Even though I started at this job when Ronald Reagan was wrapping up his vastly overrated presidency, I still get nervous the night before the first day of school every year. Even our superintendent, who is old enough to remember when Ronald Reagan was an actor, sent out a mass email the Friday before the opening week, admitting that even he has trouble sleeping the night before the school year starts.
No matter how much experience you have, you never know what your classes will be like. Some years, the final bell rings and I sit back at my desk and heave a hearty “Whew!” because I know that I’m going to have a decent year. I can already tell that my kids are not going to make life that difficult for me.
Other years … well, let’s just say it’s not exactly a “Whew!” that I utter at the end of the day. I remember just five or six years ago when, halfway through an awful first day, I started walking down the hall toward the room of another teacher with whom I shared most of the same students, as we were on the same “team.” (In a fit of creativity, we named ourselves the “Champion” team. See why we’re not working in the art world?) I planned to express my growing apprehension about the lot of loathsome losers we had been dealt that year. I hoped that maybe I was just misjudging the awfulness of our kids. She had begun walking toward my room at the same time to express the same worries. We locked eyes in the crowded hallway, stopped and after a few seconds of wide-eyed mutual understanding, we shook our heads, then returned to our rooms, knowing the next 179 days were going to be absolute torture. It was just our turn that year.
However, even though I never know what the overall makeup of my kids will be like, I can be fairly certain that I will have a dozen or so of a certain type of student who will make my day interesting, scary, painful and just plain miserable. Below is a description of some of these edu-regulars that I will almost surely have to contend with each year.
This miserable specimen will spend the entire first class sneering at every word I say, establishing from the get-go that he hates school, teachers, me especially and everything about the painful existence he is forced to endure on this wretched planet. He might be Goth, redneck, black, gay … it doesn’t matter. I will have at least one of these kids every year. He wears his contrived world weariness like a bright orange hunter’s jacket, wanting the world – and especially his teachers – to see that absolutely nothing will pique his interest or get him excited to learn. No creative fun lesson will engage him. He’ll laugh at nothing, not even that surefire killer joke that was about the retarded midget and the baby with the severe birth defect. (Punchline: “Yeah? Well, I might have claws for hands, but at least I’m not a midget and retarded!” Slays ’em every time.)
He’ll put his head down and sleep through the comedies I show on those days when I’m too hungover or too lazy to teach. (Me being me, he will at least be well rested by the end of the year.) Even though his perpetual grimace is just an attention-getting act born out of a crushing insecurity, I will at times wonder if he is indeed on to my utter ineptitude as a teacher, and some days I will hate myself for allowing this 15-year-old crank to get under what has become a fairly thick skin. Despite my best efforts to ignore him, I’ll allow myself to be just a bit intimidated by him all year. So, instead of letting him know that I am on to his fake angst, I will make pathetic efforts to get him to laugh or to show at least an ounce of enthusiasm about something. Of course, I will fail in these attempts, and my failures will ironically give this mass of melancholy his only moments of happiness all year. Not that he’ll ever let it show though.
The Quiet Brain
This girl will show absolutely no emotion on the first day, or any other day for that matter. She will stare at me with no animation whatsoever. Her eyes will show no light or life, but I know she will take in every word I say and every gesture I make, measuring my worth as a teacher in order to determine just what kinds of hoops she’ll have to jump through to maintain the 4.0 grade point average that gives her life meaning. She could care less about me as a human, for her entire being is focused on pleasing mommy and daddy with four stellar report cards every year, so she is only trying to gauge what I am all about as a teacher.
She is adept at keeping her grade updated to the exact decimal point in every class, and should I or any teacher dare to tell her that she has earned an 89 percent – B for a quarter, she will demand to see a breakdown of her grades and will invariably find an averaging mistake or a grade that she can argue up in order to land the coveted 90 percent that returns her world to its proper order. Should this brush with a B (Oh, the horror!) transpire at the end of the first quarter, she will make sure to get 100 percents for the rest of the school year, daring me to knock off even one percentage point so that she can once again experience the exquisite pleasure of watching me squirm at my computer and before finally admitting – once again – that she was right. She’s not really that smart, just good at playing the school game. While on one level I hate her, on another level I relate to her, because that last line sums up my performance as a teacher.
