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Teacher, 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).

Megan O'Neill
Stetson University


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 book—teaching 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 one.

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 rampant—it 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 school—a 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 window—and 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 it—and his dream of solvency—to 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 student—and 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 strawberry pie:

Greg 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)

To 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, Pulitzer—who 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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