by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"English is the easiest language to speak badly."... ...George Bernard Shaw.
Commentary of the Day - December 15, 2008: So You Want to be an English Teacher. Guest commentary by Evanthia O. Rosati.Teachers must deal with all kinds of pressure. Math teachers must know the method for finding an arc; how to solve algebraic equations; and the difference between a quadrangle and rhombus. Psychology teachers must know Freud's theory, and Jung's and Pavlov's, too. History teachers must know the dates of every war fought in every land since the Stone Age. No one, however, has a more difficult job than those of us who teach English.
First of all, we have a horrible reputation. Guess which class of all high school classes is the most hated? Here's a hint ... it is NOT physics. Many students have some horror story of Professor Prose who either bored or humiliated them. Whenever I am at a party or first introduced to anyone, I pray no one will mention my line of work. The party could be at full swing, music loud and the bass shaking the walls. I might be enjoying myself. Then someone says I teach English. All speaking stops as partiers adjust their vocabulary to English teacher level. The gentleman with the chip dip hanging off his cheek is now saying, "From whence I came…." The collection of people circling me scatters as if suddenly I had a dictionary sprout from my forehead. Playful people become anxious adults once they become aware of the dreaded English teacher in their midst. In desperation, I yell out, "I don't have a shrine to Shakespeare in my backyard." (It's in the side yard; why give away all my secrets?) It's no use. The area clears anyway.
English teachers are thought to be the guardians of grammar. I cannot tell how often I have answered the phone and heard, "Hi, listen. 'Identify the gerund in this sentence: Waking an English teacher at 2:00 a.m. is not that much of a problem.' Would it be English or problem?" or "Susie needs to tell the difference between a subject and a noun in these sentences. I told her they are the same thing. She's crying and says her teacher said something else. What's wrong with you English teachers; can't you ever get anything straight?" I do have a favorite phone call. "I know you are recuperating from surgery, but since you've been home from the hospital for two days, I thought we might run over and let you look at Matt's homework. He has to diagram 20 sentences." That's it! Stick a red pen in my hand, and I'm ready to tell the difference between a direct object and a conjunction. It doesn't matter if I am bandaged from head to foot.
Another duty we must shoulder is to create perfect English at all times. There are quite a few people, even members of my family, who are shocked because I am not always the wizard of words. "I can't believe you said that!" they'll say. Usually I am trying desperately to remember what I had said. "You said GONNA! I can't believe it! No one would guess you were an English teacher." One particular time (I clearly remember this although I have been on medication to get past it), I was visiting my aunt. She went on and on about how she could not believe that I said "hopefully" instead of “I hope." Her eyes were huge and her eyebrows were practically on top of her head. She had been teaching me how to make a particular Italian treat. We weren't exactly in a lecture hall. I was up to my elbows in anise, flour and eggs. What could I say? She had me dead to rights. So I said, "I'm sorry, I must have lost my mind for a few minutes." Although not appeased, she did allow me to continue cooking, as long as I worked in total silence.
Besides being constantly alert to the grammar of the world around us, we are seen as the lords of literature. I could bump into a neighbor in a mall and hear, "Can you tell me the name of a good American author?" If I then ask, "Male or female? When did this person live? Did you have any theme in mind?" I will be rewarded with a sneer. "Forget it! I thought you'd be able to help me because you have a degree in English! I didn't realize I would have to take a test first!" Moreover, everyone is always checking out my reading material. Just last week, I was sitting in the local library, and one of my former students walked past me. "You read People magazine?" As much as I tried, I couldn't help what I said next. "No, usually I read the National Enquirer, but I was worried I might run into one of my students." Whatever impression that student had of me changed after that. The telephone can be a problem too. I've had to screen calls when Oprah is hawking a new book. "No, I haven't heard of that book. No, I haven't read it yet. Of course I love to read. No, I had to quit my book club because of all these questions!" Why are English teachers expected to know so much about English?
The expectation level is such that we can't help but try to live up to it. I now carry a black marker at all times. My need to correct the spelling and grammar errors that appear in public is at an all-time high. Just last week, when I could not stand it any longer, I "fixed" a sign hanging in the college’s cafeteria. It had read, "For Sale--Anatomy and Phisology Book." Furthermore, I had better not see again themself or should of in any store flier. I know I can't edit every copy. Several times I have had to correct a local newspaper in its use of you when it should have been one. (Aren't newspaper columnists schooled in English? Why shouldn't they have to live up to the same standards as English teachers do?) I truly empathized with another English teacher who told me about the time she had to sit on her hands during a parent/teacher conference. She was the parent, and her child's teacher, in an effort to show upcoming events, had written “calander” on the board! I would have had to leave the room.
As the wise and wonderful scholars we are, English teachers find ourselves caught in the cycle of being corrected and correcting. We are damned if we do, whatever we do. While we prefer not to clear the room with the mention of our field of expertise, we also do not want to horrify others with occasional lapses into normalcy. Society has set high standards for us, and we'd better not mess up! Therefore, I suggest that we all be relegated to an island where we can be free to be ourselves, whether that means reading a collection of comic books, or saying, “I dunno” every time anyone asks, “Who wrote ...?” Hopefully this will be a good solution. I'm gonna go on the first ship. Who’s going with?
© 2008, Evanthia O. Rosati.
Evanthia O. Rosati has taught English for more than thirty years in middle school, high school and college. She currently teaches at Oakton Community College in Illinois.
The Irascible Professor comments: English teachers indeed are a strange lot!