I’ve been seeing little news stories about “distance learning” and parents dealing with trying to be teachers as well as parents. I suspect it’s not an easy gig for many. I tend to think, “So…you thought my job could be done by anyone. How do you like me now?” Seriously though, I sympathize. If any parents read this, I want you to know failure is a perfectly respectable option. Just stay in there. You’re likely to succeed as well.
Much of my blog has been about teaching, and I have often used this platform to give my high school students a chance to look at examples of how I might do an assignment I gave them. That’s all over now. I’m retired, since last June. The majority of folks around here have been forcibly retired for several weeks now, and it seems like a good time to cast back on my past and tell a few stories of my great failures. Oh, I’ve had some fine failures, but I rarely made a more consistent one than the yearly attempt to read Jean Shepherd’s “County Fair” to my students. First, I need to give a little context.
Teaching in public school tests one’s flexibility, especially in the area of lesson planning. During my years of teaching I usually had at least three preps. That means during the day I would teach five classes, but they would often be paired. I might teach a section of Sophomore English in the morning and another one in the afternoon. Typically, I would try and give the same lesson on the same day because that way I could be sure the students were getting the same content. I preferred to have three preps rather than one or two. It was truly difficult for me to repeat the same lesson more than twice in a day. I have known teachers who taught the same prep five hours a day and five days a week. That is my idea of torture. Every class has its own nature, and it was difficult enough to keep the kids synchronized when I only had two sections studying the same thing. But, even with careful planning and instruction, the classes would sometimes get out of sync. A fire drill or a bomb threat or a pep rally might put the afternoon class of Seniors one day ahead of the morning section. In order to get them both back on the same timeline, I would have to give the section that got ahead a “back pocket” lesson. All public school teachers have these (the experienced teachers do, anyway). For years one of my favorite stop-gap lessons was a read along day. I would have the students read silently as I read aloud from Jean Shepherd’s brilliant story collection Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters.
Many times the kids were amenable to this assignment. It took considerably less work from them than my usual lessons which often required notetaking and class participation and discussion. I designed most of my classes to be an intellectual workout. This type of lesson meant they could either read along, or just listen, or (since I wasn’t looking) write notes or fall asleep.
Yes, it’s quaint to think I taught during a time when students wrote notes to each other and passed them between (or during) classes. Now they can do all sorts of communication using their phones, but will a text ever have the same sentimental power as those hand-written notes? I tend to doubt it. A text is never as long as those aching pages of angst. A text is never folded into the shape of a heart.
Anyway, the students who did read along or listened would give a little chuckle here and there. The book inspired a popular Christmas movie—A Christmas Story. It’s the one with the little boy Ralphie who wants a Red Rider BB gun. Jean Shepherd narrates the movie and his delivery is perfect, funny and nostalgic. I loved his voice, God rest him.
My favorite story from the collection is set in an Indiana County fair. I grew up in little towns, in the country, and I have a deep affection for county fairs. I won my first recognition as a cook at the Torrance County fair when I was nine years old. I was in the open division (all ages) and I won a second place ribbon for my peanut butter cookies. That red ribbon might as well have been a grand champion rosette. I was so proud of it.
Anyway again, Shepherd’s story winds through the fair, and there are some charming and amusing bits all through it, but there is a section in it that I always find gut-splittingly funny. I mean that. I have read it a thousand times, and I still find it beyond hilarious. That’s why the lesson always failed.
I would start reading and things would go fairly well, and then I’d come to the sentence that started my favorite section. After listing no fewer than seventeen different things they ate comes the statement, “Steadily, we chewed our way toward Armageddon.”
And, I would get tickled.
Some of my students would laugh out loud at this point, and it would please me tremendously, but that only doomed my further reading. With each passing sentence I would begin to vibrate and gasp and my eyes would water and then I would start laughing so hard sound would stop coming out of me, and then I would start sweating, and (as often as not) I would start coughing. I would be unable to go on. I would have to bend over and grip one of the front desks to keep my balance.
By this point the students would have stopped laughing along with me and stopped reading entirely. They would freeze. They would stare at me. They would give each other sidelong glances. I could almost hear their thinking. “She’s losing it. I mean it’s funny, but it’s not THAT funny.” Then the bell would ring.
The students would bolt, and I would wipe my forehead and go sit at my teacher’s desk. (I always had my teacher’s desk behind the students. I did not teach from there. It was for grading and writing and reflecting.) Laughing that hard is a form of workout, isn’t it? My heart rate would even out and so would my breathing, and I would feel so happy.
My students would walk around the rest of the day in a weird state. The ones who liked me would be worried I had finally lost my grip on reality. The ones who didn’t like me would worry what would happen the next day in class. Perhaps I would bring in a basket of baseball-sized rocks and start heaving them in anger.
For years I would try to get through “County Fair” and to my recollection I never did. It’s too bad really. The kids would have liked it. It has a good ending.