of that guy to write that.

    • January 15, 2011 3:54 pm

      Yes, I know many have heard that story, but it still remains the best testament to why I do what I do.

  2. Michael Barnett permalink
    January 15, 2011 4:04 am

    I recall the beginning part of this story as well. Very… inspirational 🙂

  3. Chloe Duhaime permalink
    January 15, 2011 4:06 pm

    I love this story! Two or three years ago there was a teacher who told one of my friends that his parents shouldn’t bother paying for his college because he wasn’t worth it. That makes my blood boil. Thanks for being so great. 🙂

  4. Jessica Peltier permalink
    February 5, 2011 1:17 am

    Hello Kevin,
    You don’t know me, but you know my husband, Todd Helweg from RHAM High School. After one of your trips with the students he told me about your blog, so I check in and love what you have to say.
    This one though really touched me. (I too am a teacher.) I teach in East Hartford where many of my students have been given up on not only by their teachers but by their parents. One thing that students need is someone to believe in them and help guide them, regardless of how incorrigible they can be.
    Thank you for sharing this inspirational story!!!

    • February 13, 2011 4:16 pm

      Thank you for your comments. It’s great to hear from you. I’m very glad the students of East Hartford have someone like you in their corner.

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