A Gym Teacher and an English Teacher Walk into a Bar…
Don’t know the punchline to that one, but our educators deserve recognition this week, even if it’s misspelled
My friend and neighbor Jimmy Jones has taught P.E. (“Physical Education” is the fancy term for “gym,” but his name is Jim, so…) for 45 years. That’s almost twice the time I spent in the teaching trenches, and he’s still going strong. Meanwhile, I’m working hard at being retired.
I haven’t talked to Jimmy since I left our little D.C. ’burb, but I’ll always remember his favorite maxim.
“Someone once said, ‘Those who can’t teach, teach gym,’” he’d exclaim in his down-home squawk, followed by an all-knowing country-guy-type cackle, crafted who-knows-where since he grew up in the D.C. ’burbs himself. “You nose-in-the-air English teachers tell me that again the next time you’ve got five class sets of papers to grade.”
A little background — An average high school instructor, whether P.E. or Advanced Placement English, teaches five classes per school year. In the case of both me and Jimmy, that could be upwards of 150 students, depending upon how the school counts those classes, meaning as electives or mandatory requirements. I was one of the fortunate ones, only assigned three English classes, since I advised the school newspaper and yearbook staffs as well. But I never had fewer than 32 kids in an AP Lang class. So, about four writing assignments per student, per week, times three classes for about 100 kids per year. You do the math. I’m obviously not very good at numerical pursuits, since I kept that AP Nelson train going for a good long while. I thanked the good Lord, as my Nana used to say, that I didn’t have more toil and trouble.
In our high school, only freshmen and sophomores were required to take P.E., although hundreds continued on with that curriculum, getting in classes like weight training and personal fitness. Yes, they did have assignments, especially when the gym teachers did their “health” units. But, as Jimmy pointed out to me time and time again, not a lot of traditional “homework” over on that side of campus.
On the other hand, kids had to take four years of English, but no one required them to sign up for the grind of an AP course — it’s just that a lot of them wanted to. And I believed that if they were up for this incredibly daunting challenge I should suffer along with them. I reckon I must be a masochist of the highest order. But life is a marathon, not a sprint, and I wanted them to train for the long haul.
For those of you who don’t know the significance of Jimmy’s wisdom, the bottom line is that you reap what you sow. P.E. teachers assign their kids to run the mile, to play volleyball, to learn the vagaries of the sport of archery, all during the school day. They dress in cool workout clothes and neato-torpedo socks and sneakers, and go home on time to other pursuits. In Jimmy’s case, it was to read giant tomes on history — George Washington is a favorite of his, since the man grew up a couple of miles from Mount Vernon, the home of the Father of Our Country. Kids who spend their formative years in Alexandria, Virginia, don’t take their presidents lightly.
I, on the other hand, taught young minds how to expand their gray matter beyond the boundaries of physical endurance — I snobbishly liked to think so, anyway — and how to write. On a good day, I’d consider it a win if the kid in the corner who spent a ton of time playing Tetris on his phone could string five coherent sentences together (the AP classes are what’s known as “open enrollment” in my school), then analyze an author’s paragraph for the rest of his comrades in AP Nelson. Then I lugged papers upon papers upon papers home each afternoon —often hundreds of papers — and stayed up ’til midnight or so correcting every dang P and Q.
Author’s note: Jimmy and I taught at the same school, and kept the same “contract” hours. We both reported to work by 6:45 a.m. were free to go at 2:45 p.m. Jimmy, you probably guessed, lit out for home at a quarter ’til three on the nose each day. I, on the other hand, was immersed in after-school tutoring or trying to get a few papers under my belt so I wouldn’t have to bring so much home in my book bag.
And yup, I was that English teacher. I once got behind on my grading. I figured out a solution, taking a week off ahead of Spring Break. No, I didn’t take an extended hiatus to Cancun, like that politician we know who runs when there’s trouble. I put my pen to the proverbial grindstone and graded during that entire fortnight. I’m a big believer in feedback. You’re not gonna get better unless you practice; and you’re not gonna figure it out if someone doesn’t critique your work.
In our great wisdom, Jimmy and I knew the bottom line: Practice, practice, practice. It’s the only way to get to the metaphorical Carnegie Hall, either in the realm of physical fitness or as an analyst of intricate works of nonfiction, such as In Cold Blood and I Know How the Caged Bird Sings.
Yeah, I’m the International Genius — a favorite expression of my husband, Moker, and quite apropos for this situation — who spent 23 years scribbling on the barely legible scribbles of nascent Hemingways. Or, more likely, those who aspired to ace the AP English Language and Composition Exam at the end of the year, a hard-as-hell accomplishment that earned many of my students college credit. One of my last AP Langers, in fact, thanked me the other day. She’s graduating from college a year early, largely because of all of the Advanced Placement credits she earned in high school. AP Nelson was one of the more difficult mountains for her to climb, but she says that now she’s a much better person for exercising her mind in Room 215 four years ago.
There’s a lesson here somewhere, I promise. Jimmy lived along the route of my afternoon commute, and I often spied him — when I was headed home about 5 p.m. or so — out in the driveway or the yard, washing his car or raking leaves. He’d extend the courtesy of a friendly wave, but I always knew there was a country-boy-type chuckle behind that shit-eatin’ grin of his. And I could just picture the exchange if I’d ever decided to stop by to say “hey”.
“I told ya, Brooke. Those who can’t teach…oh, you know how it goes. How many of those rascals in your book bag today?”
“I don’t want to talk about it, Jimmy. But do you have a spare red pen I can borrow? I think it’s gonna be a long night.”
OK, back up a sec. I was decidedly not one of those English teachers. I preferred to grade in green or purple felt-tip pen — never red. Too many bad memories on that front.
Jimmy and I shared a lot of the same students, so I know many of them went on to greatness. We didn’t mint any leaders of the free world — yet — but we’re responsible for a few of the authors, aspiring titans of industry, nascent politicians and, yes, teachers, who just wanted to give back to the community, like Jimmy and I both did when we started out on our career arcs.
We’re celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week this week. So whoever you are, and whatever you’re doing, stop for a quick sec and thank a teacher. Send an email to your favorite pedagogue, or if your kids are still in primary, middle or high school, a little treat to thank the person who’s partially, at least, in charge of your child’s education. It hasn’t been a great year for most of us, but remember that those teaching via Zoom have suffered just as much as their students, and miss the in-person connection only teaching in a classroom can bring.
And, please, join me in wondering if the kid who left the festive note pictured above on my desk several years ago was one of my students, or one of Jimmy’s. Heck, we probably both taught the little bugger, so I reckon we can share the blame, huh?