Big Apple for the Teacher

by

04/24/2005

209 Joralemon St Brooklyn, NY 11201

Neighborhood: Multiple, Outer Boroughs

So you’re teaching again.

No, not the cushy adjunct work at the college where you got the MFA. This will be the crack your knuckles, roll up your sleeves type of teaching that New York City has to offer. Once you realized that The New Yorker was just as happy to ignore you with or without those precious writing awards attached to your name, it finally hit you that it was time to seek shelter.

Let’s face it. You gambled. You lost.

So you’re teaching again. You know, those who can, do. Those who can’t, well, makes your eyes burn just thinking about it, doesn’t it? Go ahead. Give yourself a moment to let it sink in. You, the one currently hiding behind the second person present form, the novelty act of writing tenses, will be in the classroom, wearing a tie, and teaching once more.

Years ago, during an entirely different era of fear and loathing, you thought it might be interesting to teach high school English in Las Vegas. The newest boom town, they said, flashing cartoon lights, a handgun in every glove compartment, a strip club on every desert corner, living, working, and melting inside the Great American Freak Show. You returned with nothing but a definite maybe, a bloody nose from the heat, and a box of liquefied protein bars you left on the passenger’s seat during mid-afternoon. But there was that time coming back from the interview, gripping the steering wheel, thinking, I can do this, I can do this, I can do this…

That’s when you saw it, the fake Manhattan skyline they’d built for a casino, this freaky Western homage to some kind of wonderful, rising comically, yet somehow miraculously, in the center of your windshield. You were lost and just wanted to get home so you headed straight for it, blinking insanely into the sun.

And now you’re back, the largest school district on the planet, the greatest skyline in the universe. Sinatra anyone? But you still have Long Island to contend with, don’t you? Your Long Island, rolling its eyes at your decision to teach in The City:

“Wow, lucky you…”

“Hey, what area? Oooooh, good luck with that…”

“Really? I grew up there, years ago, you know, when it was safe.”

Geographically, your new area is as much a part of Long Island as the Hamptons, yet even Fitzgerald described it as “a dismal valley of ashes,” the faceless eyes of T.J. Eckleburg watching over a “solemn dumping ground.”

Everyone tells you not to worry. You can always come back. But you don’t think so. You may have backed your way into this, but that doesn’t mean you’re taking a dive either. These are people’s children, not some prima donna’s second choice. So if you are going to do this there must be some rules, something as concrete as the description of a NOUN.

Because you are the new PERSON in their lives. This school is your new PLACE. And the most important THING? You will show up early. You will not get “sick.” You will answer every question and fulfill every promise. You will do things right or remove yourself, becoming the total opposite of every biased horror story ever written about City schools.

The initial step is to attend a job fair in Brooklyn. You’re not actually invited, but there is await and see area for gatecrashers. The line is long and hectic, snaking around corners, winding down staircases. Rumblings go up from some women behind you, Long Island substitutes, the forgotten bridesmaids of the pedagogy biz, passed over once more for permanent work back home.

See?” One of them says. “See what I mean? This is the City. Wha’d I tell ya?”

Invitations to the main ballroom are doled out slowly like c-rations. You shamelessly attach some published work to the back of your resume and head on in. Your name tag looks a bit crooked. You peel it off, then smoothen back down across your heart.

“Don’t even bother with Staten Island,” a disembodied voice calls out to the herd. “No one ever retires. Place is like a country club.”

You’re pretty sure you’ve never heard this comparison made before in your life. Everything is completely new to you. You place a resume down at the first table that needs an English teacher. They call you the next day.

The school is certainly no Staten Island country club, but it is large, old and quite beautiful. You ramble and sweat your way through an interview and somehow manage to get hired.

So you’re teaching again.

On your first day of real school you arrive early and have some time to explore. The auditorium looks spacious and historic behind thick windows, an elegant time capsule waiting to be discovered.

You’d like to wander its aisles, but the door is locked. In fact, every inch of the school not in use has been bolted shut. You need to wash your hands, but don’t have a key yet. A branch of the NYPD meets you in the lobby, two slabs of blue escorting you to the restroom. Once upstairs, another teacher eyes something tucked under your left arm. “You weren’t actually wandering the neighborhood with that big map in your hands, were you?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, you poor thing.”

You head up to the top floor to do some last minute roaming, thinking of all the city kids you are about to meet. You twist your face up against the mesh cage of a fourth floor window, trying to glimpse that skyline you’re so crazy about when you see it, this frenetic wave of youth rolling toward the school grounds, flooding the campus like a tsunami of expectation.

Whoa.

Somewhere in this city, on the mean streets of wherever, I am teaching again. No more YOU. It’s just me now- and them, the many, the overlooked, holding true to the belief that wonder and genius have a defiant way of striking out of nowhere, of rising up where you least expect it. The watchful eyes of Fitzgerald’s Eckleburg were blue and gigantic and so are mine.

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