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Rat Infestations, Permanent Voice Damage, & Grieving In the Classroom : Reflections on the Absolute WORST YEAR of My Teaching Career

This has been the absolute worst year of my teaching career.
By far . . .
It started too early—much too early. Our teacher meetings began on August 14th. Whatever, you may ask fellow teachers, ever happened to the Tuesday after Labor Day serving as the year’s genesis?
Anyone who has spent any time in the Central Valley of California in the midst of August and September is well aware that the heat this part of the year is more than unpleasant. Pejoratives abound when one attempts to describe the crucible of teaching in extreme heat—suffocating, oppressive, demoralizing, exhausting. Air conditioning doesn’t work particularly well in a school that is a hundred and twenty-five years old, in a cement building that is about as attractive as the headquarters of the East German Communist Party circa 1958. By sixth period even the best classes are ravished by passionate indifference, unmoved by their teacher’s attempts at humor, profundity, or the salubrious activity of teaching course content.
Fortunately, the weather finally cooled . . . in mid-October.
It was a Thursday evening immediately before bedtime when water began pouring forth from the ceiling. A water pipe had sprung a leak and saturated the walls and ceiling at the intersection of a hallway, a bathroom, and two bedrooms. PERFECT!
We called a 24-hour plumber who, for a scandalous amount of money, replaced the defective pipe and went on his merry way. The water damage was significant, and we knew dozens of phones calls, hours of insurance haggling, and sacrificed weekends stood on our family horizon.
The next evening, in the middle of the night, another hallway next to a different bedroom and bathroom began flooding because of water raining down from the ceiling. This time we were asleep and the water flooded the house for a long time before we eventually caught it. It ruined the wood floors of our entire house.
It quickly became apparent that we were dealing with the most evil, demonic, sadistic rat in the history of humanity itself. To make a long story longer, no one could catch the damn thing and he kept eating through our water pipes.
It quickly became apparent that we were dealing with the most evil, demonic, sadistic rat in the history of humanity itself. Click To Tweet
By the time the rat was caught, nine rooms throughout my entire house had been severely damaged. Damages totaled almost $60,000. We were forced to move out of our house and into a hotel, cancel a Thanksgiving trip to NYC, and had to live with the mess and volume of reconstruction for three long months.
Surely, I wagered, some good news was on the horizon. My bio-rhythms would bounce back. Right?
I had an idea for a book—a once-in-a-lifetime idea I was convinced would be my greatest opportunity to contribute my voice to the educational and cultural conversation of our country. I had an angle, an original idea, and the perfect perch to write from. This book—I grandly dreamed—was destined for Bestseller Lists and conversations at chic Manhattan dinner parties amongst members of the American commentariat and literati. I needed to find an agent and SHABAM, for the first time in my career, I found one who shared my enthusiasm for the project, especially after I wrote an article in The Huffington Post that got over a thousand shares and had people from all over talking.
Before she began submitting to large New York publishers I wrote a follow-up piece that went absolutely viral, shared over 24,000 times, re-printed in the Washington Post, and read by 114,000 different visitors. Surely, my date was destiny was near. My author dreams were within reach. Finally, Sisyphus would reach the mountain top. After all, I had a brilliant idea (or so I thought). I had a wonderful and passionate agent. I had proven that the subject had wide-spread appeal through my two articles.
And . . . I was universally rejected.
The rejections were glowing, of course. “We love the writing.” “We love his credentials.” “This is clearly a very important subject.”
But . . . Simon & Schuster, Penguin, Random House and all the rest had a common commercial complaint: “We don’t really know how to sell this.”
Damnit! Capitalism strikes again!
But, of course, nothing could ever prepare me for the untimely death of one of my best friends who taught with me for eighteen years. I have already written extensively on the heart-break of her death which, I have concluded, will never really go away.
Which brings me to this halting reality: I am officially half done with my teaching career.
How did this happen to me? I mean, really, HOW? DID? THIS? HAPPEN?
You see, in my mind’s eye, I am forever the young teacher on campus, the one the security guards endlessly harass for his key to prove I am a staff member, the one who gleefully chaperones dances, the one who can razzle and dazzle his students with recent stories of college exploits and humorous high school shenanigans. I remember the euphoric glow that only a youthful novice teacher can emit, that oh-so-rare exhilaration of having the full attention of my students to do with what I pleased, sometimes to entertain, always to educate, and maybe, if the cosmos was being exceedingly charitable, to edify.
Doctors sometimes speak of a “God Complex,” and while classroom teaching rarely affords one the power to save or lengthen a human life, I discovered in the infancy of my career that teaching can occasionally intensify the pulse of existence, it can quicken and enhance the drama that befalls us on a daily basis; it can be, if you will excuse a term from a bygone era, “soulful.”
