Avatar photo

Countdown to retirement: Random journal entries of a public-school teacher’s final year…

Tuesday, Sept. 8th – Last “Opening Day” Bullshit

As I munch on some day-old bagels, push the sour fruit back and forth across my paper plate, the woman on stage keeps screeching, her words blur across the cafeteria like a raincloud. I can’t even pretend to indulge her. Some self-important ass-hat in high heels, tugging at her tweed jacket and pausing with flare and pomp, like she’s giving the fucking Gettysburg Address. She probably spent a couple years as a classroom aid, now feels qualified to bark at a room full of weary scapegoats for all of society’s ills, whirling on about per-pupil funding, slumping SAT trends, and public perception. I look at the clock and sigh, loudly, kind of hoping she’ll hear. Say something to me, I think to myself, I triple-dog dare you.


Tuesday, Oct. 27th

It’s 5:13 and I’m still at my desk, grading essays old-school, no Grammarly app, just a pencil in my grip and one behind my ear. I’m listening to some random YouTube channel called, “relaxing piano music” and I pause to watch the screen, feathery landscapes fade in and out, first a foaming waterfall, then jagged cliffs and mountain tops, then thick, verdant trees with brilliant, impossible leaves––lavender and merlot and emerald. The hall is dark, only me and the custodian, Judy, are left. Both she and her mom were former students, pretty solid writers. And I remember when Judy’s mom left her with her grandpa, moved to Ohio because she “needed to live for herself.” Wish I hadn’t heard those words roiling around the staff lounge. Small towns. A person can’t fart without hearing about it the next day. And she’s really pregnant now. So I empty my own trashcans before she comes in each night. It’s all I can think to do.

Then I draw a fat “C-” at the top of the paper in front of me––Jenny Burlye’s paper. I shift in my chair, let out an audible “old man” grunt, blink toward the screen again, some daylilies fade into a throng of monarch butterflies, flitting through a misty canopy. And I know this poor girl’s never going to leave here, probably be waiting tables at the Sunrise Café, head down as she serves my scrambled eggs and wheat toast some random morning, desperate to offer a qualifying statement––“but I’m thinking about online classes, maybe an associate degree”––as if I’d judge her on anything other than integrity. My eyes ice over, wondering how in the hell we’ve fallen so far as to measure self-worth by academic prowess. I draw a dark line through the “minus,” turn her grade into a “C+.” That’s all I can think to do, too.


Wednesday, Nov. 4th

The bell sounds out, and somehow, I think it’s 4th hour. But my British Lit. kids shuffle in, chattering like a pack of cornered mice, asking one another for gum and computer chargers, smelling like a sickly brew of growing pains and AXE body spray… and I think to myself, you gotta be shitting me. It’s only 2nd hour.


Inbox: Principal McCarthy––as Holiday Break approaches, just a reminder that there are to be no Christmas trees, decorations, or gift exchanges.


Wednesday, Dec. 9th

It’s gray outside this morning. The sky is the color of nails, tough to slip into teacher mode, to step onto the classroom stage. I let the kids angle into their godforsaken iPds a bit longer, and they peek up, now and again, pretending to search for argumentative topics, and I stare at the desk where Robbie Millstone used to sit, back in ’99, greasy shock of hair always stuck to his forehead, so cow-eyed, so thin. Always looking up at me as if I were Jesus Christ himself, wrists bleeding, prickers in his scalp. And I relive the moment the phone rang, the voice on the other end telling me Robbie hanged himself from a rafter in the garage. My stomach squeezes again, just as tight as it did then, thinking of a father seeing his son sway like a clock-bob, wiping his piss and shit off the cold concrete, wondering “what if” for the rest of his fucking life.


Wednesday, Dec. 9th

I pull the door shut behind me at 4:55, just in time to lock eyes with Judy, her belly is swollen with the miracle of life, tugging at the seams of the school-issued coveralls, straps pulled taut over her slumped shoulders. She gives me a wink, her skin looks gray, loose. I want to hug her, tell her everything will be okay, but in these times, it isn’t safe for a man to do so. Instead, I battle against my instincts and offer a smile, wide as my jowls will stretch, then nod, slow and durable, I hope.


