I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
A few days ago, the first principal for whom I ever taught found me on Facebook, and we began corresponding a bit. When I met her, I was hardly a teacher. I was filled with Idealism, but I had none of the skills that experience brings. She nurtured the Idealism, and she helped me to get the skills that finally made me a truly great teacher.
This week she asked me this:
“Can I ask what [possessed] you to choose the path you chose?”
And, suddenly, I had to stop. I have never, in all my years, really thought about this. I’m a big fan of Socrates, who told me both, “Know thyself,” and “…the unexamined life is not worth living.” And I have tried to keep both of those ideas in mind, and to follow them to the best of my ability. But, one of the biggest parts of my life has been left unexamined for decades. I don’t know that the examination is going to yield the results I want, but this is my effort to answer her question.
I suppose “if you really want to hear about it…” I would have to go back to April 6, 1967, when I was not yet 5 years old. That was when Captain Kirk told Edith Keeler that the three words “Let me help” were more important even than I love you: “A hundred years or so from now, a famous novelist will write a classic using that theme. He’ll recommend those three words, even over I love you.”
No, I wasn’t a philosophical genius at age 4. I’m not Salinger’s Teddy. But, I knew there was something important there.
My parents were teachers. My parents helped. I believed in helping before I arrived at my first day of Kindergarten.
When I was little, I wanted to be Captain Kirk, Batman, and, from time to time, Mighty Mouse. There seems to be a theme within those folks.
When I was, perhaps, 7 years old, Dad gave me a Show ‘N Tell record player / slide show projector. The first show I ever watched on it was Hamlet. And I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen.
If we put all those elements together, perhaps we can see what motivated me to teach. I wanted to help. I wanted to be heroic. When I was old enough to begin to understand the idea of What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up, I saw To Kill A Mockingbird. I also read the book. And, of course, I wanted to be Atticus Finch. It seemed for quite a few years that I would become a lawyer. Starship Captain and super hero were not professions that were widely available to adults in the 1960s.
My sister was a babysitter, rather frequently, when I was a child. She could make a little extra money in her entrepreneurial endeavors if she brought me with her. I was good at playing with little kids. Even then, I told them stories that I made up off the top of my head, just as my Dad did with me when I was little. He would ask the three of us what characters needed to be in a story. My brother insisted on Popeye, who I liked, too, and later he moved up to Winston Churchill, which made for some truly bizarre stories, since I, obviously had to have Captain Kirk or Batman, and my sister seemed to have an affinity for either Cinderella or Snow White. I challenge any writer to invent anything resembling a coherent story with that cast of characters. But… my Dad could do it. I miss him so much.
When I got older, and I wanted to be The Six Million Dollar Man, I would write plays my friends and I would perform in my garage. We did a great Frankenstein piece once because my friend, Tom, had figured out how to do Monster makeup.
I created my own cardboard version of the Bridge of the Enterprise in that same garage. I had a flashlight connected to a hanger that came through the toy pool table to which I had lost all of the equipment years earlier. I could aim the flashlight at different ships I made out of cardboard and stuck on the screen I made out of masking tape. There was a button on the pool table I could press to turn the flashlight on. I could fire phasers at my targets. It was incredibly cool.
Perhaps I should have been an engineer? Lawyer? As it turned out, Engineering required both more mathematical ability and physical dexterity than I would ever possess. Neither my father nor I were ever much good at physical tasks. My mother suspects that, had Special Education been as regulated, understood, and funded as it is today, I would have been diagnosed with something, but she never said what. My roommates suspect Asperger’s. They may be right. I honestly don’t know.
What did it turn out, from all this, that I could do well? The lawyer in me knew how to talk to people. I made pretty good arguments. The Starship Captain wanted a crew. The Writer wanted to see his plays performed. The hero in me wanted to help. It turned out, I found, one needed little green pieces of paper in order to survive on this planet in the 20th and 21st Centuries. Teaching would fulfill most of my desires, and it would earn me a few of those dollars that seem for many to be the mark of my value.
I became a teacher. Simple.
Except, that’s not REALLY what my principal was asking, I don’t think. I think she was asking why I quit teaching, and why I chose poverty and writing.
That was also about my Ideals.
When I began teaching, I was hired because of my Ideals. My principal wanted a teacher who wanted to go beyond the Basal Reader. She wanted creativity, ideas, and engagement. She wanted what might today be called Progressive Education. I was encouraged to stretch myself and the minds of my students. Everything was ripe for me to grow. And I did.
I became a very good teacher. I have known few who were better than I was. I’ve known quite a few who were as good, and more than I would like to admit who were not. I developed a highly functional Token Economy that, by the end of my career, included bank accounts run by students on computers. I had 4th Graders doing Hamlet.
I was living the life I wanted. I was proud of who I was, what I was doing, and what I was producing. I was as happy as I could be. I made a difference.
I wrote my own musicals for students, and I learned to record their vocals so they could sing with themselves over the vocals on the original tracks. The plays were as professional as any Elementary School was likely ever to do. The kids felt the kind of pride that can be gained only by getting a standing ovation. I don’t care whether it’s in the library in your school or at Carnegie Hall. There is a glow that comes with it that can’t be found by getting an A+ on your report card.
One of my students had been terrified of getting on the stage, but he memorized ALL of Hamlet’s Soliloquy when he was in 6th Grade. And when he did it on stage, he nailed it. And the audience of parents and students responded. Today, he makes a living producing and acting in his own plays. Was that me? I don’t know. I know I’m proud of him, though.
The kindest thing anyone ever said to me was said by one of my students when I was in my sixth or seventh year. She had difficulty reading, but when she graduated from high school, she was selected to give one of the speeches because of her many great accomplishments. And she insisted that my principal and I come to the ceremony. We went.
