I want to share this cute TED Talk with you. Toward the end of the presentation, the bald presenter takes out a ukulele and plays it in a terribly funny way. I don’t know if my saying that qualifies as a spoiler (and thus I need to officially provide you with a SPOILER ALERT), but if it does and I do need to, then I sincerely apologize for not having done so in the appropriate way and at the appropriate time.
My point is really to write about the ukulele because it reminds me of my own boyhood. For some reason I have no ability to fathom at this time in my life, I wanted, when I was maybe nine years old, a ukulele so badly that I could taste it—even though I never would have actually taken a bite of its wood if offered to do so. But that’s beside the point. More to the point is this: I asked my parents to get me one for Christmas.
Due to the nature of parenthood, most mothers and fathers will do all manner of silly things including going to a music shop and spending real money to buy a thing that looks like a guitar that was born prematurely, which is exactly what my mom and dad did. I remember it came in a little case and included a pick that looked like it was made of felt. The instrument held my interest for maybe three months which was long enough for me to realize two things. First of all, I had absolutely no musical talent whatsoever, and two, playing a ukulele, even though the instrument had been popularized by Tiny Tim, one of the greatest weirdo performers of all time, was one of the most boring ways a person could spend five minutes or ten minutes or whatever time one happened to spend strumming its four strings.
Once this realization came to me, it went back into its case and resided there until it died the horrible death of suffocation.
OK, so none of my story has anything to do with the video, but that shouldn’t keep you from watching it.
Often, when people find out that I’m married to a woman from Egypt, they ask me, “So, how did you two meet?” The following is the story of how I came to know my lovely and talented wife.
I’ll never forget the first time I laid eyes on Azza. It happened on a hot April day in Cairo in 2011. Only months earlier, in January to be precise, the famed Egyptian Revolution, the upheaval which would result in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s long-time dictator, had kicked off and the nation was still jittery and recovering from those cataclysmic events. Anyway, on that fateful April day I happened to have a day off—I’d come to Cairo in August of 2008 to teach at the American University in Cairo—and was working out at the gym at the Community Services Association, a hangout for expats and English-speaking Cairenes. I finished up, toweled the sweat off my body, and left. On my way out of the compound that housed the gym, coffee shop, café, and other CSA facilities, I passed by a group of tables where several women were selling international dishes. Behind them, on the wall they’d positioned themselves in front of, was a big placard that read “Cook’s Day Off.”
I was intrigued so I stopped to have a look. The first woman I happened to notice was someone who looked to be from the Indian Subcontinent. She spoke up and said, “Would you like to buy my Indian food?”
“Maybe. What is all this?” I asked, waving my hand to refer to the spread of food on the tables in front of me.
“We’re with Cook’s Day Off. We sell international food here at CSA twice a week. These are small-sized portions for you to eat when you get home this evening or you can stock your freezer with them.”
“I see,” I said, and then I noticed that there was an Asian woman selling food from Thailand and someone—she didn’t look Italian—hawking perfectly packaged smallish portions of various raviolis and lasagnas as well as tiramisu and some other things I was not able to immediately identify without reading the attached labels.
I began to pace back and forth in front of the tables and look down at all the varieties of food. Suddenly, the woman selling Italian spoke up and asked, “Do you like ravioli?”
“I do,” I said, and then, for the very first time, I looked directly into her eyes.
“Are you Italian?” I asked, thinking, all the while, that she was stunningly attractive.
“No. I’m Egyptian.”
“But you cook and sell Italian?”
“Yes, because I was trained by an Italian chef and partnered with her in the past.”
In the end, being the bachelor that I was and perfectly helpless in the kitchen, I bought a little bit of everything, including two packages of spinach ravioli and two Italian tarts that featured chocolate.
On the way home, I couldn’t get the Egyptian woman out of my mind. I started thinking about how wonderful it would be to go out with her on a date, but how would I ever get to know her name or find a way to make contact with her?
