Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Sloop John B

(Hartenstein channels his inner Walt Whitman for a little O' Captain, My Captain before class)

“We come on the Sloop John B, my grandfather and me, around Nassau town we did roam, drinking all night, got into a fight, well I feel so broke up, I want to go home.” -the Sloop John B, by the Beach Boys.

Most people are surprised when they learn how much time teachers in graduate courses discuss the first day of school. Should I smile or sneer? Greet students at the door or stand ominous and foreboding behind an all powerful podium? To Break the Ice or Not to Break the Ice…? That is the question. But teachers know everything depends upon that first impression, and they want their behavior to set the mood. This usually means dictating a presence of absolute authority and fear that causes kids to run off screaming with pee stains on their pants.
We’ve all had those classes, usually taught by a beef necked, buzzed cut talking sausage with whistle hanging around his barrel chest. He’d rather coach a death sport than teach history, but hey, at least he gets summers off, right. He goes by the motto, “Give kids an inch and they’ll take a mile. That’s why I don’t crack a smile until the day before Christmas break. Oh, did I say Christmas? I meant, ‘Winter Holiday.’” He rolls his eyes in his fat sausage head, imitating deftly the teenage girls that have been irritating him for years.
He’s matched only by his mirror counterpart in math, the hall waddler, the tenured lifer, the woman with the rolley backpack who hands out detention slips like Halloween candy and says phrases like, “Is if Friday yet?” To which she modifies come January, “Is is summer yet?” She’s the one who fills the staff room with the union flyers and makes comments like, “If you arrive on time, you’re late,” stating proudly, “I don’t smile until the last day of the year when the little cretins shove off. Buh bye!”
No wonder most kids think the only thing worse than going to school is having cavity check-ups at the dentist, and most adults look back on their twelve years of publically funded education about as fondly as their first colon check.
That’s how I always felt going to school, that I was just a nameless, faceless, twerp. My teachers hid behind newspapers in class, showed the same videos year after year to us, and some days never even got out of their easy-chair. They gave extra credit points to the suck-ups, punished the weak by forgetting their names, and handed out worksheets like they were going out of style.
When I started my teaching career I vowed to never be like that, promising myself I would make a difference. I would make students feel special, needed, listened to. Of course, I’ve made every mistake in the book, and for those kids at Aspect International I made recite Shakespeare with sock puppets, please forgive me. But if there is anything I have ever gotten right in this job, it is the first day of school.
For you see in my class, I always come in the first day singing.
Yes, singing.
It usually starts that first week of summer. The sun is out, I’m winding down from finals, and I begin to hear a song in my head. It stays with me all through July and August, and by the time Labor Day rolls around, I know it well enough to sing in front of a group of venomously wicked and spite filled teenagers. Over the years my playlist has included Sinatra’s Swinging on a Star and I’ve got you under my skin, the Beatles’ Day in the Life, Armstrong’s As Time Goes By, and My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music.
I know, I know, coming in singing, “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” to a group of hard edged 12th grade remedial readers is akin to picking a knife fight with the biggest guy on the cell block your first day in the can, but that’s just who I am. I can’t help it.
Yet this year when school started, I found myself far away from home again, on the other side of the ocean, at a faraway place where my skin color sets me apart and my native tongue makes me a commodity. Still, I didn’t forget my song. It’s been with me most of the summer ever since I began going back and re-reading Carl Sandburg whose The John B Sails made its way into his American Songbag, and that made me re-listen to The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds all over again, which I hadn't in years.
Man, what a great album, all about love and loss and letting go, doing your best to go it alone but realizing you need other people to make it. How we become stranded in life and need others to lift our sails, to help us get back on track.
I must admit though, I scared my Taiwanese students half out of their chairs during the first verse. Jaws hit the floor and eyes looked away. “My new American teacher is crazy,” I could hear them telling their mothers and fathers around the dinner table that night. But I wouldn’t stop, moving up and down the aisles, saying the words, trying to show them that this year was going to be different. They were never going to think harder or deeper, be pushed to create and communicate more elaborate and complex ideas, and more than anything, never have more fun. As in most things, time will tell won't it, but isn’t that what school is supposed to be? A sense of home and fun, well, that’s what it should be.


  1. Gosh, that brought back memories!

  2. Brian, Thanks for the LOL and some new ideas for class. I will not have hounds howling and try to sing, but I will try to keep with the "all in good fun" attitude. Unlike a lot of my co-workers, I always look forward to getting back to work. I was back in the building in July :) Call me crazy, but my attitude is if you're a teacher and you hate your job, go find some place else to work and stop making kids feel miserable because you'd rather be anywhere then back in the classroom. Brian, keep on singing :) BTW, I too love the Beach Boys. DMc