Why I’m Quitting “The Calling” of Teaching
My mother is a painter—her preferred medium is watercolor, and her preferred subject matter is abstract color studies. Though she does not make a career of it, she pursues this art as her passion, and she is quite talented and very creative. Her career was (and remains) in business—as the showroom manager of a lighting and electrical supply wholesaler. This, however, was not her first career. Previous to my being born, she was an art teacher at a local middle school. Family—especially raising one—has a way of interfering with a career.
To keep her skills sharp, my mother maintained a long-time relationship with a local painting teacher, a very nice woman who was married to an Episcopalian priest at a very large, very “old-money” congregation in one of the better ZIP codes in Berks County. My mother and I were invited to dinner at their house one time, not long after Watler had retired. We expected a short blessing before the meal—Walter being a priest, and all. Walter waved his hand and said something like “Oh…..nonsense. Let’s enjoy the food.”
Flabbergasted as we were, some conversation followed about what it’s like to be a “man of God”. The gist of it was this—for he, and a startlingly high number of his priest colleagues, the “life of the cloth” began as a calling…and ended as just a job. Walter, a gifted storyteller, recounted a story of the first time he realized what was really going on.
In his first year at Our Lady of Compound Interest, a wealthy congregant approached him and asked if he would perform a ceremony to bless…his new car. Wanting to please, Walter found some Biblical passage about “Carriages of Jehovah” and fumbled through the motions at the very WASP-y occasion. Unbeknownst to him, he had now opened up the floodgates to blessing everything from boats to sets of new china. One by one, these blessing ceremonies became less and less special and more and more routine, as person after person trotted out their new acquisition for Walter to bestow upon it the blessing of the Lord.
“And then”, he said as his eyes widened, “then came the pets.” I should pause here to say that, having been raised Roman Catholic, the idea of blessing ANYTHING beyond food, communion hosts or wine is a completely foreign concept to us. Things were just that…things. And since the Catholic Church has maintained a hardline stance about animals having no soul, you’re not likely to find a priest officially blessing little Fido or Spot or Brumhilde anytime soon. Back to Walter’s tale of tails—these pet blessings became a big event, usually planned in conjunction with St. Francis’s day. People would bring all of their furry friends to church, they would prance them up to the altar, Walter would do the blessing, and everyone would adjourn for a lovely brunch in the social hall. The only one who complained was the church’s cleaning lady.
“Don’t get me wrong”, he said, “I was happy to do it. But I entered this world to save souls and help people.” And here he was blessing cars, cats and catamarans. He remained dedicated to the job, but his feelings about people’s faith had faded. He finished his 40-some years on the pulpit loyally and (irony intended) faithfully, but what was initially a calling had become a work-a-day job.
I recount Walter’s tale now, as I have had this moment in my own life as a teacher of music. Any serious teacher (of any subject) will tell you that to get into this crazy job, you have to have a calling of sorts. Yes, we’ve all heard of failed performing musicians “falling back” on teaching, but those are few and far between, and they generally don’t last very long. I genuinely entered teaching with a passion for educating others, my life having been truly enriched by what was (in retrospect) a very remarkable education. (It was also an education that was free of NCLB and the “Reform” movement, but that’s a different op-ed piece.)
I, like many other millenials, inspired by Bill Gates and spurned on by Nickelodeon, started our post-9/11 careers wanting to go out and make the world better. We were not going to sit at a desk and pound out widgets and collect our zagnuts at the end of the week, no sir! We were here to IMPROVE THINGS! As teachers, we were the standard-bearers of this philosophy—we must smartify the children!!! Help those less fortunate…get jobs in poor, inter-city schools where their only hope is education!!! Blah…blah…blaaaah……………….
I started my career with this mentality…these children are going to be made better by music, and I’m going to do it the RIGHT way! Grades, mundane tasks and routines be damned, this is about EDUCATION and ART! I even committed what was almost professional suicide by leaving a good suburban job to take a questionable urban job, because I was that much of a fighter and the needier the population the better! I’m SUPERTEACHER!!!!!
It wasn’t long before the complaints started rolling in (I’m sure you’re surprised). Grades weren’t high enough, the music was too hard, you don’t teach a real subject so back off ‘cuz no one cares, stop encouraging them as there’s no money or future in this, stop teaching that black music, stop teaching that WHITE music, yadda yadda yada……….
Maybe it was one too many excuses about missing rehearsals, not practicing, or hearing time after time that their English essay was more important than the piddly amount of homework I give. Maybe it was one too many parent complaints about how I don’t see how special their son/daughter/other was. Maybe it was one too many a tiff with a colleague about how to do things or how NOT to do things. Maybe it’s one too many a politician or policy-maker bitching that my profession is glorified babysitting. …Or maybe it’s me. Whatever the case, my “calling” has jumped the shark…and looking for it has turned me into a depressed, anxious, overworked, underappreciated, irascible CRAZY man. Two hospitalizations for an irregular heartbeat later, and it’s time to make some changes. Forever more, it will be “just a job”, ala Walter’s pet-blessing escapades.
Let me be clear—you can still be good at “just a job”…and I will be.
You can still be dedicated to “just a job”…and I am.
You can still put in the extra effort for “just a job”…and I can, have and will.
So what’s changing? Nothing...on the outside. I’ll still be teaching, conducting, performing, and (first and foremost) helping those in my charge. But this all ends at the end of the day. My emotions about the day (what remain) will be left scattered along the interstate as I drive home. I care about the students, of course, but reasonable boundaries will be drawn, posted, AND OBSERVED. From now on, “Mister” Roeckle hangs up his corduroy sport coat after class and that’s that. The next time “the calling” happens, it will be met with a busy signal.
The “S” on my chest has vanished—which begs the question: was it ever there? Probably not.
I’ve blessed my last car.