THE BELL RANG and a caustic bubble rose from Mr. Samson’s gut. He swallowed the bitterness down, stepped from his desk, and surveyed his fiefdom which exuded a sour milk aroma from its stained carpet. The clean surface of the teacher desk belied the impossibility of managing reams of essays, splayed books, and spilt coffee that would soon blanket it. The faux-wood desks stood in six rows and six columns conveying that students focus on the teacher and work alone. Despite the nausea, Mr. Samson smiled at the faded quotations he years ago peppered on the walls. The perennial student favorite was Groucho Marx’s, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
His eyes arrested on the framed certificate behind his desk: “2011 Yuba County Teacher of the Year.” Mr. Samson stared into space and tried to summon that man back. He drained his coffee and opened the large cabinet. Shoved in the back were two one-quart steel pails, a jar of glass marbles, and a matchbox. He reached in, but the first students were at the threshold, so he closed the cabinet door.
In Advanced Placement English Literature, Mr. Samson led students through the classics; his success was framed for all to see. But that was then. Now it was all YouTube and Instagram. When he needed to badger Tier One students to read Huckleberry Finn instead of the SparkNotes, the party was over. He mulled this over for a moment and then his heart sank. What if the students were how they’d always been, and it was he who was different? At the age of 31, hadn’t he simply become a cynical, burnt-out, and extraordinarily rotten teacher?
A hazel-eyed girl strode in wearing an orange Reagan High sweatshirt. She smiled broadly at Mr. Samson who unconsciously touched his wedding ring; many girls liked being in his class, for he had high cheekbones to go with his athletic physique. And the ponytail. Ponytails usually undermine masculinity, but his black-braided rope exuded virility. Occasionally he needed to remind a student that he was the teacher, she was the student, and a Mississippi River of hydrochloric acid separated the two. The ring was an additional Maginot Line of defense. Today he touched skin because he got divorced over the summer.
The first student was followed by a well-coifed dark-skinned girl. The two occupied desks in the front. “This is the first day I’ve been up before eleven in a month,” the second girl complained to her companion. “It should be a felony to have an AP class at eight.”
“Is there a seating chart?” a blue-haired girl sporting numerous piercings called from the doorway.
The questioner’s style advertised rebellion, yet she was ready to sit where an adult commanded. Mr. Samson chuckled at the contradictory nature of teens. Though he despised what his job had become, he still liked kids.
“It’s by height. Shortest front left, then snake around until you reach the tallest by the door.” He pointed to indicate the pattern, and the students moved to where they thought they should sit. The second girl said to her friend, “See ya.”
Mr. Samson felt hazel eyes on him. “You’re kidding, right?”
Of course he was. But with the exception of one, the students complied with his nonsensical command. Bertrand Russell once said, “Men are born ignorant, not stupid. They are made stupid by education.” Mr. Samson didn’t think this was quite right; perhaps what was more true was that school took bright, hopeful kindergarteners and over a period of thirteen years turned them into automatons.
Two tall boys argued who would win the coveted seat closest to the door. Mr. Samson loudly cleared his throat. “Sit where you like, but not by someone who’ll distract you, or by Friday you’ll swear you’ve entered Dante’s Inferno.”
Maybe the magic was coming back; maybe the year would be okay.
“What’s that?” a voice called.
“The video game,” another replied. “Duh!”
After a generation of No Child Left Behind followed by the Common Core, and what did the brightest students know about Dante? He designed video games. Duh.
A t-shirt emblazoned with Jimi Hendrix entered the room on the torso of Bob Marley had Bob Marley been an Asian teen with acne to go with his dreads. He stumbled into the back row; likely he had stumbled into the wrong classroom. Mr. Samson’s eyes lingered on the boy long enough to be a stare which the student caught and held with remarkably clear eyes.
“I heard there’re no study guides in AP Lit.”
True, Mr. Samson hated them. Students would read for themes and plot points picked by the teacher; the book’s genius could not emerge; the student’s spirit untouched. But that was before his job was predicated on rising test scores. Study guides were research-based performance enhancers. They were “best practice.”
“Well, not many.”
The boy flung his backpack on the floor, yet another class to tolerate. The tardy bell rang; Mr. Samson closed his eyes and stood quietly in the front. Few students noticed; most continued their conversations until the vision of a silent teacher brought them to attention. Before losing them to laughter, Mr. Samson opened his eyes and recited:
“Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
They looked engaged. Mr. Samson had hit a towering fly to deep left field. He clicked on the projector; the poem appeared on the screen.
“Perhaps one of you budding scholars can explain the poem?”
The students froze. Shouldn’t he give hints, tell them what to look for? Wasn’t that his job?
Mr. Samson offered nothing. This was a college-level class. The poem wasn’t tough. The silence turned oppressive. Surreptitious texting ceased. His almost home run simply a routine fly out.
