Friday, January 23, 2009

O Captain! My Captain!

In the wake of this week's events, I had the opportunity to talk shop with a fellow educator. Though his background was Arts and mine History and Linguistics, we conversed about many parallel issues regarding our fields of study and real world implementation.

In the course of our discussion, I briefly retold the story of my having quit my high school teaching position in Sweden.

Some day, I may write a serial blog post detailing those horrific months. Suffice it to say that the headmaster of my school took it upon herself to save me from myself. I was given blunt notice that I was an utter failure. To the administration. To the staff. To my students.

I was told that my students hated me. That my coworkers could not bear the thought of working with me another term. Subsequent meetings with my team proved many of the allegations to be false, but the terms under which I was given the opportunity to stay on were beyond my capability to agree. I had been accused of being a teacher from whom no student could learn and with which no teacher could work. Yet I was offered the opportunity to continue my position under a "schedule of developmental standards". When asked for a copy of those developmental standards, they were not produced.

These actions went against every moral fiber of my being. I could not remain in such an environment. With a shattered heart and guilty conscience, I quit.

A year passed, and I continued to see my former colleagues at parties and pubs. Despite the drama and accusations, we had all remained friends. As spring semester came to a close and graduation rolled around, my former workmates rang me and asked if I would be willing to participate in the teacher follies planned for graduation day. I was assured that they would speak with the headmaster as I did not want there to be a scene caused by my presence. I did not want to be the cause of ruin on this special day for the students.

My colleagues planned for my participation to be a surprise. On my last day of school, I had promised my mentor students that I would come to their graduation. I had intended to keep that promise, but none of them knew I had been contacted to participate in the faculty presentation.

The day arrived. Quite a few of the students saw me before the ceremony, and I was flattered by the hugs and smiles I received. However, I did my best to stay in the background and out of the way until I was needed.

When it was time for the ceremony to begin, we gathered in the small lecture room that was central to the main floor of the school. With a graduating class of just over 100 students, the room was jam-packed and noisy with excitement. The lights went down, and I sat in the dark and waited.

I thought my heart was going to explode.

Each main teacher of the graduating class had a small story and photograph to tell the student body. A bit like a roast, it was done in comedic fashion and had the students rolling in their seats. When my friend and colleague announced that there was a guest presenter, the room started to buzz.

I thought I was going to puke.

I could see the headmaster sitting in the front, facing the students with the rest of the faculty. They called my name. I wiped the sweat from my palms on my slacks. I stood up and made my way from the rows of seats to the front of the projector.

The roar was deafening. I thought more of the students knew I was there, but it was obvious that most of them were taken completely by surprise. You could see the ripple of movement in the student body as they came to understand that I was the guest presenter.

My students gave me a standing ovation. In defiance of the headmaster, every student in the auditorium stood on their feet and applauded. Loudly. At length.

I will not lie. It ranks as one of the most gratifying moments of my life. As the students carried on, I tried to shush them. They would not be silenced. They wolf whistled. They shouted. They refused to sit.

I turned to look back at my former colleagues, all of whom had enormous grins on their faces. I tried not to look at the headmaster. I did not want to gloat. This wasn't about her. This was about my students. For those who had signed petitions to save my job and been punished. For those who had fumed in silence. This was their opportunity to show me their truth. O Captain! My Captain!

Now, in no way do I equate myself with the character John Keating. I tell this story because it is a part of me. It is my counterargument to the many cynics who find the idea of students standing up to an injustice to be trite American cinematic drivel. With a snort and shake of the head it is often cavalierly dismissed with a pursing of the lips: How contrived. That would never really happen.

But it does. I lived it.


buddha_girl said...


Kids can smell a rat a mile away. Sounds as though the headmaster (what a farce!!!) was obviously threatened by your very presence, knowledge, and most importantly, your ability to connect with your students. Shame on that fucker!

SSG said...

that is a GREAT story. and so shit you had to quit, exactly what all the students thought too.

Blue Momma said...

You know you are going to have to spill what that fucker had against you!!! I hope he/she was mortified and learned a huge life lesson.

Well, mostly I just hope for the mortified part...

Gypsy said...

Wow! That's all kinds of moving.

A Free Man said...

I'd been thinking about getting certification to teach secondary school, but have heard too many horror stories. Yours is almost enough to change my mind.

Not Afraid to Use It said...

@BuddhaGirl: Yes, kids are smart and know what is what. I never had to say a bad thing to my students against the admins bc they could see it with their own eyes.

@SSG: Yeah, my students were really upset that I left. They were especially pissed bc many of them wanted to transfer, but their credits were so fucked up they wouldn't have been able to graduate on time if they had.

@Blue Momma: Someday I will. Just writing this post gave me the shakes. And it's been several years now.

@Gypsy: It still moves me a great deal

@A Free Man: The key word being "almost". Honestly, I can't go back to teaching with young ones at home. It is too labor intensive and emotionally draining. When I go back to work I want something I can leave at the office. Or given the time to get my paperwork/grading done during office hours.

Kat said...

Damn, that's awesome! What an incredible moment.

Bluestreak said...

thanks for sharing this important moment in your life. recognition is welcome and needed sometimes. moving on would have just felt right under those conditions.

Coal Miner's Granddaughter said...

Amazing story, hon. It's amazing to me that so many adults allow their petty issues to get in the way of true educators doing their jobs and doing their jobs well.

I'm so glad those students stood up for you. :)