What I do When My Students Take Tests

Note: I believe I wrote this in 2014. I was administering a state mandated test to my students, and once I distributed the exams, there was nothing much for me to do, so I wrote. It’s an excerpt of something that has no direction. I guess it could lead into a bigger story, but I’m not in the mood to go there.

Well, it’s that time of the year again. These latest rants are a result of my currently having too much time. My students are taking a state mandated test. I’m simply here to make sure they don’t cheat. I sit at the front of the class, I watch, and I write. Today, no one cheated, and so this is today’s piece.

I’m nearing the end of my sixteenth-year as a high school teacher. It’s no milestone, I know. Many have been at it for much longer, especially here at my current school.

I’m not gunning for record-breaking longevity. I don’t want to be that teacher that gets to work at the same hour every day and parks their car in the same space every day. That’s not for me.

I never wanted to be a high school teacher, nor any other type of teacher, for that matter. I got into it because I needed money. What a joke, right? A guy needs money, so he goes into teaching. But this is no joke. I was cash strapped.

Here’s the long version of how I got into the teaching racket. In 1998, I was working as a graduate assistant in the English department at California State Los Angeles and earning a Master’s Degree in English at the same time. I worked mornings and afternoons, and took all my classes at night. I was paid $857.00, a month for my services. I had moved back into my mom’s house that summer, so what I earned was enough to cover my monthly expenses, but just barely. I needed a little more, so to supplement my salary, I pimped out my labor services to all the English professors with whom I worked. I had gotten to know them fairly well, dining and attending parties with them and ordering all their books and supplies and doing odd jobs for them around the department. Mrs. Harris, a linguistics professor, invited a few of her students to her house for a May Day Party. At one point, we all stood around her mistuned piano and sang The Internationale.  It was a different world for me, and I liked it.  My presence probably gave them a glimpse of a different world, too, and I think they liked that aspect of it as well. I mean, c’mon, how many guys do you know that did time in L.A. County prison, twice, and earned a Master’s Degree in English? Yeah, thought so.

My first supplemental gig was for Ms. Benjamin. She paid me to rearrange everything in her detached office in the foothills of La Cañada. It was a rickety wooden shack of an office, camouflaged by trees and foliage and painted in the therapeutic colors red, orange, and yellow.  The only thing that kept it from falling over the cliff was the giant oak tree it leaned against. Inside, she had books everywhere. They were on the floor, on desks, on top of other books. She also had vases and candles and stereo equipment scattered throughout. It was a disaster, but I got it all in order for her. I also cleaned her roof gutters and fixed whatever else needed fixing around her house. She paid cash, and I used the money to get drunk in Old Town Pasadena with my girlfriend. Well, soon, Dr. Benjamin spread the word, and soon after that, I had all the professors lining up to get a piece of my Mexican labor.

Ms. Watkins paid me to take down every book from the library shelves in her Pasadena home. I dusted them and re-shelved them according to subject. I also cleaned and polished the shelves and washed her windows from the outside. She was a real bitch, though, picky about everything. Her inspection of everything I did was the reason I never returned. I never took any of her classes, either. In fact, I don’t even know what she taught.

Mr. Lee was a professor from China. He taught the Modern American Novel.  We read Ragtime and The Book of David and The Jungle and some other novels I can’t recall. He was a decent professor. We never really did much other than discuss the significance of the novels and their relevance to the modern world. It was pinky up kinda stuff, but it was part of the game, so I just played along.

There were only about twelve students in each of my classes. I was the only Mexican, not that this matters, but it was a little obvious to me. All classes met in the same room, whether it was the Post-Colonial Literature course or the Wordsworth and Coleridge course or the Proust course. The room was more like an office, and at its center was a long, wooden table that could seat about twenty-students. The professors always sat at the head of the table, usually hidden behind ridiculous stacks of papers, books, and bags that he or she never looked at or touched over the course of the three-hour meeting.  We’d sit there from six to nine discussing what we read, if we read it. On some nights we immersed ourselves in passionate debate over metaphors and symbols and motifs, while other nights were simply torture.

There was always that one attention-whore in the class with about twenty-seven key chains dangling from the zipper of her patent leather purse. And she was always late. We could hear her coming down the all from the parking lot. The sound of the chains was our signal to stop what we were doing, sit back in our seats, and wait for warden to take her seat. There was usually a snob in each class, too, the one that read everything, including the Forwards.

Will, this is all for now. The kids are done testing. They hate testing as much as I do. I have yet to tell them that every test they take in this class is completely irrelevant. I think I’ll wait till Friday.