Duty calls

I woke up at 3:30 a.m., which for some reason I do on most Friday mornings, and by 7 a.m. I had almost blinded myself by accidentally using hydrogen peroxide instead of saline solution when I tried to put my contact lenses in. Worst eye pain I have ever had. Worse than pepper spray, and please don’t ask how I know that.

So I threw on my librarian goggles and went ahead to school. I like to get there early so I can do exciting things like grade papers, send emails, and make rubrics. I probably should have posted an announcement somewhere, like on my shirt, that I didn’t have pink eye, but I got busy and forgot about my how scary I looked.

My first crisis of conscience occurred during first period when a student turned in a piece of writing that at first glance was better than what I had anticipated. The problem was, her writing was more effective because of her use of sentence fragments.

I teach one of those classes that’s aligned with a standardized test. To pass this test, students must be knowledgeable about traditional sentence structure and punctuation. I have been strongly encouraged to do everything within my power to prepare them for this test. After all, they have to pass to graduate.

So here I was in first period reading this introductory paragraph that exceeded expectations, as they say, and all I could think of was whether or not I needed to have a talk with the student to ask if she knew she was using sentence fragments and if she was doing it on purpose.

You know.

For the effect.

It reminded me of the time my 9th-grade English teacher asked me a similar question. Back then, I didn’t always write my stories according to a chronological order of events. Sometimes I’d start off with the most interesting part. I still do this, or try to, and I don’t think of it as a technique. It just seems pretty obvious to me that if you want someone to keep reading your story, you should start with something interesting. My 9th-grade English teacher asked me if I wrote backward on purpose because I was a good writer or if I did it inadvertently because I was an average writer. I still don’t know the answer.

The sentence fragment conundrum also reminded me of the time when I was in college and a journalism instructor – who had, by the way, never been a journalist – took points off one of my papers because the lede I wrote was too advanced. We hadn’t covered that kind of writing in class, so I couldn’t get credit for it, he said. I argued with him and he eventually saw my side, although I’m not sure he ever really forgave me.

When you are almost 38 years old, everything that happens reminds you of the time that something else happened.

I came to the conclusion that good writing is good writing. Advanced readers know what it is, and if you are scoring a standardized test in which a student’s very diploma is at stake, then you had better be a certifiably advanced reader. And nobody is going to fail a standardized test because they write well. Or they shouldn’t, anyway, if there’s any justice in the world.

The next adventure occurred during my duty period. Throughout the day, teachers are tasked with duties such as patrolling the halls to ensure that no crimes or misbehaviors occur. You have to look out for the students you know and the ones you don’t.

It’s not my favorite. I don’t care for pestering teenagers I don’t know to please use appropriate language and take off their hats and stop showing off and act like adults.

Because they’re not adults.

During my duty I encountered a young man whom I had the pleasure of instructing last year. He was very upset about a problem he was having with another student, and he was adamant that he needed to leave the school right away or something terrible would happen.

But he couldn’t leave.

I offered to take him to my classroom so he could have some candy and chill out. That’s pretty much my favorite persuasive technique: Have a snack. I’ll read you a story.

But my former student was having none of it. He became increasingly agitated until I determined that it would be best to enlist the assistance of one of our school’s Positive Male Role Models, not because I was in any danger, but because it’s no secret that sometimes kids will listen to large males when they won’t listen to smallish females in Mom jeans and librarian glasses who look like they might have pink eye. (We’re allowed to wear jeans on Fridays.)

All was resolved without incident. I saw the student later in the day and he appeared to have forgotten his troubles.

I didn’t say to him what I was thinking during the whole minidrama, which was that this particular aspect of life – petty disagreements with peers that lead to deep inner conflict and strife – gets so much better with age. Of all the girls who threatened to kill me in junior high and high school, all those rough chicks who wrote on my locker and on the bathroom walls about me, not a single one is still pursuing me. I’ve seen some of them in the years since we graduated. Sometimes they smile sheepishly as if to say: All that’s over now. We’ve grown up. Sometimes they just ignore me, which is fine. I might add, smugly, that to my knowledge not one of the kids who tormented me in middle school has gone on to become a millionaire CEO or bestselling author. They have probably noted, smugly, that my thighs are still too big for the rest of my body.

My last class of the day involved only the minor drama of a student who had altruistically donated a little too much blood and was on the verge of fainting.

This made me think of the time I collapsed due to low blood supply after giving birth.

She kept saying she would be OK, that she would shake it off. So I told her about the time I thought I would shake it off and I passed out instead. I insisted we get the nurse.

It’s funny, but when I was in high school, I thought being an English teacher would be boring. I thought it would be all about grammar and punctuation and reading stories written by dead white guys, and it’s only a little bit about those things.

Soon, we will write our This I Believe essays. What I know for sure is that it is not a good idea to get up at 3 a.m. and put hydrogen peroxide in your eye. Everything else I believe has been filtered through the much foggier and more subjective lens of memory.


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