Most teacher blogs, books and blatherings are nothing more than pathetic tributes to their own fine selves. They relate tales of appreciative students, young lives forever changed and the same tired old bullshit about being underpaid and overworked. (They are particularly adept at that last item during their long summer vacation.)
Not so with this here pillar of educational excellence. I am so anti-typical as a teacher that one of my favorite students this year – a rather rotund and delightful African American senior girl – has taken to telling me all about myself at least once every day. It’s done in fun, of course, but like all humor, it’s based on truth. How does she do this? By telling me, in a voice marked by exasperation and wonder, “Bitters … you is such a asshole.” Yes, that’s verbatim. And yes, I’m her English teacher.
Why does she see fit to throw such eloquence my way on a daily basis? Let’s see…
• My coarsest, most obnoxious girl this year was loudly telling another girl, “I don’t come to this fucking school to be liked!” I seized on this teachable moment by yelling across the room, “Well, I gotta tell you, you’re doing an honor roll job of that!” Bitters, you is such a asshole.
• This same girl was bemoaning the fact that she couldn’t find a second adult to write her a letter of recommendation for her senior portfolio. (Ned Bitters, who is not always a asshole, wrote her a beautiful first one.) She has had two abortions and is now pregnant and keeping this one. I tried to help by suggesting, “Well, why don’t you get your obstetrician or one of your friends from Planned Parenthood to write you one?” Bitters, you is such a asshole.
• Just last Friday, the girl who reaffirms my assholeishness opened some lotion at the end of class and said, “Oh, I just love this stuff! It’s my favorite scent!” She began applying some to her ample self. I caught a whiff and said to her, “Oh! I see what you mean. I can smell it. Is that that new ass-scented lotion I read about?” Bitters, you is such a asshole.
• Just a few weeks ago while filling out some form, I asked the class, “What’s the date today?” A few kids told me the date. I stopped writing, did some quick math in my head and said, “Wow. Today would have been my mom’s 80th birthday.” (She died about eight years ago.)
Kids being kids, a lot of them said, “Awwww … that’s so sad.”
I said, “Oh, it was sad, but I’m over it now.”
A kid asked, “When did she die?”
I said, “Let’s see … this is Monday … was it Thursday or Friday?” Bitters, you is such an asshole.
• Just this past Friday we were slogging through some borefest of a play during the last period of the day, which just happens to be my dumbest class. With just 15 minutes left in the class, the day and another goddamn week, I noticed that four or five heads had hit the desk, putting them in full sleep mode. Recognizing both futility and reality, I said, “Okay … okay … stop reading. This is pointless. Christ, kids are dropping in here like another Sandy Hook.” I might get in trouble for a line like that in an Honors or AP class, but not with this bunch of goofballs and noodnicks. They just laughed … and said, in so many words, “Bitters, you is such an asshole.”
• And finally, regarding Sandy Hook, I would like to tell you how I handled this tragedy on our first day back to school the Monday after the Friday shooting. I got in front of each class and spoke very seriously about the situation. Seriousness is something they do not often get from me. I dare say I sounded like a full-fledged adult teacher.
They shut up and looked at me in a manner in which I’m not used to being
looked at. There was a mixture of respect and dependence in their eyes. And actual trust. These badass high school seniors were looking to me for reassurance should the unthinkable happen at our school. I did not want to let them down.
I said, “Listen, I was as upset as anyone after Friday’s shooting, so I gave
this a lot of thought over the weekend, and I came into school yesterday to work out a plan.” They were stunned. Mr. Bitters (who is, he is often told, a asshole) really does care!
I continued, “So, since we’re out here in a trailer (sorry … mobile learning
pod), we might be a little more vulnerable than most. So …” Twenty-five sets of eyes and ears were on full alert. I had them. I was a teacher, a leader, a goddamn pedagogical pied piper who would lead them to safety should the bullets start flying.
“… I figured out that I can be out the door, over the railing and in my car in
just seven seconds, and I can be on the driveway in 12 seconds and at home in 19 minutes watching CNN for full coverage.” Each class paused for exactly one second, then exploded with a barrage of abuse. “You suck! You asshole! Fuck you, Bitters! I hate you!” Of course, they were saying this through tears of laughter, the big fun phonies.
But I wasn’t finished. I said, “I must insist that you keep the lane to the door open for me. And please don’t think I’m wasting time locking the door to this room. Hell, I’d be a prime target out there! So, the person with the lowest grade in each class is in charge of trying to hold the door shut. The rest of you … I’d suggest hiding behind my desk. It’s pretty thick metal.” More abuse came my way.
Of course, in each class one kid would ask, “How the hell we supposed to know who has the lowest grade?” To which I calmly replied, “Well, of course I’m going to post those names on the board each day. Duhhhh!”
So I guess that girl is right. Maybe I should spend less time cracking wise and more time teaching basic grammar elements like subject-verb agreement and the proper use of articles. Then I’ll get to experience those heartwarming teacher moments when you know you’ve truly reached a kid and really taught her something. I’ll know I’ve done that when I hear, “Bitters, you are such an asshole.”
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.