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Teacher, I Declare! and other Little Tattle Tales
W. Royce Adams
Santa Barbara: Rairarubia Books, 2002.
$14.95, 220 pages, ISBN: 0-9712206-1-1 (2nd edition).
In the 1960s, Bel Kaufman's painfully funny retelling of her high
school teaching experiences redefined what "stories about teaching"
were supposed to be. Up the Down Staircase told the story of
an idealistic, well educated, young white female who decided her teaching
talents were better put to use in the high schools than in the private
academies. After showing her searing introduction to the privations
and abuses of poorly funded education, the story shares her epiphany
with every person who read the bookteaching is a joy when one
is joyous, regardless of one's surroundings. Kaufman helped show a
lot of readers (47 printings, at last count) what really keeps teachers
in the classroom, and she made the realization a fun and significant
The same cannot be said, no matter the effort expended, about W. Royce
Adams's macabre collection of short stories about teaching. With the
comic title, which sounds like versified playground torture, one would
expect...well, something less deadly. Something more like Kaufman.
Or at least more like Jane Smiley, whose academic farce, MOO,
was funny, blackly realistic, and far less sweet than Kaufman. One
would expect, in other words, a book for teachers that in some way
tells us we're in the right place.
Teacher, Teacher, I Declare! and other Little Tattle Tales
is somewhat disappointing. It is not that there is no humor in this
collection. It is that the only humor here is black, bleak, and morbid.
Adams is a retired college professor, author of some two dozen textbooks
and most recently a line of non-threatening, well-received children's
stories from his own press, Rairarubia Books. Teacher, Teacher
is now in its second edition. And I honestly cannot figure out
why. The first story sets the tone for all the rest: A young high
school teacher, is assigned to lunch time "yard duty" and
learns the hard way who's really in charge. This reveals the lesson:
It is rarely what one does in the classroom that causes problems.
More often, the trauma of teaching is caused by the emotional hangovers
one brings to teaching: worries about money, occasional lusts for
students, the feeling that one has nothing left to offer and no power
to do anything anyway.
It's a truism, naturally, that we generally don't teach for the money.
Underfunded classrooms are the stuff of everyday news coverage, and
the horrors awaiting students and teachers are familiar: violence,
drugs, apathy, ignorance, and parental good intentions are each a
constant threat. And the lives of the teachers are often no better,
since the rare professor who can afford to travel to Spain on holiday
usually discovers, as does one of Adams's protagonists, that his problems
have arrived there before him. Depression in the ranks of high school
teachers is rampantit is a sick irony that fully one half of
American high school teachers survive only one year on the front lines
before retreating. Conventional wisdom suggests that if a teacher
in the public schools makes it through the first year, they're there
for life. Life in a high schoola definition of hell to rival
Sartre's, I think. Surely college is a better experience.
In Adams's stories, however, college professors are just as sad and
desperate as the high school teachers. The students are no smarter
than they were in high school, as one professor, fighting apathy toward
Araby, rants to himself. The long road toward tenure, by way
of publication, overload classes, and smarmy administrators leaves
one professor's family life in the dust. A teacher, worn from her
husband's demands, slaps her daughter for attempting to escape at
midnight through the bedroom windowand then realizes that she
wants to go with the girl the next time she sneaks out. A desperate
history professor hits Vegas and runs the pot to a million dollars
before losing itand his dream of solvencyto a Vietnamese
card shark. Clearly, there's no escape in college teaching, although
it might entitle you to more interesting research areas.
For instance, the effect on "the sex buds" of smoking pot
with students. Not underage students, mind you, a fact of which the
middle-aged hero of this story takes pains to remind himself. And
this is not just an attempt to reclaim his youth. Of course not. This
is, the biology professor tells himself, a unique opportunity to perform
an experiment with his studentand with the girlfriend the student
has brought over, a girlfriend our hero somewhat reluctantly begins
to notice, as in the throes of irresistible dope-munchies they eat
and Sherry [...] we are all three having an orgiastic moment, no words
needed, all in the same place, sharing, communicating at a level I
never knew existed, intimate friends. I love this moment of sharing.
[...] Sherry nods, smiles. She has pie on her face. I reach over and
wipe her chin, lick that finger clean. Yummy. Sherry looks at me.
The look scares me a little. What did I just do? (117)
be fair, one could argue that these stories (the ones that aren't
clichéd) show a range, a scope, a challenge to the norm. Perhaps
they do. One piece starts with a young woman struggling with her Great
American Novel, who is sidetracked by her mutt, Pulitzerwho
then takes over the story and reveals himself to be the reincarnation
of Hemingway's dog. Another is best described as a hybrid of Lewis
Carroll and Stephen King: one Alfred Nipple, sad sack high school
teacher, angrily accuses Coach Windsocky of erasing the chalkboard
despite the block letters reading SAVE... and then A. Nipple vanishes
through the blackboard into what can only be some other dimension.
I could agree that these stories show range. Some of the stranger
stories are in fact the better ones. One old fart of a teacher is
literally an old fart, his uncontrollable flatulence illuminating
his frustration with his philosophy class. And really, the story of
Alfred Nipple and his bitterly scrawled "SAVE!" across every
blackboard in school borders on the farcical after a few readings.
Others, though, are horrible clunkers: the professor of a pop culture
course leaves an extraordinarily violent film, wonders why he likes
it... and is then mugged, stabbed, and left bleeding to death in a
snow-wet parking lot.
Other reviewers have considered this collection "whimsical,"
"sardonic," and "an especially good read." I find
it perplexing and not a little depressing. Teaching seems the excuse
for the bitter joylessness. And finally, we have the answer to the
incongruous title. The full rhyme goes like this:
Teacher, teacher, I declare,
I can see your underwear!
Some are light.
And some are dark.
Oh! I see they leave their mark!
It's not the underwear that leaves a mark. It is teaching that leaves
the skid marks of life on one's most intimate clothing. It is the
students, staring, mumbling, and writing negative evaluations, who
wind knickers into knots. There is no joy in this collection, although
there is a certain relief at the end of it.
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