In her speech, she said, “I had two teachers who really believed in me.” She named her Special Ed teacher, and me. “Mr. Eder said if I wanted to play Ophelia, I absolutely could do it. And because of him I can quote Shakespeare today. Really,” she said. “Ask me anything.” And then she sought my eyes in the crowd, and she said, “To be or not to be, Mr. Eder? I choose to be.” And I wept visibly. Thirty years later, my eyes still tear up at the memory.
And that began to change. It changed when I changed principals. When my first principal retired, she was replaced by a new one, who once did an evaluation of a brilliant lesson I had taught in Hamlet, in which I hit every possible goal on any evaluation, by saying, “Let’s talk about what you didn’t do.” I hadn’t used the correct materials, you see. Hamlet wasn’t approved by the District for Elementary School. I should have been using the basal reader. And, thus began the decline of my career.
I fought, of course, valiantly. Capt. Kirk, and later Hemingway’s Santiago, taught me that. And for many years, I was able to continue to teach in ways that made me proud. I was forever fighting principals and district committees and anyone else who was obsessed with test scores, but, I won most of those battles. My students were excited. Their parents loved what we were doing. I still felt proud.
And a few years after my first principal retired, I attended yet another end of the year waste of time with the entire district. They had asked me to create a video… an actual video, on video tape… no cell phones existed yet… combining pictures and music that celebrated the district. I did it for free, and I made it precisely the way they wanted it. And they showed it before the program started. Instead of having the entire district watch the Art I tried to create (on which I had worked for many hours, and of which I was more than a little proud), they used it as Elevator Music. My ego bruised, my wife and I left. There were more than 1,300 people there. No one would notice.
Except, they did notice. When they handed out the award for Hesperia Unified School District Teacher of The Year, I wasn’t there to accept it. And they had brought my first principal out of retirement to present it. Oops.
My career reached its summit while I was teaching in Maine with a group of the most creative people I’ve ever known. We were using professional theaters for my musicals now. We were creating units that had students traveling back in time, interviewing people from the Renaissance, mapping their trip from one side of Europe to the other, creating a log to chronicle their adventures, creating physical models of their imaginary modes of transportation, and solving the puzzle to return a stolen item to its original user, thus saving History as we know it. They were reflecting on their own learning with daily reports of themselves and the other members of their group.
Students were producing their own magazines by buying and selling articles and pictures from and to each other. Their writing was improved not because I insisted it be better, but because it needed to be in order to sell it. They challenged themselves and each other. My job was just to let them know when they had made their articles’ language mechanics perfect. I would stamp the article, and its value would triple on the market.
I could go on and on, but I feel like I’ve already done that. The point is, I was teaching well, I was excited, I was making a difference, and I was honoring the three most important words: “Let me help.”
By the time I quit, they had removed all of it. I was strictly bound to district materials. One of my principals actually shut down my Drama Club. It wasn’t just that he cut funding. I could have raised the money myself. He decided it wouldn’t be allowed at all anymore. Honestly, it was making me too popular with students and parents, and he and I had been at war for a couple of years. He had to remove as much of my power as he could, and he managed it. I changed schools, and it wasn’t long before there was no more fun to be had in my class.
We had to “track data.” We had to have our PDSA wall up to date. We had to have “artifacts” on our “My Learning Plan” website to prove we were good teachers. We had to teach by a set of arbitrary rules, and the scores students made on tests were of paramount importance. Everything that meant teaching to me had evaporated. I couldn’t do it anymore. My students were beginning to learn the only reason anyone reads is so they can pass a mind numbingly dull test on a computer that proves almost nothing, assuming, of course, we can get the computer up and running so the students can take the test.
My once glowing evaluations had become recitations of complaints that I wasn’t a “team player,” and I wasn’t doing all the things that they now believed were vital to teaching.
By this time, after having been divorced twice, borrowing money every month to make the bills, getting roommates who were convicted felons in an effort to avoid eviction, and surviving the Death of my Father and watching the loss of my Mother’s mind, my depression was at a place that my psychiatrist pulled me out of work because he was afraid I was going to hurt myself. At the end of the 2016 school year, I resigned, pulled my retirement, and lived well for several months before I plunged permanently into poverty.
My diabetes kicked into high gear. I was hospitalized a dozen times in the course of 2 years, at least twice when I should have been dead save for the intervention of other people.
I couldn’t teach another day of Elementary School even if I wanted to. I could still teach Defensive Driving, so I got myself re-certified (I lost my certification for a while when I got a photo radar citation), and started making what I could. Prior to that I worked at trying to sell DirecTV to unsuspecting old ladies over the phone. I loathed that. It was the opposite of everything in which I believed. Worse, I was good at it.
I have a couple of roommates now who help take care of me. I make almost, but not quite, enough to survive. I’m on Food Stamps and state Health Insurance. But, I spend more time writing, which, let’s face it, is what I think I really wanted to do in the first place, and I limit my social life to Facebook. I have no retirement. I have no means of ever quitting work again. I hope, one day, I might be able to get disability, and maybe it will be enough to keep me alive.
For all the poverty and poor health, I think I’m actually happier now. I like myself again. I’m still not Batman, and I have retired from the Bridge of the Enterprise. Now, I’m a man who is cuddled by cats, but my body is shot. That’s fine, though, because other than containing my consciousness, there’s really almost nothing else I want to do with it. I’m a guy who sits in the backyard smoking while I rewrite my work with blue inked Uniball pen in my left hand. I’m someone who shares too much of his personal life with strangers… for Some People. I’m too private for the liking of Other People. For Some I need to be more concise. For Others I need to go into greater detail. But, this is who I’ve become now. In short, I think I’m Fred now. I like this guy.