Monday, February 13, 2017

Part 1: High School Twice

No one escapes high school.

Graduate or drop out, but the memories linger. You smile at them or puzzle over them or imagine how you could have handled issues differently. Like it or not, those formative years are never far from you.

The same is true for high school teachers, too.

I discovered this recently when my friend Laurel encountered one of our high school English teachers who is now 100 years old. She told Laurel she was sorry the department did not give me the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Essay Award. They chose someone who wrote a standard academic response to that year's writing prompt. Mine was more moving, deemed "emotional" by some faculty members. Yet she still believed my determination would have prevailed all the way to Nationals.

That had happened 50 years ago, and her regret continued.

After Laurel secured her address, I sent the teacher my book with a note assuring her that I had persevered as an ambitious writer, despite that early loss. Honestly I hadn't thought about that missed nomination in decades. She had. More than anything, I hoped my reply set her free at long last.

Sometimes schools get it wrong. 

It did, however, make me consider many of my former high school students and how they remembered those turbulent years. I wondered how their choices had impacted their lives and how they'd made peace or not with what they'd done or what had been done to them. Their written reflections from January 2016 through January 2017 were astounding but not surprising, based on how I knew their uncommon teenaged selves. My blog readers, who'd never met them or ever been to Oklahoma, were undone by their honest observations.

Now it falls to me, in all fairness, to evaluate my seven years with them at the school.

I never wanted to be a teacher.

I resisted the occupation from the time I was in first grade when I started being encouraged to consider the profession. I wanted to be a writer and thought I was headed that way when I landed an editorial job after graduate school.

Not so.

After almost a year at the company, I discovered it was in financial trouble, deeply and dangerously. I sought a way out. Through a series of unexpected events, I was hired to teach at Holland Hall Upper School. Keep in mind that independent schools typically function under guidelines exempting them from hiring state-certified teachers.

The Head of the English Department invited me to his house to meet the woman I was replacing. He assumed she'd be helpful. She was. But not in the way he intended. The curriculum discussion quickly ended when she began outlining her personal experience there as a teacher. As he attempted to change the subject, she leaped to her feet, charged toward the door, and snapped, " Of course I'm right! Look what they've hired! An innocent young girl!" 

I reeled.

I didn't think she was misleading me about the job I'd landed (out of desperation, not desire), but I had no way to understand the ordeal she'd described.

Schools had always adored me.

I was that polite, quiet girl who made perfect grades easily. Teacher's pet. Respected by my peers. I was some sort of editor for every printed publication. I wrote the school's monthly radio show. I was either in every play or headed a technical crew. I was awarded Best Girl Whatever in all kinds of clubs. The drama teachers permanently extricated me from study hall to serve as their assistant for anything that needed doing, which covered plenty in a large public high school. (Nevertheless, as straight arrow as this all sounds, my Saturday night hijinx were alarmingly risky, but I kept that under wraps, as clever teenagers often do.) 

In graduate school, English professors frequently admitted they saved my papers for last to spur themselves forward. I'd received an award for outstanding writing my first year and honorable mention the second year.

Exemplary. Competent. That's how I'd always been perceived in schools.

Things were about to change.

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  1. Great bit of memoir writing. I can feel the angst. Having been in independent schools for 19 years, I shuddered a bit reading your post. For all the anxiety there were, however, success stories-stories of our kids. Is there a sequel in the works?

    1. Yes, indeed, there will be a sequel. That teacher I replaced fired a warning shot at that meeting, a shot it would take me a while to understand. I had to learn to be brave in ways I'd never been tested before.

  2. This is terrific Karen, and quite the cliff-hanger. Can't wait to see Part 2. --Charlie

    1. I appreciate that. But the writing gets harder at this point.

  3. Where's the next installment, please? You've left me hanging.



    1. I'm glad to know you'd like more. I've had several false starts so far. It's difficult to cover 7 complicated years. But I'm compelled to do it after the courageous reflections from all of you.