Tonight AMC showed the Sidney Poitier movie, "To Sir, With Love". This is my favorite Poitier role, eclipsing even "Lilies of the Field". For those who have not seen the film, Poitier plays an engineer forced to take a job as a school teacher in a high school in the blue collar London East End. With a world of 60s relevance,staunch values, and a little outright "hep", he reaches the kids, and reaches into his own heart to find his true vocation. When I see a movie like this, I long to chuck up my current life, and enter teacher training immediately.
It's not a Poitier kind of thing, either. Many works of literature and film have this effect on me. James Hilton's book "Goodbye, Mr. Chips", about a second-class school teacher in a second rate public school,who proves to be a first class fellow, also gives me that longing for a world in which I save the day notwithstanding seeming mediocrity. The Chips focus on education as imparting the key virtues of "perspective" and fair play enchants me. The Miss Read Fairacre series of stories about a village elementary schoolteacher makes me wish for a world in which I was absorbed in a community in which I was the educator. To digress for a moment, one way in which I know I am truly a snob is that I literally turn my nose up at Jan Karon's Americanized Miss Read imitations, where the doubtable Father Tim just lacks that schoolteacherly air. I love the idea of being in that world set apart from the stress of material success, personal status, and endless stylized jousting. I imagine myself in the hurly burly of the classroom. I may not be Sidney Poitier, quite, but I could come on like a regular rock n roll star of the classroom.
I wish my fantasies were excusable on the basis that I don't know any better. Actually, though, I have had many relatives who have been school teachers. It's probably in my blood somewhere, along with all those genes that dictate that I gain weight when I eat chocolate. It can be a stressful, low paid, needlessly political job, as many jobs are when the hope of money, real power or real recognition is absent at the workplace.
I think that people who disparage working for a profit don't realize how liberating it can be to see fights over something understandable, like money, as opposed to pointless turf war. I don't wonder how vile the Original Sin must have been in the eyes of the Creator, such that even millenia later, certain serpent-like school teachers still bite one another's heels as if they were the dreaded tempter serpent itself, forced to repent in a 6th grade teachers' lounge. I know many teachers I admire, but I never think it is an easy life. I think it is a noble life, but in that "hard work in Calcutta" sense, not in that "ascending into Heaven at the end of the movie The Robe" sense. Many teachers are wonderful people, many administrations are great administrations, but nobody doubts that one works harder and gets less respect than one deserves.
When I was in school, I respected my teachers tremendously. I was a "good" kid. But I did not see them as compatriots. Instead, they were a sort of 19th C. Tory government in power, and I was a friendly Liberal loyal opposition. Oh, from time to time my shadow cabinet might confer with the junior ministers on the "ruling side", but in general, when question time came, I did not spare them. I adored my 10th grade speech teacher. She was bright, she was a good teacher, and she was beautiful (sad, really, that at 15 that mattered--but it did). She was also shocked when my mother told her hers was my favorite class. "I had no idea", she said, "he always acts like every assignment is such a pain". I still treasure memories of teachers, though, whether it was Mr. G in chemistry class telling me that writing long answers to try to get partial credit was really not a good strategy when I had no idea of the true answer, or the spelling bees in Mrs. M's fifth grade class. Man, I could spell. You wouldn't know it by my word processing. I can spell, but I do not type what I think; I type a misspelled version of what I think. My heart still aches at how Mr. M. was mercilessly harassed by kids in junior high, and then driven from the profession when he broke down and hit back a kid who was hitting him. When a friend told me Mr. G had drunk himself to death in grief over causing a DWI death, I was so sad. Yet I'd never have let him know how fond I was of him. That was not cricket.
When I was in college, becoming a teacher would have been the furthest thing from my mind. A professor, yes, that was something I thought about--but a high school teacher? All that stress, none of the prestige, and of course, coaches for principals.
But now, even after seeing all the stress of teaching, it appeals to me enormously. I read books about teachers, and imagine myself in the classroom, slogging away at the day to day. I am no starry eyed dreamer. I don't think I could be an Escalante, or even Mr. Holland (whose Opus I am vaguely ashamed to say I watch with unabashed enjoyment). But if I was in the classroom, maybe I'd be somebody. Somebody who did things because they are worth doing. My teachers did not win my open admiration, but they marked me. It may only be a mark noticeable when I read a novel about teaching, but it's there. I have read the indelible ink on my soul--it says "attorney", and I can't wipe it off. But sometimes I want to cross out some letters, add a few others, and step into the classroom. My law partner was a principal before he became a lawyer. I envy him on that score, just a little. I am tattooed with chalk.