The Mensa Inquisitor from Hell
This is the kid who, unlike the Quiet Brain, will immediately start asking challenging questions – that he knows damn well I can’t answer – in a successful effort to establish his intellectual superiority on day one of the school year.
Since I am an English teacher, he will scan the syllabus and then ask why we will read no books from his favorite author, some long-winded human cure for insomnia like Henry James, and before I can make up a pretentious answer that will fool everyone but him, or before I can lie and tell him that I’ll answer that “good question” later, but “goshdarnit, we’ve just got too much to cover today,” he will ask me what me favorite Henry James book is, daring me to take the easy way out and name one of the only two Henry James titles I know (and certainly didn’t bother to read in that bullshit English Lit class you never went to in college), a reply he will greet with a half sneer and a knowing nod that say, “Shit, Teach. Now that I’ve established a mere15 minutes into class that I know more than you do about literature, I think I shall enjoy making you feel inferior in the brain department on a daily basis for the rest of the school year. You just became my favorite target. Now let me peruse the rest of these materials you just handed out, the materials that most of the other kids are ignoring. I will scan them for grammatical errors, typos or other areas about which I can ask questions that you will have to bullshit your way through. You may commence squirming.”
I will hate this kid more than the most disruptive derelict in my worst class, but not because of how bad he makes me look in class. I do a good enough job on my own of showing my incompetence, and the last of my pride disappeared many years ago, along with my hair. No, what I will hate about this kid is that he will force me to work that much harder outside of school. Instead of doing my normal half-assed planning of tomorrow’s lesson during the eight minutes of Seinfeld commercials, I will be forced to anticipate this wonderchild’s probing questions about diction, tone, connotation and symbolism, forcing me to do lesson planning that is a little more extensive than the normal drawing up of 30 grammar questions that will keep the teenaged rabble quiet while I check spring break air fares on Sidestep.com. And I will feel a little guilty – but only a little – on those mornings when I awake from pleasant dreams of watching this prick die in a fiery bus crash.
The Grade Grubber
This student is different from The Quiet Brain in that the Grade Grubber is not necessarily a top student. Some of the students who are most adept at talking the teacher into raising a grade are just C and D students. They will pester the shit out of me with convoluted yet effective arguing skills that would wear down Johnnie Cochran. (If he weren’t dead.) These kids might not be book smart, but they are experts at chipping away at a teacher’s patience to the point where it becomes easier to just raise the grade and be done with it.
One tack they use is making me feel like the world’s biggest prick by forcing me to argue why they deserve that 69% D. This kid has no intention of going to Harvard or pursuing a career as an endocrinologist, and at a certain point in the tiresome grade dispute, I realize that I am doing nothing more than exerting my pathetic teacher power over another average kid who finds little school success and just wants an average grade from an average teacher in an average high school. I realize that I wouldn’t be teaching him any vital life lesson about how you have to earn things in this life. I certainly don’t earn my paycheck most weeks. So I give in. Every time.
Another tack used by the Grade Grubber is forcing me to take a position that they know my disorganized ass can’t back up. They will insist that they “really, really honest-to-god-I- swear” turned in that one assignment that I have given him a zero for, and being the alcoholic, apathetic non-professional that I am, I simply concede and give the kid a C for that assignment, even lying about how I “kind of remember” that paper. I’ll come up with some pathetically transparent lie about how I remember the computer crashing as I was putting in the grades that day. At this point, this kid, whom the school has labeled “dumb,” has just scored an intellectual trifecta: One, he got his much sought after C; two, he made me lie and, what’s even better, he knows that I know that he knows I lied; and three, he won’t get clubbed in the head by his alcoholic father for another D.