I was on foot, and I suddenly stopped on the crowded sidewalk. People began to jostle into me but I took no notice of them. I reached into the Italian bag and retrieved one of the tarts as I remembered that each package bore a label. I took off my glasses and brought the tart up close to my face so that I could read the fine print right below the production date and list of ingredients. Right there, in black and white, were the words “Azza Omar” and a telephone number. That discovery prompted a huge smile to turn up the corners of my mouth.
I put the tart away and rushed home. As soon as I got inside my apartment, I popped the plastic cover off the tart and cut a slice which I immediately crammed it into my mouth. A plan was forming while I chewed. Immediately upon swallowing, I took out my mobile phone and looked at the label again. I then composed the following text: “Hi. My name is Troy. I just bought two of your chocolate tarts. As soon as I got home, I tried one and it was great. Thank you.” I clicked send as soon as I’d checked it for grammar and spelling errors. I then began to pace back and forth in my kitchen. In about two minutes, she responded, “You are welcome.”
Three weeks to the day after buying tarts from Azza and then texting her, I was sitting in front of my computer in my office on the campus of AUC. My phone was sitting next to me and it rang. When I looked down and didn’t immediately recognize the number, I let it ring until the caller eventually hung up. I had a class to teach in about an hour and was busy prepping for it, so it was easy to ignore the call I’d just gotten. A few minutes later, my phone rang again. It was the same number belonging to the same unknown person. I sighed and then decided to answer it. “Hello,” I said.
“Hi. May I speak with Troy?”
“This is Troy. Who am I speaking with?”
“Azza. You bought some of my Italian food two or three weeks ago.”
“Oh, hi, how are you?”
“I’m fine. And you?”
“I’m good, thanks. I’m sorry but I’m at my work today and won’t be able to come to CSA to buy any of your goodies, but I promise that I’ll come soon and get some more.”
“Actually, I’m not calling about my food. I just wanted to say hello and to see how you’re doing.”
“Really? You’re calling to say hello?”
“You seemed like a nice person when we met, so I thought I would see how you’re doing.”
“You seemed nice too. Hey, would you like to meet in Maadi sometime for coffee or a Coke or something?”
“I’d really like that,” she said.
“I’d like it too. How about this coming Thursday at six or seven in the evening? Would that be a good day and time for you?”
“That would be great. As it just so happens, I’ll be in your neighborhood at exactly that time to deliver an order to a customer. I also cater and do a lot of parties, especially for Italians.”
“That sounds interesting.”
“It is. Anyway, Thursday evening is fine.”
“Great! Let’s meet at CSA then.”
“CSA is perfect.”
So, that’s how things got started between the two of us. The rest, as they say, is history…
When Azza and I moved from Cairo, Egypt, to San Antonio, Texas, USA, we didn’t bring a lot with us. Actually, I take that back. We transported a hellacious load of boxes, via a cargo container that was loaded into ship that had dropped anchor in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, but that lot didn’t include much furniture. So, when we set up house in SA, we lived a Spartan existence for a while.
We did not despair about our lack of furnishings. Instead, for months now, on weekends, beginning early every Saturday morning, we rise and shine to make the rounds at garage sales, yard sales, parking lot sales, estate sales, and any other kind of retail enterprise, large or small, where folks hawk previously owned goods at affordable prices. We learn about these buying opportunities via the World Wide Web, on this site and this one. We also locate them by sheer accident as we drive around and through the sprawling metropolis that is San Antonio.
I have to admit that this sort of shopping beats the hell out of a visit to IKEA or some such place. I am particularly fond of estate sales even though I always feel a little sinful—that might not be exactly the right word, but it’s close—while picking up and handling a family’s once-cherished possessions. Poking my nose into their bedrooms, bathrooms, living rooms, dining room, kitchens, and private crawl spaces invariably leaves me feeling a bit like an impertinent ogler. For example, if I walk into a home where the owner had an obsession for footwear—there are plenty of houses that are simply stuffed to the rafters with an obscenely large number of pairs of women’s shoes—I always feel like I’ve discovered a family secret that the inhabitants would have preferred not to have become common knowledge.
