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, August 24, 2016

Morning Thanks--teachers

Strangely enough, his name was Morningstar. He was, when I knew him, anything but. What I remember most strikingly was his free hour, the one class period during the teaching day set aside for planning, but used by most of us, Morningstar included, as recovery, a time for drawing a breath, teaching being what it is.

The high school where we taught wasn't an easy place to live, but then none of them are. I could well have been in worse places. It was a new school on the edge of a city growing so fast it had trouble keeping up with itself. It's newest residents had just moved, so if I asked kids where they were from, they'd answer, "Michigan," or "New Jersey," or any of dozen other states. Even though the vast majority were white, they were just about all immigrants.

Many suffered from dislocation, but most, we were told, walked out of broken homes when they left for school. Arizona, like the American West has always done, offered a new start for weary pilgrims. The point is, the high school where we taught--me and Morningstar--was full of kids with problems. I could easily have been in a tougher school, but this place was no safe haven. None of them are.

The faculty had just been recruited; the school was just that new. We were young, I remember, and I thought--and still do--immensely creative. We were energetic and bright and hard-working. I taught with people whose classroom skills were greatly impressive, people whose lifestyles, this young Calvinist sometimes considered a little questionable. It was the mid-seventies, the romance of the Sixties' revolutions were pretty much over, and American culture felt something akin to those Woodstock hills a couple days after the music died.

I honestly didn't understand why Morningstar was hired. He seemed so much unlike the rest of us. He couldn't have had more than a year or two left before retirement, and he seemed so beat up that I hated to sit there in the faculty lounge if he was there--and he was, day after day after day.

Smoking. It's hard to believe now, but the faculty lounge a smoke house back then, and lots of us smoked. Yet today, if I want to relax, I can't think of a better way to sit back and let the nerves settle than with a cigarette, even though my smoking days are far behind me.

Al Morningstar chain-smoked, a behavior so far behind us that I doubt my children even recognize the phrase. Maybe a few minutes passed--I don't remember; but in that "free hour" of his he may well have smoked a half-dozen Winstons, chain-smoked. 

And that was the image we taunted each other with. A friend of mine who taught history--the two of us used to say that if we stayed in that high school for the rest of our lives, we'd both become Morningstars. "See that, Schaap?" he'd say. "There's got to be a better life than this, man. That's what we'll be."

Morningstar, I'm sure, retired soon after; and my friend left to get another graduate degree. Today, he's retired from a position as a VP at a university in the Twin Cities. I left for Iowa after two years. Neither of us became Morningstar, working hard at staying alive in the classroom, killing himself in the process.

"Imagine what it must be like to get beat up in every class you teach," my friend used to say when we'd come out of that smoky lounge. 

Morningstar is the teacher Donald Trump's son was talking about in that convention speech he gave last month, the kind of teacher, the kind of loser unions somehow support--a classroom veteran who does nothing well except smoke Winstons. Maybe forty years before he was good, but today he's a mess. He shouldn't be teaching. Morningstar is a Republican dream. When they want to bust unions, Morningstars become poster boys.

I spent the rest of my working days in education, as did that friend of mine. We didn't leave classrooms, but we both left that school. Trump's kid wasn't wrong--Morningstars are around, people who get beat up in a lifetime of classrooms. They exist.

But what they prove too is that teaching is hard work often accomplished to the tune of a pay scale that hardly registers. The weight coach at the University of Iowa, a news story said yesterday, earns just about $700,000 per anum. I'm sure there are legendary teachers in Iowa City who still don't get six figures. 

Yesterday, my grandchildren walked away from the house, left the dog behind, and headed out to school for the first time this term--a high-schooler, an eighth grader, and a first-grader. There they are, up top the page, great smiles.

God bless 'em. And God bless their teachers too, who don't have an easy job. Rewarding? Absolutely. But often frustrating and difficult. Last Sunday at church, the preacher invited all the kids up to watch a baptism. I wondered whether that was possible anymore. Really, it isn't. Those kids went off as if shot from guns. 

Imagine dealing with them all. day. long. Bless 'em all.

I am confident there isn't a Morningstar in the bunch. This morning I'm thankful for them--all of them, all those teachers. Bless 'em.

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