The Anal Annie/Andrew
This kid might be all brain, all moron or part brain-part moron, but in any case, I can bet my last extra credit point that this kid will dot every “I” and cross every “T” for the entire year, because this tightassed, anal-retentive hump is always supremely organized. While most of the class ignores my detailed expectations about binders, notebooks, absence notes and the proper heading I require on all papers (at least for the first two weeks, at which point I stop giving a shit and accept anything as long as it’s written in English), this kid, who mourns the fact that he was born 70 years too late for the job he covets – the diligent train station Nazi who checks to make sure “vun’s papairz are een ordair” – will listen at full attention and then pepper me with questions such as, “Do you prefer blue or black ink?” or “Does it matter how wide the lines are on my ruled paper?” or “Did you know that on the back of your syllabus, you change font size twelve lines down, and that this sort of inconsistency wrecks the perfect fucking order I crave in my universe, and that I will have to go home and retype this entire goddamn paper just so that it is looks right? Huh? Do you?” This kid will do C work all year, but I will often give him B’s for the simple fact that his work always looks so damn good. While the other kids are handing in papers ripped from notebooks with torn edges, no names and handwriting that looks like it was penned by the crippled kid in the retarded midget joke, his work will be immaculate.
This future keeper-of-corpses-in-his-basement will bore into me with his black, expressionless eyes for the entire first class. Unlike the Quiet Brain, who is irksome but not scary, this Dahmerish specter will have me stammering and stuttering through the pre-rehearsed jokes I’ve been telling since the days when I was still waking up with hard-ons, rendering my first-day funnies drier than the three vermouthless martinis I’ll need that evening to get the terrifying image of this kid’s satanic eyes out of my mind. Like the Misanthrope, he will not talk all year. Unfortunately, he won’t sleep either. He’ll just stare at me all period, every day, probably fantasizing about how he’d like to flay my rotting carcass after inflicting upon me a slow, painful death.
I’ll think of referring him to a guidance counselor or to the school psychologist, but I’ll refrain out of the pure fear I’ll feel at possibly angering Chuck Manson, Jr., for, curiously, my idea of an easy day at work never includes the image of a future postal worker making my classroom first stop on the Batshit Crazy Shotgun Express. As a sort of mental balm, I sometimes include this creepo in the soothing bus-conflagration dream that gives me so much slumber pleasure.
Being in my mid-40s, I find this cleavage sporting tart to be all but extinct in my classes, but occasionally I’ll still encounter one. This vivacious vixen will sit near the front of the room, legs fully extended beneath the desk and spread at a 45 degree angle, nearly exposing her 15-year-old, raggedy, used up twat. She’ll sport a low-cut shirt that exposes two of the nastiest bologna tits this side of any Cops episode that features a trailer park arrest. (Which means pretty much every Cops episode, I guess.) These tits, despite being only a few years old, will already be strafed with stretch marks. I will look at them and valiantly fight off the gag reflex, but little Miss Full o’ Confidence will think that I am checking her out.
Of course, she has no sexual feelings toward my soon-to-be-collecting-Social-Security ass, but she’ll think that her titty tease is working, and that I will be so enamored of her scary, scarred tits that I’ll be powerless not to give her a grade at least 15 percentage points higher than the one she deserves. Just to make sure she’s made her point, before the end of class, she’ll come to my desk for a bend-over question, and despite the revulsion I’ll feel every time I’ll see those disgustingly strained hooters, I’ll still give them a quick peek, the same way I’d be unable to resist taking another look at some oozing brains at a crime scene. Both would make me ill, but I’ll look nonetheless. She’ll note my instinctive ogling and misinterpret it as the leer of a middle aged perve. I’ll give her an undeserved higher grade all year, but only because I don’t want to see her up at my desk trying to coax her much deserved D into an undeserved B by hoisting those hideous hogans in my face.
This sad sack future suicide will suffer every day, all day in a public high school, and I will have the great displeasure of seeing this suffering up close for 45 minutes every day. He might be obese, dirty or smelly. He might be severely visually unpleasant in some other way. Or he might look normal, but he’ll have that certain something that makes him an easy target for every kid in the class. I know you remember kids like that in your school.