Monday, Jan. 6th, Monthly Staff Meeting:


  1. “Shelter in Place” drill – Gunman enters from south entry
    1. 1st Floor teachers escort students to locker rooms then to the west parking lot
    2. 2nd Floor teachers escort students to library then out through the main doors
  2. Students on watch:
    1. Becky T. has overdosed again, committed to the “Free Bed” clinic in Grand Rapids indefinitely. Please make all lesson plans available on Google Classroom but don’t hold her accountable for the work.
    2. Diego F. is now truant. Teachers who have Diego must contact his parole officer to make a “success plan.”
    3. Leah S. would now prefer to go by “Kyle.” Please be careful of pronoun usage when referencing him. The change has been made in the computer system.
    4. Shannon D. is cutting. Watch for signs and complete an “Incident Report” within twelve hours of observation.
    5. The Doherty twins are considered homeless as of this morning. Department of Family and Child Services is involved. Stay tuned…
  3. Dress Code. Do not send students to the office anymore. The district lawyer has made it clear. There is no legal leg to stand on.
  4. The bathroom bandit is at it again. We will be monitoring the cameras. Make sure all students sign in and out when using the restroom. Judy is reporting feces on the wall and doors after lunch and between 4th and 6th Wonderings:
    1. Where are we failing this student?
    2. Why is negative attention being sought?
    3. Let’s revisit the “inclusion” aspect of our mission statement.
  5. Several IEP’s this week. The schedule has been posted in the staff’s “shared file.” Make sure you are documenting all accommodations online as you are accountable should the district be audited.
  6. Millage proposal. Vote as if your life depends on it.
  7. No subs available again. Personal day requests will be denied until further notice.


The staff is parceled into slices in the media center, a forced blending of departments per table. And I’m stuck next to Mr. Kennedy again, already driveling to the deadpan Spanish teacher, fresh off a leave of absence for “personal reasons.” Rumor has it she walked in on her husband climbing the neighbor like a ladder, mid-day, kids in the living room watching Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood on PBS, volume turned up all the way. Note to self––stay out of that shit-show staff lounge.


Kennedy’s really roused today, blathering just soft enough for the principal to ignore him, something about “privilege” and “book bans.” McCarthy clicks to the next slide in her PowerPoint, the one showing free-and-reduced lunch numbers reaching an all-time high. “Up 65% from just two years ago,” she says. But I can’t hear the rest as Kennedy is burning hot now. “––and bringing back the Pledge of Allegiance. Don’t get me started. It’s the 21st century, right? It’s like every few years we have to suffer these stupid Christian spasms in our schools––”


Wednesday, Jan. 8th

Liam saunters in twelve minutes late. No pass, no apology. I follow the therapist’s garbage advice, picture a wave of purple washing over me. It works, for a minute. But when he walks in front of me to sharpen his pencil, just as I’m reading the climax of Lord of the Flies, you know, when they shove a big boulder over the cliff, pulverize poor Piggy, poor fat, asthmatic Piggy, the moment I’d been saving to capture this Covid-gapped group, make ‘em love literature after all, every morsel of trauma-informed training vanishes like dandelion fluff on the wind. And I tell him that he’s selfish. And inconsiderate. He stops cold, eyes me in silence, as if I’ve spoken a foreign language. I win the stare-down, thinking to myself, “Did I just gut this kid… Or did I save him … ”


Between fourth and fifth periods, I sprint to the bathroom, trying to sneak in a quick piss­­––there’s an all-too familiar pinch “down there,” like the pistons of an engine misfiring. The urine leaks out, and I wince, grit my teeth, as little David Dickson is at the urinal next to me, can’t let him see me hurting, that’s the last thing that kid needs. And I know my deductible isn’t met. And my son’s wisdom teeth are scheduled to come out. I suck in hard, hold it. Another bout trickles down. Through pursed lips, I push out my breath. It mingles with the vape-pen smog, grape flavor, if I had to guess, and I curse God for a life misspent.