Estate sale shopping is always a little sad, too. I invariably run across wheelchairs, walkers, and packets of unopened adult diapers, the tell-tale signs of deterioration and demise. I often find that my eyes fixate on these items as my mind tries to conjure an image of the person (or persons) who used them. I then turn away and wander into a new room, one where the walls are decorated by dusty black-and-white photos of people I’ll never know and who are probably long gone and forgotten.
Not long ago, while the two of us were walking down the hallway of a particularly large house that was simply bursting at the seams with stuff, Azza stopped me dead in my tracks by grabbing my arm. “Troy, promise me one thing,” she said with a troubled look on her face.
“What’s that?” I asked her.
“When we die, you’ll never let anyone open up our house in this way.”
“OK,” I said.
She then let my arm go and we continued moving from room to room, picking up a few purchases as we went along.
Life takes some incredible twists and turns. About a million years ago, I was born in San Antonio, Texas, a city that’s a little bit America and a little bit Mexico, and then, back when I was still pooping in diapers, mom and dad carried me off to Garland, a suburb of Dallas. Over the decades, I have had one or two opportunities to return to my birthplace, but only as a tourist and only for very brief visits. Mostly, I’ve been estranged from the locale that could rightfully be called my hometown.
Then, in the latter days of September of 2015, a few months after I’d left my post at The American University in Cairo, a very sudden job offer in San Antonio came my way while Azza—my Egyptian wife of five years and new America émigré—and I were camped out with family, in their guest bedroom, in another part of the Lone Star State. Of course, I signed on the dotted line, right where my new employer told me to. We then loaded up, headed to south Texas, down where the beautiful language of Spanish is ubiquitously spoken, and set up house.
All these years later, I am back in San Antonio, the place where I (literally) got my start. From time to time, when I’m tooling around the city, I get this weird déjà vu feeling. As a matter of fact, this past weekend, Azza and I went to the San Antonio zoo, and while standing in front of the flamingo cage, I had this odd sensation that I had stood in this exact spot before. The bird scene before me seemed bizarrely familiar. I lifted my camera, took a few photos of the pink, hook-nosed birds, while goosebumps rose on my arms.
We spent three hours among the animals and enjoyed our time more than I can accurately articulate here. I’ve always been a nut for creatures—this nuttiness was especially acute when I was a tyke—and I felt that old delight resurface as we moved from cage to cage. For some reason, on this particular outing, I especially liked the fish in their various watery enclosures. They swam past us, flashing a zillion neon colors as they went. In fact, I was so captivated by them it took me a while to actually notice that in one particularly large aquarium there were two hippos, their grotesquely large bodies magnified by the water, floating among those finned and gilled darters.
I’ve included a few photos here and am upset with myself that I didn’t get a good shot of the gibbons as they swung through the treetops, picked insects off on another, and otherwise reminded me of how humanlike they are. While watching them do their monkey business, I got so enthralled—my mouth was probably agape—that I simply forgot to lift my camera and click the shutter.
I think I’m having a midlife crisis. Some men, when they find themselves in a similar situation, go out and buy themselves a toupee or a snazzy sports car, but that’s not my way. My way is to sit down and write about my life as a teacher. I guess you could say that this blog has become therapy.
It’s funny (and a little scary too) how big of a role the workplace plays in turning us into the human beings we eventually become. My work certainly has played a key role in causing this crisis I’m facing.
This morning, when I was getting ready to step into the shower at 5 a.m. to get ready to go to work, I started thinking about my retirement. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the day when I can finally walk away from the classroom. That thought led to a memory of a conversation I recently had with a fellow who teaches at my current place of employment. He is seventy and still coming in, every day, to put in his six hours up in front of students. When I asked him about retirement, he said, “I tried that, for a while, but got bored, so I decided to start working again.”
FYI: Words you will never hear coming out of Troy Headrick’s mouth: “I got bored with retirement so I went back to work again.”