I will try to help him maintain some level of invisibility by never calling on him and never doing anything to remind the other 25 vicious asswipes that they have an easy target for their adolescent venom. His presence will make me squirm, and my pity will for once override my sick desire to join the kids and throw a little more abuse his way. This will make me feel mature, a feeling I don’t often get to experience.
Mr. Thuglife, Yung!
This kid will pass by me extra close on the way into the classroom on the first day, trying to intimidate me or make me shiver. Of course, I know it’s just a test to see if he can establish a physically threatening presence, which is supposed to result in me leaving him the fuck alone and passing him regardless of how little work he does all year. But the dipshit has no idea that I know that this wannabe thug is scared shitless deep down, and that he can barely read or write, and that he is terrified of me finding this out.
I know that if he were truly tough, he’d have no need to show it with such a blatant invasion of my personal space. He’s simply imitating the faux-toughness he’s seen in rap videos and movies. But he’s really just a big pussy. In three weeks, his guard will be down and he’ll be laughing at my corniest jokes with the rest of the class. (Except for the Disconcerter and the Misanthrope, of course. They’ll still be sneering and staring.)
Mr. Real Thuglife, Yung!
Unlike the thug poser, this manchild feels no need to walk too close to me when he enters the room, because he knows that I know that he can wipe the floor with my bleeding remains should he ever feel the need to resort to student-on-pathetically-weak-teacher violence, and because he might bruise my shin with his ankle bracelet, and the bruise might be construed as assault, which would be a violation of his parole, which would land him back Juvie until he’s 18.
Because I am a teacher with many years of experience and a strong survival instinct, I will leave this ex- and future-con alone, never giving him a failing grade, never calling on him when his hand isn’t raised and never jumping on a soapbox to extol the virtues of the Three Strikes law. In fact, I have found that the most hardcore high school criminals are the ones least likely to give me any trouble. They know what jail is like, and they know that one fuckup could land them right back in the slammer. Or, if they’re making good money selling drugs in school, the last thing they want is to attract the attention of any administrators by getting written up. So they sit in the back, stay awake, do average work, ponder lunchroom drug sales and remain grateful to be left the hell alone.
Mr. Passive Aggressive
This irritating asswipe will do everything he can to piss me off on the first day in myriad little ways. He’ll go out of his way to show me that he is not listening to anything I say. He’ll ask for a restroom pass 10 minutes into class, then whine when I tell him no. He won’t cooperate during the unoriginal but standard getting-to-know-your-boring-asses opening day activity that every teacher does. (You remember these, right? “Find someone in this room who has visited another country … find someone who has at least two pets … find someone you hope to coax into a stairwell blowjob before the Christmas break …”) He won’t fill out the student information forms correctly, conveniently leaving off his parents’ phone numbers. He will ask 27 inane questions, the answers to which he could give two shits about. When he leaves class, he will leave the papers I gave him on the floor under his desk. By the end of the first class, he’ll think he’s established the upper hand, but I will make him pay with a very unpassive aggression over the next few weeks, driving him into cowering submission with my sarcasm and viciousness until he no longer tries to vex me with his nettlesome behavior. This should take me until about September 20th.
The Aging Beauty Queen
This is high school’s version of the aging actress who no longer gets the Hot Chick roles, yet doesn’t know that her days of being leading lady, cock-spank material are long gone. This girl was every boy’s dreamgirl in fifth grade, when she peaked in the looks department. Now she is living on cuteness fumes, still believing that she is some sort of stuff on a stick, when in fact she is just another average-looking girl who will go to the prom with the Key Club president instead of the quarterback. Too many nights spent sitting in front of the mirror instead of sitting on an exercise bike have rendered her ass the size of Saskatchewan, and by winter she’ll realize that her days of manipulating the cool boys are gone forever, and she’ll have to sit and watch the nouveau-hot girls, the same girls she used to enjoy ignoring in elementary school, get all the attention. Her depression will become palpable. At least she’ll cause me no problems.
The Retarded Midget
Unfortunately, I have yet to encounter this pint-sized, drooling gem. But when I do, you can bet your ass I’m still telling that joke.
Ned Bitters teaches high school and dreams of one day seeing one of his former students on stage at a strip club. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.