The seed for this story was planted some time ago, 2013 to be exact. At that time I was teaching High School English and assigned my 11th grade students to read The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (2007). It is an excellent book, which was subsequently made into a pretty good movie (2012) starring Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber, and Keifer Sutherland. One could say that it is a post 9/11 book, but this is only partly true. That event does work it’s way into the story, but it is, in the final analysis, not what the book is about. And on that note, this story isn’t about the book or 9/11!
My first attempt at teaching was not reluctant at all. I was an avid skier in my youth (still am!) and decided to turn that passion into a job as a ski instructor. While I understand that teaching a sport is not anywhere close to teaching in a classroom, there is one similarity: You need to be able to command the attention of a group of people and convince them that you know what you’re talking about. Granted, the stakes are different: A young mind’s edification versus not going over a cliff. Hmmm.
My introduction to academic teaching came much later and as a direct result of reinventing myself for the 5th time (at 34!) by going back to school and completing a B.A. (1989) with a major in English and a minor in Communications. After the requisite congratulations from family and friends subsided, all that was left was the inevitable question: “So, what now?” Indeed, what now? I made it a point to tell everyone, including myself, that I went back to school not to get a job, better or worse than the ones I had previously, but rather to get an education, to broaden my knowledge base, to become a better version of myself. You know, all that bullshit you tell yourself when you really don’t have a clue why you choose to do something, especially like quitting a job, selling a Volvo station wagon, buying my first motorcycle (cheaper on gas) taking on student debt, and graduating with an English degree!
The “what next” question was answered after some intense soul searching, or it may have been some intense drinking, I can’t seem to remember. The minor in Communications came at the tail end of finishing my B.A. and I was really enjoying the classes and had become “friends” with a couple of the professors in part because we were the same age! When one of them asked me the same question as my family and friends, and my response was a shoulder shrug, he said: “Why don’t you do a masters in Communications?” My first reaction (to myself) was no fucking way. Just what I need, more school and more debt. But after some . . .see above, and the same professor telling me that I was sure to be accepted (I had somehow managed to secure a pretty decent GPA), and that I would be able to supplement my income by becoming a T.A. (teaching assistant), the fancy term for indentured servitude, I started my M.A. program in the fall of 1989. And so began my career as a “reluctant teacher/academic.”
Why was it “reluctant” you might ask? Firstly, I never really thought of myself as the “academic” type,” whatever that may be. Secondly, I never thought of myself as a teacher (skiing notwithstanding), But if I am being honest the real reason is that I was an awful student, and all I could think of was a classroom full of “pain-in-the-asses” like myself. Why the hell would I want to subject myself to that? And what better way to answer that question than: “I need the money.” And so it began. I bolstered my courage with the fact that the students I would be teaching were older and less prone to the trappings of teenage hormonal swings, and for the most part I was right. I do, however, remember one incident with a student that still haunts me to this day. This came after my T.A. days and just after completing my M.A. I was now employed by the university as a Sessional Instructor or Adjunct Professor, two more academic terms for indentured servitude! It was the first class of the semester, and I was teaching a seminar course (a three hour class, once a week with approximately 24 students). The course was one that I had devised based on my thesis: “Cyberspace, The Next Frontier.” As I usually did for a first class, I had students put their names on tent cards and I split the class up into groups for discussion purposes. When the students were moving about to join their respective groups, I was approached by this young woman who told me that she did not like working in groups. I said that I appreciated this fact, but this is how the class is going to work for the entire semester, and that if she felt that uncomfortable with this arrangement it might be better for her to find a different class to take. She just looked at me and returned to the table where her group was getting acquainted. I really thought that that was the end of this problem.
The following week I was walking towards the classroom and I could here sort of hushed whispering, which I thought was a bit strange considering how vocal they all were in the first class, all but that woman of course. When I walked into the classroom this is what I saw: Four tables of students in their assigned groups, and one table with the woman in question surrounded by four rather large dolls all with their own named tent cards in front of them! To this day I do not know what kept me from bursting out in hysterical laughter, but I have a feeling it had something to do with the fact that all the other students were just sitting there waiting to see how I would react. I didn’t say a word. I just opened my notes and started my lecture, which I normally did for this type a class, the portion after the lecture and break devoted to class (group) discussion. When it was time for the break, all the students bolted out of the room, leaving myself, the woman and her dolls. I walked over to her table and said: “You have made your point, and now I will make mine; my class has a group discussion component and if that is not acceptable to you I suggest that you find a different class to take.” I then left the classroom. When I came back the students were all returning from break and we all watched as this woman packed up all her dolls and tent cards and left the room, never to be seen again. Teaching is not for the faint of heart!
My next foray into teaching came many years later after moving to the U.S. and reinventing myself yet again. Despite the above mentioned “incident” and some other minor hurdles all teachers experience, I enjoyed my 16 year tenure as an adjunct professor. I enjoyed the scholarship, the research, the academic life (to a point), but most of all I enjoyed the students. With this still fresh in my mind (having pushed to the background my thoughts of why I would want to subject myself to the likes of a student like myself), and wanting to do something different as a teacher, I applied for and was hired for a job as a high school English teacher. This particular school catered to kids that were not neurotypical, but because I was hired after the previous school year had ended, I did not have the opportunity to meet any of the students, so at that point the words “not neurotypical” were just that, words on a piece of paper.
My very first day of this new job I walked into my classroom and even though it was about 10 minutes away from start time, there was one student seated at one of the tables, leaning back on his chair, feet up on the table with a newspaper in front of his face. I walked to my desk, deposited my laptop and papers and sat down. The student ignored that I was in the room and continued to read his newspaper. I vaguely remember clearing my throat as a way of making my presence know, which appeared to have worked because after a short delay the paper slowly lowered and I was greeted with the following: “Just so you know, I don’t care about you, anything you have to say, or what you are going to teach.” And then the newspaper went right back up to cover his face. To say that I was taken aback, is probably an understatement of gigantic proportions, and in that brief moment before I actually responded, this is what I was thinking about saying: “Well, I don’t give a flying fuck what you care or don’t care about, get your fucking feet off my table, your ass out of that chair, and get the fuck out of my classroom.” What I did say: Nothing. Sometimes less is more, and perhaps now you can relate to my reluctance!
Los Angeles 2022