Yes, I’m sure I’m having a midlife crisis. I know this because I have little patience for silliness at work. I also have little tolerance for people who want to preach to me about how I should be doing my job. These “experts” are often about the age my children would be, if I had children. Lately, it’s been students who’ve been offering this “advice.” Would I use “anger” to describe my current mindset? Not really. I’m more like exasperated.
Lots of teachers end up getting beaten down by what our education system has become. Actually, come to think of it, it’s “schooling” that’s the problem, not education. There are important differences between the former and the latter. The former is what drives so many teachers crazy. Education is pure and wonderful. It sets us free. Schooling enslaves us. It turns us into bureaucratic idiots who have crises. The distinctions between these two is further clarified in this very interesting letter, written by Gerald J. Conti, a long-time teacher who finally decided to throw in the towel, primarily because schooling today is “data driven” and emphasizes teacher “conformity, standardization, testing, and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core.” Conti also points out that “creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation are being stifled.”
One of the things that has bothered me over the years is this: Back when I was a serious learner, when I was in college and grad school, I could honestly say that I was engaged in something noble and enriching. But not long after I became a teacher, especially at the college and university levels, I got caught up in a system that was far too often dispiriting and demeaning. Like Conti, I had to begin focusing on petty things, which turned me into a petty person. Too much of my time was spent on learning how to navigate the territory of the academic department I was working for without getting into trouble. As a result, I got good at acting like a robot and playing workplace politics but almost forgot how to read and think. Meanwhile, I’d been hired to do reading and thinking with my students.
Right here, I’d like to insert an important qualifier. My current place of employment, the institute I’ve been working at for nearly half a year, has hired me to “train,” not “teach,” even though I work in a classroom. This difference in terminology suggests something important. There is not even a hint of pretentiousness at my new gig. What I do is very mechanical and straightforward, and thus the expectations are crystal clear. This allows administrators to be a lot more honest with me, and I, in return, can be honest with myself and my students. And, as the old saying goes, honesty is the best policy.
The university taught me how to think critically and to cherish such thinking. Then I went to work and listened to a zillion school administrators speak emotively about the importance of instilling critical thinking in students. (By the way, those who practice critical thinking are, de facto, required to question everything and to accept practices, ideas, and beliefs only after they have survived a very withering scrutiny.) This double standard—critical thinking is a good thing to ask others to do and to apply to everything except us and our institution—puts teachers in a bind. They are torn between the way they have taught themselves to live and think and how their bosses tell them to live and think. My last sentence raises an important point: Being a critical thinker is about how one lives in the world and interacts with reality. It is a mode of being. Critical thinking is not something I turn on and off like a light switch. I live it all the time.
I can see that I’m doing a little critical thinking right now and wonder if I should be praised or chastised for doing so?
That’s a very good question, one I’ll have to ponder awhile. As I do so, I can feel my crisis deepening…
There were ten of us in Professor Randall’s philosophy class. The room could easily have seated fifty, so we were pretty spread out. It’s likely most of us were trying very hard to remain aloof (and perhaps even invisible) by putting as many desks as possible between ourselves and our nearest neighbors.
I, on the other hand, chose a seat right next to a buxom coed named Linda Louise Gartman, a nineteen-year-old from Iraan, Texas (spelled just like the Ayatollahs’ place but with an additional “a”). Her daddy owned a hardware store there—or maybe it was a Dairy Queen?—and she was studying business to prepare herself to partner up with him someday. Most of the other students were male—snuff-dipping types who likely drove pickups that sported Confederate flag decals—and were majoring in agriculture or some such. As for me, I was “undeclared” which is a collegiate way of saying “confused.” I had no idea what sort of work I’d be doing in the future and would have been shocked silly had anyone suggested that I’d end up being a teacher a few years into the future.
I chose my place in class because I liked Linda’s dirty-blond hair and the way her shirts fit. On about the second or third class meeting I put together a masterplan which involved me telling her my name and then saying a few perfectly chosen words that would cause her to fall in love with me. On the day I was to put my scheme into motion, I arrived early to class, slid into the desk next to her, and then froze up. No utterance would leave my mouth no matter how much I tried to push it out. Still, the sheer possibility that I might speak to her made me so hot and bothered that I had heart palpitations throughout the remainder of the class period.