Just because people are not flatlining in class does not mean that we are not concerned with matters of life and death, grand ambitions and deep, pronounced, heart-wrenching disappointment. The classroom, I soon learned, is porous to all matters of the soul. It can exalt, leap, and enlighten. But it can just as easily deflate, humble, and cauterize our teaching dreams until they become minuscule and mundane, sullied with the disease of routine and everydayness.
The classroom, I soon learned, is porous to all matters of the soul. Click To Tweet
Yes, I remember learning these lessons from the early years of my career. But I shouldn’t be overly sentimental. I made my share of mistakes. I graded too tough, at times. I didn’t have enough empathy for struggling students. I was way, way too opinionated and emanated the haughty assurance of the recent college grad who had read enough books to know some things, but not enough to know the most important thing of all—the depths of my own ignorance.
Nowadays, I am no longer the cool older brother, or the hip, urbane, “much older” brother. Now, I am simply a dad, the parental figure in front of the classroom that reminds my students that the chasm between us is not a matter of a few years—it’s a matter of decades. On the last day of school, the students told me my nickname: “DADams.”
The highs are much higher than I ever imagined and the lows, much lower. I never imagined I would teach political science courses at a public university, win teaching awards, write well-received books and opinion pieces on teaching and education, travel around the state and country giving speeches, be honored by the California Assembly and Senate, or be inducted into my Alma Mater’s Hall of Fame. I hoped my students would be successful, but I never fathomed that they would star in Broadway plays, work for global movie stars, or mingle with presidents and prime ministers. I never imagined I would attend so many funerals of former students, that I would become colleagues with so many of them, or that I would still be in the lives of students who sat in my classroom almost two decades ago.
Here is another reality I never thought I would encounter two decades into my career: my voice is slowly becoming damaged.
It has happened incrementally. Some weeks are better than others. I plan out my tests so that I get to give my voice a rest at least a few periods a week. If I don’t my voice is hoarse by Thursday night to the point of hollowness. The other day I saw a former student in a bookstore who told me I looked the same but sounded “different.” The problem is I lecture too much. I teach five periods a day, plus college, plus parenting (which sometimes requires some yelling here or there), plus public speeches a few times a month. Slowly, but without doubt, my voice is getting weaker. I know what I need to do but it pains me too much to even write it down.
Ten years ago, I wrote a memoir about my first decade as a classroom teacher. I never intended for it to get published and yet it ended up launching my writing career. To be honest, after another ten years, I am not tempted to write another one. This essay will be my sole statement of reflection denoting this milestone in my life and career.
Maybe my hesitation stems from the fact that I am surer of myself as a teacher but less sure of myself as a man.
You see, this was the year that severed my soul. For I am no longer one man, one teacher, one friend or one father. I am a duality these days: for I am constantly frustrated by my own children but increasingly convinced my love for them is a singular door to transcendent love itself. My body seems to delight in reminding me it is no longer young, and yet a momentary melody on the radio or a gleeful memory from the inner recesses of my mind fill me with a vitality exclusively associated with the verve of youth. I am increasingly baffled by the actions, words, and beliefs of my students and yet I find myself at the end of this year to be less cynical, less jaded, and more filled with the delightful dew of hope itself.
Maybe it is the death of my dear friend. Maybe it is the realization that there are more teaching days behind me than in front of me. Or maybe, just maybe, this year has been the most difficult of all because it has shattered the fundamental myth of my adult life. You see, as irrational and fanciful as this may sound, the classroom has always been my stage, my laboratory, my haven, and my enclave—a place I could largely control, a place I could keep my other problems at arm’s length, a place akin to Buddha’s palace where suffering and pain were magically absent.
But this year the throb of devastation, the sting of disappointment, the anxiety over money, house reconstruction, and parenting infested my classroom demeanor. The students could see my broken heart, they could feel the pulse of my anxiety, they kindly bore witness to the many maelstroms of this particularly challenging year in my life.
But here is the most magical thing of all: I have never felt more beloved, more supported, and more connected to a community than during this year of my discontent. High school seniors are supposed to be at the apex of selfishness—worried about beckoning adulthood, college applications and FASFA forms–and yet, unlike any class I have ever known, they seemed to understand in a deep and humane way that their teacher was a man trying to stand tall in the midst of life’s storms. Instead of passively observing my struggles or blithely shrugging as they watched the tsunami that was my life, they stood behind me, they lifted and fortified me.
At the end of the year I received the great gifts of all: letters from so many of them articulating that they actually learned from my struggles, they appreciated that I loved them enough not to give up on the year, they grasped the most essential truth of teaching which is that teaching is more about the character of the person doing the teaching that it is the curriculum being taught. Sympathy is nice. But as a teacher I want my students to learn—even if it is through the suffering of their teachers.
They did. And for that, I will be forever grateful.

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