Teachbad: Origins: Part One

The Crosby S. Noyes Elementary School is three blocks from my house. After teaching there for one day, I knew it would be impossible for my wife and I to send our kids to their neighborhood public school. This was a huge disappointment, but non-negotiable.

I started teaching at Noyes (pronounced noise)[1] in November 2004 after a lengthy and poorly planned stretch of unemployment. It was planned in that I had planned to stop going to my job, and I correctly assumed they would stop paying me. The plan was not well thought out in that I had no other job lined up, interviews, leads, etc. All I really had were vague ideas about the kinds of jobs I might like and a very thin Rolodex.

I was trying to execute an under-resourced total career field switch just as the labor market was goingtohell.com. Furthermore, I was doing so in a town crammed with hyper-competitive, over educated young professionals, most with more impressive pedigrees and credentials than my own. I had overshot, under-planned and found myself highly uncompetitive in the Washington, DC labor market. This truth would reveal itself in countless uncomfortable ways over the next 20 months.

During this very dark time, my wife and I would intermittently talk about me becoming a teacher. Mostly my wife would talk about me becoming a teacher. I considered teaching with the same level of seriousness I considered becoming a scuba instructor or cheese making as possible new career paths. It was partly because I hated the sound of it. Hi! I’m a teacher! Too common, maybe. Not commanding of respect. I didn’t go to graduate school and move 3000 miles to Washington, DC for a job I could have in any city or town on the planet. I wanted to be a DC-insider whom the rest of the country hated. I wanted power, or at least to work for people who had it.

Though I couldn’t see or admit it at the time, teaching had begun to make a solid argument for itself. I had worked with middle school kids a bit in college. I taught undergraduates when I was in graduate school and volunteered teaching GED prep classes the year before. I had a master’s degree in the field I wanted to teach, and I had been doing research and writing on education for the last three years.

Just as important, the poverty and blight of Washington, DC had reground my socio-political lens. I grew up solidly lower middle class. We didn’t go on vacations and we ate a lot of Spam, but we went to the doctor and we always had a house and a car. Seeing real American poverty and the wrecked people who live in it forced me to evaluate it and decide what I thought of it. I decided that it sucked and developed a reasoned and articulate confidence that education would be an essential component of the solution. When I was honest with myself, I knew this would be challenging and satisfying work, and that I would be good at it. It was starting to make sense and I was slowly opening to the idea. Pride was the only thing left keeping me from doing it. It was pride and anything else I could think of when my wife brought it up. But the time was coming.

Our daughter was born a few minutes after midnight on Election Day of 2004. Early in the day John Kerry was looking good in his bid to unseat George W. Bush for the presidency. The excitement of a new baby girl and the prospect of having anybody else be president made us giddy. We were joking at the hospital about Kerry for our new baby’s middle name. But sometime in the afternoon a nervous and agitated edge of uncertainty had crept into James Carville’s voice. As we watched Karl Rove’s stupid face and listened to his stupid voice we became confused, angry and sad. Can this really be happening? Again?

We inadvertently switched to a tense and self-pitying gallows humor and decided we would name the baby Dukakis or Mondale. Ultimately we were forced to declare a total media blackout as it became clear that, somehow, George W. Bush had defeated John Kerry and would continue to be President of the United States. Best now to focus on the baby.

In addition to joy, the new baby would generate new strains on the family budget. We had talked about the fact that the baby might come before I had a job, but we considered it unlikely and so had done nothing to prepare for it. I mean, really, how could I possibly be unemployed for 20 months? Inconceivable! As such, we were still a little unclear as to what exactly was going to happen if this happened. The dream of rushing to the White House with Senator So-And-So for a late night meeting with President Kerry to discuss really important things had finally been put down in an unwitting mercy killing.[2] The time had come.

In two weeks I had my substitute teacher’s license.

I walked to Noyes Elementary School on a Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving….

[1] The other elementary school in the neighborhood was called Slowe. After many years I still consider this pairing to be one of highest peaks of unintentional dark comedy.

[2] My son preferred putting my professional dreams down early. After months of study for the LSAT, he was born 11 days early, on the day of the exam. My wife went into labor at 4:00am. I stayed with her at the hospital until about 8:00am, took the train downtown, took the test and came back with more than 7 hours of labor to spare. I did worse on that test, by far, than I did on my first cold practice test, thus ending my career in the law.


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