The book the professor had us buy was full of excerpts from the great philosophy texts of yore. Not long into the semester, she assigned a piece that contained the “Allegory of the Cave,” from Plato’s Republic, a text I highly recommend—I count it as one of the hundred most important books ever written. After reading and then discussing it, I could see that the ancient Greek philosopher had had people like me in mind when he wrote it. I was certainly one of those who’d been exposed, up until that point in time, to mere “shadows” flickering dimly upon a wall. In his allegory, Plato was arguing that philosophy can free our minds and lead us out of darkness and into the “sunshine” of greater enlightenment. The idea that I had spent my entire life living in a cave of ignorance caused my head to explode.
I’ve spent so much time on Dr. Randall’s course because it was pivotal. It was the beginning of the beginning for me. It was the class that inspired me to start thinking about what it might be like to live the life of a thinker. To do so, though, I’d have to continue to read texts that would challenge my existing worldview and so I’d have to register for other courses of a similar type. The class was also the end of the beginning. After my introduction to philosophy, there was no way I could remain an intellectual child. I was no longer willing to accept the conventional wisdom—passed off as genuine wisdom—that authority figures had been feeding me all my life.
The course was also memorable for two weird occurrences. The first happened when Dr. Randall asked me to read aloud in class on day. I started off fine, but once I began to take notice of my voice being projected out into quiet space of our classroom, I became queerly self-conscious and terrified in a way I cannot fully put into words. I began to choke up and could barely complete the reading. Luckily, Linda was absent that day. The second weird experience had to do with the young woman I’d been so attracted to from day one. Right at the end of the term, after nearly four months had passed without me saying much at all to the object of my desire, I made Linda an offer—I sort of blurted it out, really. I told her I’d be happy to drive her back to her dorm room if she was headed that way. She then smiled and said, “Would you really do that? That’s so sweet! Yes, I’ll take you up on the offer.” We then loaded up into whatever jalopy I happened to be driving at the time and took off.
After a short trip, I pulled up into a parking spot right behind what was called “The Women’s High Rise.” Linda gave me this telling look and said, “Thank you, Troy. You’re so sweet! I’m sorry I didn’t say this to you earlier,” shortly before leaning over and giving me a kiss on the cheek. Needless to say, I felt completely flabbergasted. After gathering my wits, I drove absentmindedly away. Because the term was almost over, I saw her once or twice more, but then, after the final exam, never again.
I graduated from little Forsan High, in Forsan, Texas, way back when. To say the school was small is like saying that the Sahara Desert is a large area of land covered by sand.
There were twenty-one of us who received diplomas during commencement. It took the superintendent of schools—my mother had married the man not long after our arrival in West Texas so he was actually my step-father at the time—less than five minutes to call all our names and to distribute the fancily printed certificates of accomplishment. We then congregated in the vestibule of the auditorium, with our parents and the other guests still seated inside, and screamed our class chant, a thing we had artfully composed all by ourselves. It was basically an expletive-laced manifesto of how we’d just freed ourselves from tyranny and were about to conquer the world with our brains and good looks.
Of course, it took the world about five minutes to distribute all sorts of humbling experiences, which let us know, in no uncertain terms, that our existences actually meant nothing in the larger scheme of things no matter how clever or pretty we considered ourselves to be.
I left home and enrolled in a little university called Angelo State, located in San Angelo, Texas, which was just down Highway 87 from Forsan. I mostly went there because Dwayne Norton, my best friend in high school, had graduated two years earlier and was beckoning me to join him. That plus the town was loaded with bars and discos I really dug with an added bonus being that many of them featured twenty-five-cent-tequila-shot nights on a regular basis.
Up until that point in my life, I had been a good student, but not the sort who consulted with guidance counselors and such. In fact, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up—I still haven’t come up with any definitive conclusions yet—so I wasn’t one of these kids who goes to college with a plan and then follows it religiously. It was more important that I be near Dwayne and in a location where I could party like it was 1999.
