Mr. Barth had a reputation for using class time for personal stories and jokes. He often sat in a chair near the door of our department English office ready to chat with whoever was there. He liked to laugh. He wore plaid shirts and jeans, dark rimmed glasses. He kept his graying beard short, on the verge of scruffy. The students enjoyed his approachable demeanor. The other teachers on staff respected him.
I met Mr. Barth my first year of teaching. I had been hired to teach English 10 and English 11 in an overcrowded high school of 1500 students. Of the twelve teachers in our department I was the only one without a classroom of my own. Instead, I had a cart, one with three shelves on either side, one often seen in libraries to move stacks of books back to their places. I transitioned from room to room between bells just like the students did.
My desk was in the English department office near the spot wear Mr. Barth would sit. I liked Mr. Barth well enough. I saw him briefly when he and the other English teachers would come in the office for coffee or to get something from their desks.
One day in early October, I was in the thick of all things new, learning student names, learning how to navigate the halls with my cart, while re-learning high school culture. I was also trying to fit in to a new community two hours from anyone who loved me. And even though the department was friendly (and ready with advice I wasn’t ready for such as “You need to make learning fun!”), I often spent much time alone. I worked late at the school. I graded papers nearly every evening.
I was sifting through all this rubble, trying to keep a friendly face among the banter in the office after school when Mr. Barth told me, “I think you belong in a college. You should be teaching there instead.”
I assumed he said this because I was fresh from graduate school and still thinking like a grad student rather than a teacher who has compassion and concern. I assumed he said this because I was working my ass off.
I thought it might be a compliment. I took my job seriously. I had this vision of being the English teacher who knew her content, who earned her students’ respect through high standards and challenging assignments. I wasn’t that person yet, but I was glad he saw my potential.
But as the days passed, I started to wonder if Mr. Barth meant it as a matter-of-fact. Maybe it wasn’t a compliment at all. Maybe it was unsolicited advice.
I would think his words when writing hall passes or taking attendance or being interrupted by an announcement over the loud speaker. I didn’t like these aspects of high school when I went to high school. Why did I think it’d be different when I taught in one? And then there were the students. High school students befuddled me. They painted their nails in class. They used a cell phone when it wasn’t allowed. They plagiarized. They argued with me. They were dramatic and verbally abusive. I didn’t know how to enjoy them yet. I hardly fit into high school culture when I was that age, why did I think it’d be different as a teacher?
Did I quit? Move on? Go get a Ph.D? Nope. I’m way too determined, way too ambitious to stop my own madness.
Years went by. As I moved back to live among family and friends, and I married, and I found myself behind my own desk in my own secondary classroom, Mr. Barth’s words would creep their way into those more difficult days when I would reflect: why this profession over anything else?
His words helped me justify staying home to focus on our three daughters. I looked at my first baby at twelve weeks, the time when I would’ve returned to the classroom, and knew I felt more at ease with her than fretting over hall passes and grading essays.
As I decide what to do next—go back to school or not, find another teaching job or not—once our youngest starts kindergarten, this time I want to choose well. I want to be a month into that next career and have a colleague declare, “So glad you’re here. You’re right where you belong.”