Thursday, February 27th

Inbox: Principal McCarthy––Printer is up and running, but the Wi-Fi is down.

If you see John Hillman or Betsy Overton, please congratulate them on being nominated for this year’s Scholar-Athlete award.

Remember, “Teaching kids to count is fine, but teaching them what counts is best.” Thanks for all you do. You’re a first-class staff and what you do matters.


Tuesday, March, 10th

Damn it. Forgot my lunch again, sitting on the frigging counter next to my sensible afternoon shake … yellow pea protein, quinoa, and some Ethiopian root I can’t pronounce, tastes like hell. I’d rather dip a ladle into the outhouse by the track. Tater-tot casserole it is. “Stack it high, Louis,” I say to the lunch-lady, her hairnet like a cobweb across her would-be feathered bangs. Her scowl melts when she hears me. “Where you been at?” she asks. And I tell her not to end her sentences in prepositions. She flips me the bird, her plastic glove crinkling, shining in the glow of the heat lamps, a burnt-yellow hue, as if the butter packets thawed, drizzling over the moment, over all our moments, the ones I know I’ll ponder some random rainy night, years and years from now.


My last hour reminds me of a promise I made. If they can all diagram a complex sentence by week’s end, I’ll try to learn the “Griddy dance.” And they do. And I do. My wildest nightmare unfolds and there’s a rapturous roar as they illustrate the moves and I pretend to look more confused than I am. Dozens of iPhones are all around me––the ones that are forbidden in the academic wing––and I think, this is the closest I’ll ever come to fame. And they film and howl, someone murmurs something about TikTok. I don’t know what that means, but I vow to look it up later, because in this glorious instant, I remember that I learn more from them than they do me, and I think about all the supposed leaders in these children’s lives, sticking like Elmer’s Glue to their agendas––no one listening, no one reaching across the aisle for their sake. All these kids want, right now, is to see their decrepit teacher dance like an imbecile, watch him flitting like an inebriated wombat so they can laugh without restraint, without having to hear about unleaded hitting $4.50 a gallon, or those fascist right-wingers, no wait, those bleeding-heart snowflakes, without being reminded of a bloody war raging in Ukraine. So I frolic with all my might. I spin and pirouette, thrashing my arms like a twenty-something in a mosh pit. Their snickers lift me higher and higher. So high that I can’t see the filth and ruin of this life, so fucking high that I can’t even feel the cramps in my bladder.


Saturday, April 25th

A message from Denise Adams, the goth-girl from a few years back who was sent to the alternative school after she told Mr. Kennedy to kiss her Latino ass. Ha! Last I heard, she had moved to Detroit with a man she met online. There are no words in the email, just a big thumb, an emoticon, I think they’re called. When I realize it’s her not-so-cryptic way of telling me, “Hey, I’m okay,” and “thank you,” a sob bursts free, one I’ve been holding in my whole damn life. And I sleeve my face, then flash back to when my boys were still young, rushing into my bedroom on weekends, jumping on my back, yawping, wrestling, and belching the alphabet.


Tuesday, April 28th

George shoots Lennie in Of Mice and Men, and Kelcey cries. Then Liam scoots forward in his desk––tattoo wings fanning out across his throat––and mumbles, “He didn’t have a choice.” I want to kick my heels, scream halleluiah, beg him to say it again, louder. But I know better. And Leah says, “My heart hurts,” so I prod, “Why?” And she says, “’Cause they’re all just misunderstanding each other. None of them had to die.” Before I can utter more words, Ben pulls down his hoodie and says, “You think that shit ain’t still going on?” I feel my neck and cheeks begin to clench. I suck in hard then exhale slow, through pursed lips. When I tell the class that they make me proud, my voice cracks, as if I pushed the words through a paper shredder. They groan en masse. Someone says, “Oh, boy. Here he goes again.”