I started off at ASU by taking a weird collection of courses that were all over the map. Then, just before the start of my second term, I needed to register for an elective, so I looked at the choices I was offered and picked a class called “Introduction to Philosophy.”
Our professor—I can’t precisely remember her name—but I can perfectly recall how she looked and spoke, was a woman from Belgium, which likely made her the first European I ever had contact with. Her last name might have been Randall—that doesn’t sound terribly Belgian though—and her first one could have been Janine or Jeanne. Anyway, she also taught French in the Department of Foreign Languages.
OK, so I’ll call her Professor Randall. She was probably about in her mid-40s at that time and had greying, curly hair. She wore plastic framed glasses, with thick lenses that magnified her eyes, which was very appropriate because she was able to see so much in the texts we read for class. She spoke with a slightly pinched and nasally voice and a strong French accent. But the thing about her I found most intriguing was her absolute courage. She said things in class that were brave and intended to shake our tiny bodies and minds to their cores—we were, after all, mostly kids from little towns who had never been exposed to any sort of real thinking or ideas in our entire lives.
I suppose it was her job to sort of pull the rug out from under us and she succeeded in that mission. I guess I’m being presumptuous speaking for my classmates—perhaps they all just sat there like giant, single-celled organisms and closed their minds to her talk and the texts—but I soaked it all up like a sponge that had never sipped a drop of water but had been waiting and waiting for the opportunity to do so.
Professor Randall kept pouring out those liquid ideas and I kept absorbing them so fast that I could feel that my mind was bloating. But it never did reach the point of supersaturation. There was always room to take in more and more.
Before I tell you the full story of how I had my mind blown at college, I want to let you know that I’ll be voting for Bernie Sanders for president this year. Yes, I am truly and wonderfully feeling the Bern—as are tens of millions of other citizens!
What does this political confession have to do with this essay and memoir? Aren’t I in danger of losing my focus by veering off like this?
Not in the least! I’m at least partly a Sanders supporter because he seems to understand what many other candidates do not—that the President of the United States has to be the nation’s educator-in-chief.
We take for granted that all American presidents have an important military job to play when we refer to them as the commander-in-chief. We also understand that they have a vital role in keeping America’s economy humming along. It certainly goes without saying that the head of the executive branch of government has a myriad of other duties to play.
What we often don’t realize is that perhaps his most important job of all is to help the populace better understand the world in which they live. This makes him or her—I hope we have a woman president very soon, but just not during this election cycle—the teacher of greatest importance and outreach in this large and complex nation-state.
It is perfectly clear that Sanders understands all this. That’s why he expends so much energy telling the electorate things that make so many so uncomfortable. That’s why he speaks about how out of balance America has become and about how the super-rich have rigged the political and economic game so that the remaining 99 percent of us have found ourselves incredibly marginalized.
In a sense, Sanders is not saying anything that many of us don’t already viscerally understand to be true. But to watch someone running for president break such a taboo—to suggest that America has a variety of fundamental shortcomings—is downright cathartic. Most politicians talk about the country in syrupy, self-congratulatory ways that some interpret as “patriotism,” but Sanders shows us that all is not well in paradise. In fact, his critique raises questions about the very notion that America is an “exceptional” country.
To see so many responding to Sanders so positively suggests that the nation is ready for such an explainer-in-chief. Sanders happened along at a moment in American history when a large segment of the population was feeling self-reflective and ready to accept uncomfortable truths. Learning is often a painful process whereby the learner has to give up old habits and beliefs in exchange for growth. The nation appears ready to make this tradeoff, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
I grew up just north of a tiny community called Georgetown, Texas, a sleepy place of approximately five thousand inhabitants. The nature of the village was such that it was easy for its citizens to live dreamy lives.
I have vivid recollections of the town, as it used to be before it became fast-paced and congested, before it became Austin’s premier bedroom community. Today, the town—it’s more of a city really—is on fire with development. The few old-timers who still live there speak wistfully of a slower and simpler past.
