Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Car wreck

That some psychotic killer found victims by way of Craigslist isn't at all surprising these days; that this Phillip Markhoff is the fiend, however, apparently is. An honor student at the university where he did he undergrad, enrolled in the Medical School at Boston University, and engaged to be married, Markhoff was nailing down his own sweet corner of the great American dream tent.

He's innocent 'till proven guilty, but the police aren't just speculating; they believe they have their man.

All of that was not what I needed to hear yesterday, after a very long day--and night--at school. After so many years, you'd think I'd remember that, almost without an exception, if the end-of-the-year offers any kind of dramatic climax, it's a car wreck. Students are up to their eyeballs in work they should have done sometime in February, and that means day-to-day assignments don't get done, which means, in turn, that classes become professorial soliloquies--at least mine do. I've got a dozen kids in a lit class; yesterday, I'm not sure half of them read the stories--and the stories were by Alice Munro.

Poor Alice. She always ends the semester. I plot it that way, assuming the students will like her more than Ray Carver and Andre Dubus or whoever else is on the syllabus. Never happens, and I don't learn, and poor Alice-the-Great never gets her due, or my estimation thereof. I walk in, thrilled with her work, and the class looks at me as if they've scarfed down mud pies a half hour before.

Teaching is a way to make a living, but I don't think I'd have stayed at it this long if it weren't for eyes. When you get them--startled, bright, lashless eyes--the joy is worth the anguish. Well, that may be overstatement.

But when those eyes are glued to the desk top, I wonder if I wouldn't have been better off with a more satisfying career, say cleaning toilets. At least they sparkle.

Last night was the end of just such a day. Half the students--at best--in my night class were not prepared. I swear it. Maybe more. And it wasn't even Alice Munro--it was their own work, their own writing. All I'd asked them to read was their own blessed writing.

When I walked home after nine, the western sky was still backlit from a sunset that had officially doused itself in the horizon an hour earlier. But the scudding clouds against all that dark, dark blue was so stunning, so compelling, that I told myself I really ought to quit the blasted classroom because the fact of the matter is, I love sunsets more than I love students. Kept saying it to myself, all the way home, in fact.

So I was completely blitzed--it was a long, long day. I turned on the tv and who comes on but some lisping college rooomie of Phillip Markhoff, who claims that the guy was a model student: all As, exemplary kid who had no enemies. Great guy. Clean-cut, all-American type. Now a psychpath, a murderer.

Just what I needed to hear. How many of his college profs would have thought the same blasted thing?--good kid, hard-worker. How many of them would have written recommendations that touted his industriousness, his commitment to task, his going to extra mile, even his bright, responsive eyes. "At the end of the semester, at least I can trust that Phillip will do his work"--that kind of thing.

What the heck do we know anyway?--teachers, I mean. That's what I asked myself. The role you play in a kid's life is, at best, incidental. Why the heck should I care? Besides, I like sunsets far more than my dang students.

You know, there's something flirtatious about teaching; what you're trying to pull off, it seems, is something akin to seduction. You want them to love it. We're professional sweet talkers, especially these days, if you teach literature. "You're going to love Alice Munro, really!! Isn't she something?" And they look at me as if I'm the one in the ditch.

When you get the door slammed, honestly, you wonder about sparkling clean toilets.

But then, self-pity is unbecoming , so forgive me for playing my own sad song. But this Markhoff was all I needed to spin out of control.

If I look up just now, outside my basement window the sky is beginning to brighten once more. Besides, I'm likely uttering the same morning prayer that's going up all over the dorms these days: "Lord, just a week or so left. Get me out of this car wreck." Or words to that effect.

It happens every year. It does. I swear it.

Shuttup and go to the gym, thou sluggard. You ever read Alice Munro?


Miriam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Miriam said...

Okay, okay, okay--I'm *SORRY* that I never finished Moby Dick--but I've still read a lot of great stuff since. And it's because of your classes that I have the critical literary thinking I do. So hang in there, they're listening more than you think... I was...

Cara DeHaan said...

Thanks for this post, Jim. I've so been there this term. For some reason it's good to know that even veteran teachers get depressed by ill-prepared students, that good teachers never truly develop a shell impervious to students' disinterest. At the same time, you do make me want to jump the teacher-ship right now and find some toilets to clean.... after I mark that pile of final exams sitting on my desk. Does it help to know that students are also repeating the same mantra: "Only one more week..."?

carolsong said...

I'm having the SAME sort of day in an elementary school in Canada. AND we don't finish till the end of June. Do I win the pity party? Teaching is like that, even in Australia.

carolsong said...

Oh, just realized that's a primary school quote. Judy Viorst, "Alexander and the Terrrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" Worth the read and much shorter than Moby Dick or even an Alice Monroe short story. (Which I have read.)

Dawn R. said...

I feel like you really do need an apology from a former student. I think I still have an end-of-the-year test where you asked "Really, did you even read the book?" Of course, I hadn't, but that was obvious. It is truly a horrible time in the academic year--now, as a parent, I feel it from all three of my kids and I've got miles to go before I'm done.

Eric and I just spoke of you this weekend. We decided that you're the person from our Dordt years that we'd most enjoy sitting down to a cup of coffee with. So take that and remember that college kids will grow into functioning and thoughtful adults--maybe.

Oh and Eric's two cents is this: "Toilets or students--either way you're dealing with something that's full of sh*t.

Hang in there--summer is just over the horizon.

Jennifer said...

My Car Wreck for class on Thursday:

We're learning about journalism and social networking, otherwise known as "How To Tell Your News Story in 140 Characters or Less on Twitter..."

God help us all.

Anonymous said...

The reason I'm a pastor today is because of a tired teacher in grade 10 who said what he thought.

Anonymous said...

By the way, I'm a woman pastor...if you ever come back to the West Coast, Soph and I will eat fish and chips with you in Victoria again. have more influence than you can ever know or imagine.