Making the grade
There it is: the old familiar orangey manila envelope, sticking out of my mailbox. It’s a couple weeks before the end of the semester, and this can only mean one thing: my fall 2012 student evaluations have arrived from the USM theatre office. I carry the envelope up to my desk, deliberating whether or not to open it. I don’t know why this internal debate takes place. In the 20 years I’ve been teaching public speaking, the evaluations haven’t changed much. A handful of “This is the best class I’ve ever taken” countered by the occasional “This class sucks.” Because they are, for the most part, anonymous, I generally don’t take them seriously. Except for the compliments. Those I take very, very seriously.
But reading evaluations — like reading reviews, fan mail or excoriating, anonymous Web comments (see February’s Outta My Yard) — can tweak my psyche, which, this time of year, is as fragile as a tea cup. As I go into finals, I like to keep my head cushioned in proverbial bubble wrap.
I still find it hard to believe I’ve spent this much of my life and career as an educator. Over the years, in addition to my class at USM, I have taught at U-Maine Farmington and been a guest lecturer at institutions ranging from MFA programs to prisons to a charter school, where I taught prepubescent boys memoir writing. (Remember second grade, when life was so much simpler?) I’ve been conducting writing workshops for the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance since the days of quill and parchment paper. And, most recently, I’ve been doing private public-speaking coaching and manuscript editing, which amounts to accelerated, one-on-one tutoring with real, commensurate compensation. (I used to tell my students that I consider teaching public speaking as my community service work, until one wrote in his glowing evaluation — which I devoured — that he couldn’t believe I taught for free and that it was ridiculous USM didn’t pay me. Now I just tell them I teach for gin and pin money.)
So, with all this pedagogical mileage under my belt, why should it be hard for me to believe this is the direction my career has taken? Because I never wanted to teach. Never once, in any stage of my schooling, did I even consider becoming a teacher. When we played “school” as kids, I always volunteered to be the janitor. Although I graduated from both high school and college with honors, I probably did so only because I talked my way out of taking most math and science courses. One of the reasons I didn’t go to gradate school was because I feared it would be a direct route to teaching. (Well, that, and Yale wouldn’t have me.) See, not to put too fine a point on it, but I always thought teaching was for people who couldn‘t cut it in the real world.
This might have been a reflection of the culture in the small Maine town where I grew up during the 1960s and ‘70s. Back then, teaching was one of the few job choices, particularly for women. And women ruled the roost at Newell Grammar School. I had a succession of missuses, starting with Mrs. Miller, in kindergarten, up to my beloved Mrs. Connors, in fifth grade. They were all ancient (probably well into their 40s), perfectly pleasant women, who clucked us through grade school while cigarette smoke billowed out the door of the mysterious teachers lounge whenever it opened. The only male teacher at Newell taught sixth grade, but then he was also the principal (a man’s job — grrr), there to send a spirited young lady home when she dared to wear a pantsuit.
When I got into junior high, the male-to-female teacher ratio abruptly changed. There was math and science to be taught (grrr), and with the exception of one female science teacher — Miss Bonney, who also coached the bowling team — this was male territory. Adolescent memory recalls them as locals who didn’t want to work at the Yard (a.k.a. Bath Iron Works) and got stuck teaching. There is a composite image I mentally draw: a middle-aged man in a short-sleeve, polyester shirt from Sears, a shiny tie not quite knotted squarely, run-down saddle shoes, unclean hair (or perhaps thick with Brylcreem) and a dusting of dandruff. I recall how one of these men would extravagantly excavate and examine the wax from his ears with the lead end of a pencil during quizzes. Never would I join these legions. Never.
High school was more of the same, though it was now the ‘70s, and progressive teachers occasionally floated through the ranks. My savior arrived in the form of a long-blonde-haired, corduroy-bellbottom-wearing vegetarian from Michigan. From away. She let me pal around with her and introduced me to Erewhon peanut butter and brie cheese. (“You really wanted to like it,” she later told me, despite my squelched gags.) She was the one who worked on eradicating my Maine accent and set me on the course of my speech career. But then she had the nerve to up and desert me, at the conclusion of my sophomore year, to attend the Naropa Institute in Colorado. That left two remaining years spent with teachers who wanted me to toe the line, study, memorize crap, make good grades and not be such an overly dramatic pain in the ass. Today, I’d get patted on the head and moved into the gifted and talented program.
I’d like to say things got better in college, but, alas, this was now the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, and a lot of the teachers wanted to break down the old hierarchical walls. That meant you drank with your professors, hung out at their homes and, more often than not, listened to their problems. (I remember a sodden late-night confession by one of my tutors in London, who showed up at my door to confess his mad love … for one of my fellow exchange students. I mean, come on. If he was going to wake me up in the middle of the night, couldn’t it have at least been about me?) Well, that was the problem. Very often, all this chumminess resulted in the inevitable paw on your leg. OK, so the girls with boobs and hair got more passes than I did, but the groping was part of the scene. It’s funny. I can’t seem to remember the presence of even one female professor at any of the three schools I attended. Maybe they were in the math department.
Continuing my education, let alone teaching, wasn’t a question at this point. I was going to be a poet, an adventuress, a Joni Mitchell wild seed again, let the wind carry me. I was going to get out of Maine and eat up the world. The classroom had always represented a cage to me. Graduation unlocked its door.
So, I don’t know what I was thinking when, 10 years later and back in Maine, I said yes to taking on a unit of public speaking at USM. I’d been invited by the head of the theatre department and agreed to it on a whim. I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d never taught before. I had no post-graduate education. My only qualification was that I’d competed on the USM public-speaking team. At the time, that was good enough.
I spent the next three months cramming: reading teaching guidelines, inventing a lesson plan, creating a syllabus, jobbing up handouts, putting together performance tips. I remember sashaying into my first classroom, looking all that, decked out in my Doc Martens, motorcycle jacket and swingy skirt, mixing in with all the other coeds (OK, some of them were middle-aged men, some homemakers, there was a grandmother — that was then the typical USM demographic), and singing under my breath, I am the teacher. I am the teacher. I am the teacher. My arms were laden, my heart was pounding, my head was full. And when I took the front of the class, I gave it my all.
Unfortunately, my all was about 15 minutes’ worth of class time in a two-and-a-half-hour lecture. I had to rob from my notes for our next six or so meetings to fill the rest of the time. I did everything but pull out the sock puppets.
These days, I have those lectures timed down to the nanosecond. I no longer look like a coed and am, in fact, relieved when I get the occasional students with a couple gray hairs to join me in the middle-aged ranks. And I’ll tell you something else. I have danced through a lot of doorways over the years, most of them leading to trouble, but waltzing into that first class was one of the best moves I’ve ever made. You see, writing may give meaning to my days, but teaching has given meaning to my life.
I tear open the envelope. The contents are as expected, though there’s just a single grouser in the lot. Maybe I’m losing my edge. But then, what more can you expect from an ancient, partially pleasant, married missus?
Only the world.
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