But, back in the day, it was a quiet village, filled with grand Victorian houses that were shaded by tall pecan trees. There was a stop sign or two and maybe a traffic light. People got their groceries at the little Piggly Wiggly and their clothes at Gold’s Department Store on the square. There were a handful of churches and every family attended one. The schools weren’t crowded, nor did they resemble the fortresses of security that we so frequently see today when we drive past one. I guess it was pretty much Central Texas’ version of Mayberry R.F.D. I realize I’ve dated myself some with that reference to The Andy Griffith Show spin-off. I remember a slew of other programs that are part of the lore of 1970s television. Such is the memory of a man my age.
When my parents broke up, I moved, with my mom and brother, to Forsan, Texas, with the result being that I left my life in a small town to start anew in an even tinier one.
The point of all this is that I came of age in conventional places where people never dreamed of entertaining thoughts that were the least bit radical. Most citizens of Georgetown or Forsan didn’t even know what they didn’t know. The vast majority of children grow up similarly, I suppose, in places like I’ve described. It is universally true that the family and the local community give us our shape. By “shape,” I also mean our “limits.”
When I went off to university, I was a small-town boy who was intellectually stunted due to no fault of my own. But because of the influence of those individuals I mentioned in my previous blog, I was also the fertile ground into which the seeds of all sorts of new ideas could be planted. So, when I registered for classes like philosophy, political science, sociology, psychology, and literature, strange flora began to sprout and the terrain of my mind was changed forever.
1986 was my rookie year. All these years later, I’m still in the teaching game. You could easily refer to me as a grizzled veteran without running the risk of exaggerating. You might also call me an old crank. I’ll answer to pretty much anything.
All these years of experience have provided me with ample opportunities to think about my profession, and I’ve even had an insight or two while doing all this cogitating. For one, it seems that there are basically two types of teachers: Those who chose to get into the profession and those who happened into it by sheer accident. This second bunch I call “Accidental Teachers.” As the title of my essay and memoir makes clear, I certainly consider myself a member of the latter group.
Not long ago, during a Thanksgiving get together, I had a conversation with Betty, the wife of one of my cousins. Several months prior to this talk she had completed her degree in education and was now teaching at Central High School in San Angelo, Texas. She told me all about how her new job was going, what her students were like, and stuff like that. She also revealed that she had always dreamed of being a teacher. When I heard her say this last bit, about she’d always wanted, from the cradle onward, to stand up in front of students and spout, I felt momentarily dumbstruck. It was because her experience was so different from my own. Once this first feeling passed, I felt as if I wanted to congratulate her. She had dreamed of doing the very thing she had ended up doing. I would imagine that’s a pretty rare accomplishment in these United States of America, which might explain why so few people are really happy about the work they do.
Unlike Betty, I had not always (or even ever) wanted to work in the classroom. I had grown up wanting to learn, though, and I owe several members of my family a huge debt for having helped me become the curious person I’ve always been. First of all, there’s my mother, a woman who brought me into this world and then proceeded to carry me around when I was a wee tyke. While doing so, she would point at things and help me really see them for the first time. She would then tell me what these objects were called. I am almost certain this is why I later became so intrigued by words and language and such. Secondly, my father, the dreamy artist and philosopher, helped me learn about the power of the mind and the will to create new and beautiful things. From him, I learned quiet introspection and deep observation. Thirdly, my maternal grandfather, a man now dead for many years, instilled in me a love of current events. He was an opinionated fellow who loved to reason and make arguments. Even though he had little formal education, I still, to this very day, think of him as one of the most influential people I’ve even known as far as my intellectual development is concerned. For example, he instilled in me a deep fascination with politics and international affairs.
These individuals prepared me well to enter school and do well once I got there. I grew up a pretty capable kid, and then I went off to college and fell in love with studying all manner of esoteric subjects. It was this fascination which became a double-edge sword. It both set me free and left me enslaved.