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My experience playing teacher for one year

I went from being a freelance journalist and mom to high school English teacher overnight. The result: ‘Beowulf’ meets performance art.

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One of my 16-year-old creative writing students is lying “dead” on the floor of my classroom, her fluffy black feather halo askew, orange CAUTION tape draped across her like a demented Miss American Teen sash. The class writes furiously on what may have caused this catastrophic, dark angel event.

Then, suddenly, in walks the headmaster – unannounced – for one of those check-in-on-a-classroom moments. He looks at the student prostrate on the floor. He blinks. Then he nods his approval and leaves us to our work – I think.

It is early winter and by now my English classes in this private school in Norfolk, Va., have become sort of a guilty pleasure for me and my students. We are dutifully covering all the material in the books and mastering the required skills, but in a teen multiplexing kind of way, in which class is a daily miasma of music, words, wit, and other people’s wisdom.

Here, Pink isn’t a color, but a rock star whose songs serve as language lessons blasted from my iPod speakers. Rex Harrison’s lament in “My Fair Lady” – “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?” – redounds through the classroom each time someone’s grammar goes awry. Writing to a specific audience becomes creating a bedtime story for 5-year-olds, with students taking turns as vexing kindergartners to drive the writers to distraction over detail and description.

No real teacher would do this, but that’s fine because I am not a real teacher. I never thought I would find my calling at age 43 as the result of someone literally calling me to step in to fill the vacant shoes of the English teacher for the freshmen, junior, and senior classes at an urban school for this year.


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