Wednesday, April 29th

It’s 6:01, and I’m too tired to write about the day’s victories and sorrows. I’m heading home, more tired than I can remember. So fantastically, magically tired.


Thursday, May 4th

Finally, a breakthrough with Kyra. She brings me a Capri-sun from the lunchroom, tells me that the letter I wrote her for Michigan State did the trick. Then she hugs me, and I can’t play the game anymore. I hug her back, hard. And I say, “Go green!” to which she replies, “Go white,” then gasps, covers her mouth and runs for the door like a toddler. And I understand, completely.


Intercom Announcement from Miss Plankton, the crotchety secretary with turd breath and a stick––no, a cedar tree stump––lodged in her bony ass, sideways: “Reminder to all probationary teachers must attend the workshop at lunch today. Bring your paperwork, C-O-M-P-L-E-T-E-D with you to Meeting Room B. Please and thank you.” She enunciates “completed” with obnoxious breathiness and I can smell the foul excrement, coating the microphone like a swarm of flies. A strange blue funk whelms my spirit. I stop, look around me––the ol’ “red, white, and blue” hanging down over the lobby’s front wall, and black-and-white photos of athletes from days of yore, their long-shorts and thick skirts, coiffed hair, and scintillating pride, boring holes in each passerby who takes time to notice, their history growing dim, bigger things looming, they’ll never see, never know. I say a quick prayer that the quiet intersections rise up for this new batch of chumps, the holy moments. All the banter, the winks, the a-ha’s, the accidental innuendos, the flatulence, the love. And I can’t find a name for the wreckage in my chest. It’s not envy. It’s not pity, either. Perhaps it’s a salute: “God-speed, my brothers and sisters”––you suckers. You mighty cherubs.


During lunch I look up “plankton” for fun: animals and plants that either float passively in the water or possess such limited powers of swimming that they are carried from place to place by currents. And I think, it figures. What a miserable, drifting dolt.


Sunday, May 10th – At graduation, I’m sweating bullets in that long black gown, droopy sleeves hanging down like a dormant bat. The president of the schoolboard announces the retirees, one at a time, and applause rears up from the crowd. When he calls my name, I turn to the stadium behind me and offer a quick wave. I’m looking for something, someone, but I don’t know exactly. And there’s Judy. Her baby is strapped to her chest in a sling and she’s bouncing, left then right then left. She makes a peace sign with her fingers. And I know this life isn’t about me. Never was.


Saturday, May 16th

Inbox: Michigan Society of Teachers Insurance Company: Deductible met for the calendar year. Reset begins January 1st.


11:56 a.m. The assistant manager––a doughy twenty-something, freckle-faced with straight, gray teeth––sits across from me, examining my application as if it’s a warrant. Suddenly, he sniggers. “A teacher?” he says. “Sick of babysitting, huh?” He shakes his head. “Not gonna get all those summers off working here at The Home Depot, you know? This is a real job. Real hours.” I feel no anger, no resentment. Least of all, any desire to muster a response. Flipping to the next page, the man furrows his tufted, chili-pepper eyebrows. “You skipped the last section.” He hands back the packet with a gratified smirk, then pulls a fat, white pen from his shirt pocket––How Doers Get More Done in block letters, inscribed on either side. “That’s detention for you, mister,” he says, letting out a chortle that sounds more like a sickly goose than a human. I look down at the barren page. At the top, it reads, “Please list your strengths.”


And I take my time as I write:

I can swallow my own pain in order to lean in, listen more closely to someone else’s.

I can stay when others walk away.

I can love without expectation, recognition or condition.

And I can take a hell of a beating.

And I know the stuff that life is made of.

(I grin, letting the preposition hang at the end of the sentence like a wrecking ball, pulled tight on the cable, ready for

Join the conversation