The first time I heard this cliché’ was in my tenth grade journalism class. I can’t even remember the teacher’s name. She was sweet, but she was also a self-identified woman who couldn’t write, and so she taught. So she said.
On any given day, if you were to look around her classroom, you’d see students (those who bothered to show up) sitting on desks, their backs facing Ms… what was her name?, talking to each other, or singing “I Will Survive,” or dancing the YMCA dance in the aisles (1979 was the most popular year for disco.) These kids were doing anything but paying attention. The only students who seemed to ever be listening were the inseparable threesome: my best friend Maria who was only taking the class because I begged her, and that’s what best friends did they backed you up; our guy-friend Jimmy who wasn’t even enrolled in the class, but preferred hanging out with us to geometry; and there was me. I was the girl with the dream of being a famous investigative reporter for the NY Times. (That dream was crushed after a summer in post-revolutionary Nicaragua when I saw how mainstream media was more about seeking profit than truth.)
Still, all I remember about that class were the words, “those who can’t do teach.”
In fairness to the one whose name can’t be remembered, my high school wasn’t the most inspiring environment for teacher or student. We had a principal who stayed in his office and watched cartoons. Occasionally, he’d come out into the hallway shouting, “why aren’t these students in class,” until his assistant shuffled him back to his office explaining, once again, that the bell had just rung. It was rumored that he had had a nervous breakdown, which was pretty obvious, but no one cared enough to even bother to gossip about why or how it happened.
Apathy was strong in the days when Disco reigned and school administrations where on planet Looney-Tunes, and my high school’s dropout rate was probably higher than its graduation-rate. At least it felt that way. But in a first-generation-Italian-immigrant community education wasn’t always a high priority. Not as high as keeping your kids virgins (the girls anyway), off drugs, and working above-minimum-wage jobs. And if you could get a job, why bother to graduate from high school, never mind college?
So when you walked into the-sky-is-falling college guidance counselor’s office, you didn’t question why she spent more time talking you out of going to college than giving you any real advice on how to get into college. Yes, my high school was a tough place to teach and to learn, but things got better when a new principal made a lot of positive changes and students got the support they needed to get their diplomas, and many went on to college and graduate school.
As for me, I graduated from high school and after spending more time in the streets protesting than I had in the college classrooms, I got my BA and eventually my MFA. Along the way I met amazing teachers: teachers who not only taught, but did.
Still, the words “those who can’t do teach” banged up against the walls of my brain for years, and until I was thirty-four I swore I would never teach, never ever.
Well, be careful what you don’t wish for. Over the past eleven years I’ve been teaching creative writing to motivated students who want to learn, want to write, and, like me, need to write, and over the past several years I’ve co-taught with a woman who continues to inspire me as a writer, teacher, and friend. Finally, I’ve come to realize that I CAN write, and I can teach too.
Teaching forces me to sit down to write even on those days when just looking at my computer makes me cry. If I tell my students they can do it, then don’t I have to tell myself I can do it? And then, don’t I have to do it too? I don’t teach because I can’t write. I teach because teaching makes me makes me a better writer.
“Those who can’t do teach” may have been my tenth grade journalism teacher’s truth, but it’s not mine. Mrs. Roberts! That’s her name… wait a minute that was the name of the Phys. Ed teacher who hated my guts. Or was it? Well, that’s a topic for another day. Keep writing. Keep teaching. Never stop learning.