"I'm just trying to teach you something, goddammit!" she screamed hoarsely through a flood of exasperated tears. "Why do you make everything so difficult?"
My seventh grade English teacher Ms. Adams had snapped. That would turn out to be just the first meltdown that school year. Seeing her in the midst of a full-blown ugly cry while 13-year-olds were picking on her relentlessly was brutal. I wasn't one of them, but in no way did I attempt to defend her. Are you kidding? Teenage girls are the planet's cruelest creatures! I didn't want to incur their wrath.
Years later, I'd realize Ms. Adams was long over the job by that point. I never got the impression that teaching was her passion, and maybe that didn't help her reach her students. It made me realize one thing: I never wanted to be a teacher. It seemed like the scariest job in the world.
Eighteen years later, I was standing in front of a classroom of juniors at a school in Southeastern San Diego doing my best impression of Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. My good friend, Michelle (not Pfeiffer), teaches English at the school. One night over drinks we talked about me leading a lesson on journalism for her students. "That would be super fun!" I said, in the throes of a wine buzz. Once I sobered up panic kicked in. Oh, God. Are they going to Adams me?
The school has a history of gang activity and moderate graduation rates. Situated in an underserved community made up of mostly Latino and black people, it's a school that desperately needs people who believed in these kids, and support from the district. It eventually got both, and has become a prep academy with a 100-percent graduation rate. (This is your cue to well up in tears.)
Michelle and I created a lesson plan that would be informative, interactive, and most importantly, interesting enough to hold a bunch of teenagers' attention. I'm not sure what that means anymore. Talk about Drake? Is Drake cool? I mean, I like Drake. I'm cool, right? Right?
Michelle assured me that her students were sweet and we'd get along wonderfully, but I was still nervous. High school has a way of leaving you with lifelong PTSD. I brought the students mini notepads and pencils (a journalist starter pack, if you will) as a gift, which in hindsight seemed like handing out toothpaste at Halloween or condoms at a fertility clinic.
"Alright, everyone," called out Michelle. "It's time to honor. Who's going to lead?" A young man named Jose volunteered. The students all tucked in their shirts and Jose said aloud, "Everyone please make eye contact with Ms. Zaragoza and repeat after me, 'Good afternoon, Ms. Zaragoza.'" The students chimed their honor. I immediately got a massive attack of the feels. They then honored Michelle and their other teacher, Mr. Suh. Michelle told me they do this at the beginning and end of every class to instill the importance of respect.
Despite my nerves and a pool of sweat building up on my back (the school is last in line with the district for AC units so the room was about 90 degrees), I spoke to the students about the vital role of the journalist, why it's not only necessary but also fun to observe the world around you and share what you find; how a journalist can affect change and all that other stuff that keeps us journos trudging on despite the shit pay. More than anything, I wanted them to know that their voices matter. I also told them a story about getting attacked by geese when I was a kid, which got a collective response of "cool story, bruh."
Writers and teachers aren't too different. Teachers grind every day to educate and inspire, for little financial reward. We do this work because we believe it matters. We start off wanting to make the world better, and some eventually get tired and stop caring. I can't speak for everyone, but Michelle and I never want to reach that level of resignation. During my lesson, one kid remarked to Michelle that, "teaching is easy." She laughed and I let him know that I've been there for 45 minutes and am already exhausted.
I asked the students to write two short pieces—an unbiased report on an event or hobby, and an opinion piece on the same topic. Many struggled to come up with something to write about. When asked what they do for fun they'd shrug and say "nothing." Teenagers, right? With a little prodding and coaching though, they not only had interesting stories to tell but also shared them openly. It was awesome.
Then I lost them. By fifth period, they were falling asleep, succumbing to the overbearing heat in the classroom. You can't blame them. I would have taught the lesson from the inside of a kiddie pool filled with ice-cold, $8 chardonnay, but apparently that's frowned upon.
At the end of my lesson, a kid named Bryan came up to me holding the little notepad and pencil I'd given out, and said he thinks he'd like to be a journalist. He asked for my email so he could ask me questions, and I gave it to him. A few days later, Michelle would tell me the kids were still carrying the notepads. A week after that I got thank you cards in the mail that were incredibly sweet. One note especially touched my heart. It read: "You're so cool and stay away from geese! Love, Tony."
I don't think teaching is scary anymore.
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