Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Calling of Nonsesne

It's 9:30 at night on a Monday evening in early May. It's one of those unseasonably cool nights that pervade the mid-Atlantic early spring. It is a lovely evening, with almost no humidity, clear skies, and the faint, pleasant smell that I can only describe as "damp deciduous forest". These are the kinds of nights you spend outside when you live in Pennsylvania or New Jersey--the kind you relish before the heat and humidity move in and signify summer is here.

I, however, am not outside on this glorious night. I am sitting in the 2nd floor common room of a 9th grade dormitory (or "house", in our quaint parlance here at this institution). I am sitting in a smelly club chair that was last cleaned during the Clinton administration, and I am looking at what appears to be either the nest of of a large, refuse-grazing rodent (a capybara, possibly), or the remnants of a multitude of teenage girls. I'm not ruling out either possibility. My task here, rather than sipping a nice hot mint tea on a terrace somewhere and thinking pleasant thoughts, is to keep 45 girls quiet, in their rooms, and focused on their schoolwork. They, in turn, see their task as to find any daylight within the house rules and to use it to irritate me. It is not exactly a symbiotic relationship. More of a hostage situation--and I'll give you three guesses who the hostage is.

They must ask me to leave their rooms for any reason, though I look the other way if they're using the bathroom. The requests range from the very polite to the indignant. For instance:

"Mr. Roeckle, may I ask Zoe a question about our science homework?"


"Hey, K-Roc, gotta tampon?"

(Stunned silence.)

Nights like these try my patience, as the girls have been absolved from their classes tomorrow for "2nd Form (more of our quaint parlance) Mountain Day"!!! Something about bonding as a grade whilst walking up some glorified earth-pimple. We don't have any actual mountains in this part of New Jersey. I should also remark that the year has 5 weeks left in it, and they've already bonded--something the girls are eager to point out, as in tonight's battle cry: "Why do we have to do this?!? We already made friends!!!" And most of our clientele are not exactly what I would term "rugged". "Roughing it", to this crowd, generally means a townhouse in Brooklyn with only DSL Internet access. And taking a Land Rover to get there.

The girls are also completely undone due to one of our school’s more recent traditions--the campus-wide game known as “Splash”. If you elect to participate (and most do), you are put into a pool with other abiding students and faculty members who are a little too gung-ho for my liking, and you are assigned a “target”. Your task is to “splash” them with water. They are then out. You don’t know who is targeting you.

This year, the game has taken on somewhat of an “Escape from New York” quality--with students hiding in buildings to avoid people, shadowy alliances forming around friends and enemies, and students pouring over campus maps to find unknown ways to get from building A to building B without being left in plain sight. Tonight, one girl was 40 minutes late to check-in (a BIG no-no), because she was hiding in a corner of the history building whilst her attacker and his posse laid in wait. She eventually relented, and was “splashed”. And there was much outcry amongst the residents.

So the ladies are a bit distracted this evening.

If you've never worked in a school, then you probably aren't aware of the total amount of nonsense that goes on in any educational institution. I've worked in three different schools....all had tons of this nonsense. Field days, Congressmen visiting to stump for something, random community events, prom-posals (my latest bane), and testing. My god the testing. Testing for this, testing for that, preparation for testing, changing the schedule for testing, blah blah blah. We teachers always bristled at these things. We bitch and moan about the lost class time, the distracted teenage brain, and say with the ferocity of a Hardshell Baptist reciting the Lord's Prayer..."THIS IS NOT WHAT WE WENT TO COLLEGE FOR!"

It isn’t what we went to college for (generally)...but it is the nature of what we do.

Despite everything going on with our profession, I still think it's a noble one, and most agree. It's as much a calling as it is a profession, much more akin to the ministry than most of us will admit. We knew we'd be underpaid, but we still did it. That's long-established. The first teacher at the great St. Paul’s School was given a house, but no salary and no food, so he decided to teach fishing in order to feed his students and family. I promise you it’s true. Look it up!

We knew we'd be yelled at, challenged, cursed at, and vilified by "upset stakeholders", a common administrator nonsense term for, as I see it, anyone with an email account and a loose connection to the school--students, parents, board members, other teachers, alumni, angry neighbors, the editorial board of the local newspaper, yadda yadda. It happens, and it sucks, but we plod onward. I myself have had to explain and defend the fact that I am a (mostly) competent professional to far too many people for my own liking.

We knew we'd be giving up nights (like tonight), weekends, and holidays for our calling. And we did. For the first six years of my career, I worked on Thanksgiving. ACTUALLY ON THE HOLIDAY. Football games featuring local high school rivals on turkey day is a beloved Pennsylvania tradition. As the marching band director, I had to oblige, much to the chagrin of my family. But these things are what we do.


Because, my friends, we want to do it. And we value it. And despite the vitriolic hatred espoused by those who don’t like teachers, I think the public values what we do more than they realize. I've tried to quit "my calling" many times, and I can't do it. My frequent "it's just a job" mantras never stick. Every time I think "if one more entitled little brat tells me what they think about.....(fill in the blank)....." and I consider losing it en masse, a student comes along with the look of genuine terror in their eyes and says "Mr. Roeckle, I need your help!" And I fold like I'm holding a 2-7 off-suit. "OK," I say, "what can I do to help?"

And with the nonsense of things like “Mountain Day” and a (possibly illegal) campus-wide game comes the good--the successful concerts, the difficult assignments that the students complete with gusto. The unsolicited “thank you” e-mails from parents and students. The little victories.

It's now 10 o'clock, the time we release the girls from their cells--and they usually react accordingly. As I type this, there are four girls screaming about something I care not to know about. It’s either about a boy, something mean-girl related, or something to do with that damned Splash game. The shriek of a 14 year-old girl can cut glass and make local dogs form into packs. It's now time to get them to bed. The nightly jockeying for shower time begins. There are six shower stalls on the 2nd floor, so the girls have to take turns.

“You always go first!!!”

“You take too long and use all the hot water!!”


While this is going on, I start to think about my drive home. One of the peculiarities about boarding schools is that most faculty live on campus, often alongside the students in apartments attached to the student dorms (oops…”houses”). Due to a fluke in the amount of available housing and the amount of needed faculty, I am not a resident faculty member. While I would love a shorter commute, I have no earthly desire to live on our campus. The working/not working line is already blurred for teachers, and geography is one of the few things I have on my side in this matter. Not so for the housemasters--they're on-call virtually every night the boarders are on campus. I myself would rather be the guy who follows the elephants in a circus parade with the shovel than be a housemaster, but the housemaster arrangement appeals to a certain type of person. As they say, it takes all kinds.

I put the key in the ignition of my spartan but reliable Volkswagen (which has just crossed the 150,000 mile mark--hoping to cross 200,000 with it), I start the engine, and I begin the 40 mile trek home. It's basically a straight-shot on Interstate 95 from school to our house. I know every turn, hill, on-ramp, and pothole. The tail lights of the other vehicles have a hypnotic effect, which gets me thinking about why I do what I do, and I don't really have one BIG answer, just a lot of little ones, none of which make a whole lot of sense. But I do it, and will continue to do it.


And again.

And again.

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