Mr. Samson sighed. “See, the poem is like a dilemma…”
The hazel-eyed girl raised her hand which Mr. Samson ignored. Invariably, when he was beginning to lecture, a student would ask to use the restroom. The timing was always the same. Let her wait.
“Teachers want you to love poetry. Poetry is life contemplated and distilled into a few verses of beautiful language. Yet school is more about analysis because that’s what you’re tested on…”
“Like torturing a poem?”
Mr. Samson stopped.
“What’s your name?”
“Delphinia Westergard, but people call me Dell.”
Mr. Samson addressed the class. “I want you to love literature, but many of you take this class because it looks good on your transcript. So I’m also going to teach you—as Dell suggests—to torture poems, so you can pass the AP test.”
Dell asked, “Does ‘press an ear against its hive’ mean listen to its sound?”
“Exactly! The first part teaches how to love poetry. The second part is about analysis. When you analyze something you destroy its magic and stop loving it. Maybe you’ll pass the test, but what do you gain? Is society better off with citizens who analyze rather than love?”
“You aren’t ruining my love for poetry,” Dell’s friend said. “I’m here for the grade bump and college credit.”
“What’s your name?”
“I appreciate your honesty, Poonam.” He turned to the class. “Raise your hand if you feel like Poonam.”
Poonam raised hers and others shyly followed until the overwhelming majority were in solidarity against verse. The bell rang and the students got up to leave. The dejected Mr. Samson trudged to his desk, the beginning of another lousy year. Dell stayed behind.
“I just want you to know that I like poetry a lot.”
Mr. Samson smiled. With a half-dozen Dells, the year would be tolerable. She left and the first English 12 student walked in. Though both classes were for seniors, they were as different as Ted Williams was from Tennessee Williams.
25% of Reagan High students were on the AP track. Besides academics, these Tier One students immersed themselves in extracurriculars, sports, and volunteer work in order to build compelling college applications that four-year colleges and universities could not reject. The Tier Twos took English 12. Their grail was a high school diploma. Since the future demanded higher education, Mr. Samson had been rabid about tier-advancement, but even when he was Teacher of the Year, the number of Tier Twos who climbed to Tier One could barely field an outfield. Mr. Samson could sand and polish a student’s veneer, but the rotted wood of dysfunctional family and poverty that lay below was mostly beyond his skills.
While both classes held nearly three dozen students in 750 square-feet, English 12 felt more crowded. Being within easy striking distance of each other made the class more fun. In the front row sat a girl whose primary distinguishing feature was a large cleavage which she modeled as if extending a hand to show off a two-carat diamond engagement ring. Mr. Samson did not bust her for dress code violation because male teachers were under scrutiny after a math teacher went to prison for sexual relations with a student. As he made his way around the classroom, he repeated male teacher Axiom #1: “Never look at a female student below her neck.”
Instead of beginning the year with poetry analysis, Mr. Samson paired students up and asked, “What’s your favorite song?” They talked music for a minute and then switched partners.
“Next question: if you were an animal what would it be?”
“I’d be an eagle and fly out of this shit hole.”
“I’d be a sloth and sleep all day.”
“Dude, you’re there. How many times did you sleep in Green’s class?”
On the last round, Mr. Samson asked, “What was a meaningful book you’ve read?”
For a moment there was silence, and then, “Wasn’t Tommy Lopez’ two-kegger awesome? I don’t remember a fuckin’ thing!”
“Can you believe we’re seniors!”
“We own this place!”
Books did not register on the Richter scale of their lives. If anyone said, “After reading Night, I learned not to scapegoat minorities,” Mr. Samson would have pulled out one of the pails and lit the entire box of matches.
Mo Samson collapsed into his chair at the final bell, physically, mentally, emotionally drained—a typical first day. He wished he was going home to give Katherine the day’s play-by-play, but the apartment would be empty. Though there had been no “Husband of the Year” framed above their bed, Mo and Katherine were once a good team. But his work troubles spilled into the marriage, and Katherine wanted a trade. If life was a baseball season, Mo started off leading the league in hits, but now the season wasn’t even halfway over, and he couldn’t get on base. He reflected that life might be too damn long, opened a can of beans, and made quesadillas.
After dinner, he checked email; like regular mail, it was mostly junk. He logged onto Facebook. He signed up when Katherine moved out. A half-dozen times was enough to realize it was another worthless time suck. Unlike most of his generation, he didn’t live on the screen. Still, there might be something. His colleague Truck posted: My last first day. 179 more until retirement. I see a Maui cabana on the horizon.
Mo replied: I didn’t see a cabana, just tons of cleavage. This one senior Tracy Smith looks like her aspiration is to be a streetwalker.
Mo pounded Enter. It was his first Facebook reply ever.