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.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Morning Thanks--the job, the calling

I think my teaching world is pretty much in order.  I finished up my last (of three) syllabi yesterday, put that class's website in order, and generally got myself ready.  I'm thankful for a technological world in which all that tedious copying--the syllabi, the extra handouts, whatever else I want to duplicate--is all basically done for me.  I'm old enough to remember a room full of other profs vying for the ditto machine or that sinful inky mimeo, each of us putting the masters in place and spinning the barrel to kick out the copy, and then, one by one, stapling.  Sheesh.  Now I push some buttons on a keyboard, and viola! the neatly stacked handouts magically appear, not all that much later, in my mailbox.  What a blessing!

There's that.

But Tuesday morning I'll be up front once more, just as I was forty years ago, vying for my students' attention with Puritan theology, or a couple of poems, or some encouraging words on writing clear sentences.  Back then, years ago, I had hair, and more sharpened nerves, that morning especially.  I'll never forget looking over class rosters that first year, long lists of names of kids, total mysteries who had become, because I'd signed a contract, my dominion.  Maybe dominion isn't the right word, but a classroom is a kingdom.  I can give authority away, of course, but they'll get it only if I give it to them.  I'm the one with the power.  That hasn't changed. What happens in that classroom is still my responsibility.  Mostly.

My mother still thinks of the job in grandiose, spiritual terms--shaping youthful minds the way Jesus wants them to be.  These days--with the broad differences between people who share the name of "Christian"--I'm less sure than she is of WWJD.  And I'm not a preacher--never have been.

My first teaching jobs were in public schools, where, in some ways--and contrary to what many believe--it might well have been easier to be a "Christian."  These days, in evangelical America, the definitions are often bullet points, not all of which I share as creed.  Not repeating those stock phrases can raise questions I'd never, ever have faced in a public school, questions vastly more difficult because they place my own standing with the Lord under the orthodoxy microscope or, worse, behind its crosshairs.  

But one can only do his or her best, and, despite this being my last year, I'll have no problem doing just that.  Like any teacher--and any human being, through the years I've accumulated a pretty substantial won/lost record.  The marks on the win side came largely on the basis of passions, not teaching strategies or perfect lists of goals and objectives, administrative expertise notwithstanding.  Here's a dirty little secret:  I likely do my best work in the classroom when students see that I love what I'm doing, not only because reverence itself is contagious, but also because in giving them what they can tell I love, they know I am also loving them.  Does that make sense?

Doesn't always work, of course.  Once upon a time, I chased a kid right out the classroom for disrespecting what I was doing. He never said a word, just gave me an I-could-give-a-shit look, and I took off after him.  Didn't catch him either, but i n the parking lot of a high school it doesn't take a world-class sprinter to stay out of the killer hands of a 250-pound teacher.  Over the years, I've tossed some bad pitches, some because they got away from me, some because I wasn't focusing, some because, well, I'm as much a sinner as anyone else and therefore capable of just flat-out screwing up.  

But it's been a good life in the classroom, and I don't regret the decision to put myself there, even if I can't begin to remember when and where and why I made that decision.

I do remember walking to an American Lit class one day in my sophomore year in college, a class on Emerson, I think (but I don't trust the exactness of my memory exactly either).  I remember the sidewalk--it's no longer there--and I remember the odd thought I had, and it went something like this:  if I'd be a college literature teacher, I could chew this interesting stuff every day of my working life AND get paid for it.  Hmmm.

That sidewalk is gone, but that square inch of God's green earth is only about a hundred steps from the place where I'll hold forth again come Tuesday morning. 

I'm not what I was back then--I mentioned the hair.  When I walk up a flight of steps these days, I draw wind.  Students look at me strangely now--this old guy--where once upon a time I was little more than big brother or a kind of goofy, interesting uncle.  Now I'm their grandpa, and I don't think many of them have grandparents so taken people like, say, that odd Emily Dickenson.  Besides, they're likely more distracted; after all, they just got a text from an old buddy.

Yeah, well. 

They'll be distracted by each other, too, which is always fun.  High school or college education throws a couple of dozens males and females into a room together, and, at that age, some biological impulses the prof is absolutely powerless to staunch, even if he were Justin Timberlake or some Kardashian (is that how you spell it?).

Comes with the territory.  Besides, I've long ago determined that one of the blessed perks of this job is watching kids tumble, head-over-heels, into that abject state when a sweetheart takes absolute dominion in their woebegone psyches and simply floods out any possible other impulse.  It's just as wonderful as it is silly.

Years ago, I remember finding a note in a classroom, sweet nothings between two of my students.  Two years ago, on the first day of class, I asked a kid who his parents were because his name sounded familiar.  "My parents went here--they were in your class," he told me.  He was theirs. 

So next week we begin again, this time, for me, the last time.

This morning I'm thankful, really, for a job that I've had since August of 1970, when I stood before a class of high school juniors in an American Lit class in South Wayne, Wisconsin.  Most of their names I still remember.  And I remember thinking this too, back then, that maybe, just maybe this was a job that I could do.  In a week or so, I could see some of their approval on their faces.  They liked what I said.  They thought my passions strange, but interesting.  And they liked me, too.

Once upon a time that first year, I read a poem in a text they all had before them.  When I was finished, I asked them what they thought.  "It's good," one of them said.  

"Oh, yeah?"  I said.  "Why do you say that?"

"I don't know--but I can really tell you like it.  Therefore it must be good."

Some educationist could pick that banter apart and make me a fool, I'm sure.

But, for better or for worse, that little story has stuck with me after all these years.  It's as much a triumph and a failure as any of our lesson plans or any of our lives.  And that's okay.  It's enough to make me believe, Mom, that I'm doing what He wants me to do, being what He wants me to be.


Anonymous said...

Starting teaching this upcoming Tuesday? I thought you didn't start until the very end of August or the beginning of September. You might want to check your schedule, Jim. August 23 sounds pretty early. I teach in Canada and we start on September 6.

justfaith said...

Prof.J. Schaap,
Your mother is correct and for what it is worth "students see that I love what I'm doing"... We did and still do.

Have an amazing year teaching.

Roberta said...

You made English 101 interesting and fun 34 years ago, and it takes an amazing teacher to do that!
Blessings to you as you begin your last year of teaching at Dordt! (and Anonymous should check the Dordt calendar, you guys do start your fall semester rather early!)

Sam Van Eman said...


Enjoy a wonderful finish. Thank you for speaking from your teacher heart, and for reminding me why this profession - both the exercising and receiving of it - is a reason to be extra grateful.

From The High Calling,