I never wanted to be a teacher. For far too long, I believed the adage that those who can’t do, teach.
Besides, in first grade, I had trouble learning to read and got a nervous bellyache at just the thought of being in a classroom. Why would I want to be a teacher when school literally made me sick?
I was also a tomboy who preferred riding bikes to books. However, I adored flipping through National Geographics and created pretend games based on the pictures of foreign lands.
In third grade, my best friend brought over her parent’s book, Something of Value, about the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. Although the politics and story were beyond us, we poured over the glossary of Swahili words, making up our own phrases that often included the Swahili word for gin. Angels we were not, but my love of language had begun.
In fifth grade, I was placed in the top reading group, even though I still selected Dr. Suess books on library day. My teacher set up a thermometer on the wall to record our independent reading. I was below freezing compared to any classmate.
In high school, I remained a latent reader and bluffed my way through assignments getting B’s—until I had Miss Houghton.
Handing back papers, she hovered over my desk and whispered, “Ann, you have some interesting things to say, but no one will ever listen until you learn how to spell.” At the top of the page was a quiet D.
This coincided with me having a new boyfriend in the Advanced Placement crowd, and seeing the same kids from my fifth-grade reading group now heading off to Harvard. My own mediocrity knocked the breath out of me.
Finally, in college, I became a Phi Beta Kappa student, and for a single semester was even an education major. But the study of pedagogy cemented my conviction to never be a teacher.
One summer, I worked in an engineering office typing words like shim and bunker rotor heater box, that could have come out of a Dr. Suess book. Another summer, I worked for an insurance firm, typing forms with the names of the insured. The job was as boring as it sounds, but I loved collecting the names that, at the time, felt unusual to me: Angel Hernandez, Thou Nguyen.
When my roommate reported an opening where she worked, I followed her to an industrial laundry. Our buddies in the break room were Nabila, from Lebanon, and Wanda from the Onondaga reservation. Wanda invited us to a backyard barbecue that spread down the block and lasted till early morning when paramedics carried a dead man out of the house next door from a gunshot wound.
After graduation, I worked at a secondhand bookstore, an advertising agency, a small publisher, anything an English Major could think of except being a teacher. I even sold Mary Kay.
At last, I put my toe in the pool by tutoring immigrant students learning English. My hard never crumbled as I realized, the education I’d scorned was a privilege, and teaching was something of lasting value.
In short order, I received a scholarship for a masters in language, literacy, and culture and found myself in front of high school English language learners.
During a lesson on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a young man from Thailand asked me, “Miss, what is your dream?”
I looked out at kids who spoke every language from Spanish to Swahili. Kids who’d never been to school or read a book because of war, or poverty. Kids from China who wanted to design bunker rotor heater boxes. Kids who’d crossed the desert to get to the promised land where his neighbors were carried out on stretchers with gunshot wounds.
All my wanderings suddenly straightened like a meandering river that’s wound its way to the sea.
Choked with emotion, I said, “My dream is to make yours come true.”
In an instant, I no longer believed the lie that those who can’t do teach.
C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we are not alone.” I write to say, I know I am not the only one who never wanted to be a teacher, but whose dream came true by being one.
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