By Gregory Keer
Yes, I've been completely faithful to my wife. No, she has not been earning frequent-flyer miles at our local maternity ward.
In my work as a high-school English teacher, I see the students as "my kids." While they're with me, I'm their guide and protector. It's a ton of responsibility, but they do go home to their real parents at the end of each day.
I didn't know I was going to teach. For 15 years, I focused on being a writer, working odd jobs as I scribbled words, hoping to be discovered. After yet another heartbreaking end to a writing gig, my wife showed me an ad for an English instructor. It was not a subtle hint. I needed to hold up my end of the income and steady work had become more important with two kids to feed.
As necessary as a paying job was, and as noble as teaching seemed, I had serious doubts. Although I had an English degree and a master's in film, the only classroom experience I had was as an aide with elementary-school students in the early '90s. Those kids ate me alive. The sight of me backing down from a fourth-grader who yelled, "I don't have to listen to you, Mr. Keer," was not pretty.
And why would I want to return to high school? Wasn't it enough that I spent four years barely passing algebra classes and rehearsing small talk in my head before striking out with the girls of my dreams?
So, when a small private school took a chance on me, I spent the first semester scared to death. Every day, I walked into class thinking, "What if they find out that I'm a fraud? What if they discover that I don't know a synonym for 'subterfuge' or why Mark Twain chose to exclude a certain chapter from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?"
But as time wore on, my lessons got better, thanks to the mentorship of my dedicated colleagues. I also saw my students for what they were: kids, not unlike myself a couple of decades ago, with all the same insecurities of adolescence. I thought about my biggest regret from those teenage years: I wished I were more trusting of others and more open about myself.
With visions of Robin Williams in Dead Poets' Society dancing in my head, I cracked jokes (most of them awful) and let the students lead the discussions with me refereeing to keep them within the lines of our academic goals. The kids learned that I was on their side, that I was far from all-knowing, that I failed more often than I succeeded. They also found out that identity is a work-in-progress.
As I head toward the winter break of my fourth year in the classroom, I feel richly rewarded. Certainly, teaching can be brutal. I slog through umpteen papers when my sons go to bed. I stress over lesson plans on weekends. I go on school retreats for 24-hour supervision and back-to-school nights to assure parents that their children are in good hands. I watch kids get lost in temptations and skate through portions of their life on the board of entitlement.
But I haven't done it alone. I have a family who cheers me on, employers who give me resources, and school parents who value my efforts. I also have the honor of working with fellow teachers who spend innumerable hours planning and implementing ways to prepare each individual child for the world outside.
Then there are the students, who have lavished me with more validation than I thought possible. There was the student who wrote a letter to say that he had never read a novel before and, now, because of his experience with one of my assigned books, he hasn't stopped reading. There was the former student who told my new kids that my class was the one she looked forward to every day. And there was the girl who took a picture of something I scrawled in chalk about finding "magic" in life.
Teaching has indeed been magical. So, with the holidays arriving, I'm taking stock in the gifts that keep on giving. I have my loved ones - a wife who's willing to love me and grow with me; three sons whose development brings me endless joy; and parents, siblings, grandparents, in-laws, cousins and friends who continually support me.
Then there are my other kids, the students who come to my class to listen and learn. They have taught me so much about what I can give to others, about parenting, and about a future that's brighter than I ever imagined because it's filled with children who still know how to say, "Thank you for teaching me."
Gregory Keer is a writer, teacher and father of two boys. He can be reached at Gregory@familymanonline.com or through his Web site, www.familymanonline.com.