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Losing My Faculties: A Teacher’s Story by Brendan Halpin


Rating: (Recommended)


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You don’t need to be teacher to enjoy Brian Halpin’s new book, Losing My Faculties: A Teacher’s Story. Halpin presents the workplace in universal terms: relations with bosses, co-workers and customers (in his case, students and parents.) At times, Halpin’s writing will take your breath away. He finds a precise and clear way to present a situation that will seem familiar to any worker, whether it’s involving a difficult boss, an unmotivated co-worker, or the lack of cohesion on a work team. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 28 (pp. 96-101):

Even though things are going well in most respects, I am not happy here. At the end of my fourth year both Kurt and Jesse leave Northton High. They both live far away and so have good reasons to leave, but the bottom line is that this is just not a place where they can see themselves staying.

I feel the same way. In fact, I've always felt the same way, which is why I always send out resumes in the spring. In fact, while I've gotten better and better at working with the kids, and I even handled the two pain-in-the-ass parents okay, the other teachers here are driving me nuts. I have started to just really hate them. It gets to the point where I write a thinly veiled attack on them that I actually read to one of my writing-workshop classes. I call two of my colleagues "weasel boy" and "the eggman" in this masterpiece.

So it is October of my fifth year at Northton High. I have two very high-energy classes of sophomores who talk about getting drunk all the time, but I don't really feel like its anything I can't handle. I have what may be the best writing-workshop class ever.

And yet . . .

I can't sleep. Every night I lie down, tired to the bone, and I can't fall asleep. It's like I have forgotten how to fall asleep. I lie awake for hours. Sometimes I get up and watch TV. Once I see the Ben Folds Five on Conan O'Brien and there are only three of them, and they rock, and, like the old men when I was a kid who thought Molly Hatchet sure had a deep voice for a girl, I thought they were a five-piece piano pop band, and here they are rocking with guitars on late-night TV. I question whether there is even a guy named Ben Folds in the band. Probably not. Am I dreaming this?

If only. I won't dream anything until I finally fall asleep. Usually this is somewhere between two and four in the morning. I get up at quarter to six.

I go to the doctor. He gives me a prescription for Ambien. I take one and sleep for six hours in a row, though I wake up feeling not very refreshed. I am too familiar with both Valley of the Dolls and the life of Elvis Presley to be really comfortable taking a pill to fall asleep. I take it one other time, then flush the rest of the bottle down the toilet.

I go to a therapist. We have some nice talks. He tells me I need to get a book on "sleep hygiene." I don't.

I go to a homeopathic doctor. He gives me a dose of sulphur, or rather of lactose powder, which once touched something that touched something that touched a molecule of sulphur.

Friday nights I sleep fine. Saturday nights I sleep fine. Sundays I can't sleep, and won't sleep again until Friday. The same thing happens every weekend. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that this has something to do with work. So what is it? Well, fortunately, I have a lot of time to think about it. Here is what I come up with.

I have done okay at Northton. Actually I have done better than okay. I have gone from a second-year teacher who knew nothing to a sixth-year teacher who is, mostly, very good at his job. My classes used to be easy—now I do actually bust tads' butts sometimes. I created a writing elective. I love my students and have been really lucky to build some nice relationships with a lot of them.

And yet Northton is a totally white suburb of Boston. I am spending two hours a day to get there. I now have a nine-month-old daughter and time is getting more precious. I feel strangely disconnected, like I am disintegrating. I'm hopping between two cultures. At home, I live in this diverse neighborhood (though we liberal white folks who like to crow about this never talk about how, for the most part, it is carefully segregated street by street. So when we say we really value the diversity, we mean we see people browner than us at the supermarket, but very few of us live on the same street or in the same building as them). I am part of the city, I want to make the city a better place, and yet I am using the (only skills I have to do that twenty-six miles away. I meant it when I said I belonged in the city, but I couldn't get a job there, and I got one here, and working in the city was the reason I got into this, and after five years, I feel like my dream is slipping out of my reach.

My students come from a culture that is getting more and more foreign to me. Yes, we are all white, and yes, economically I have a lot in common with many of them. But I have never lived this kind of life, never lived in the world of basement rec rooms and hanging at the mall, and every day when I drive through the long rows of identical ranch houses to get to work, I think to myself, what the hell am I doing here? Some of my students laugh openly when I mention the neighborhood I live in. Many more ask me if I've ever been shot at. They are not joking. In some fundamental way, I just don't fit in, yet it looks like I am stuck here.

Of course, many of my students feel sort of the same way, which is why I bond especially to the kids who don't quite fit in the rigid social atmosphere here, the kids who, like me, think it's creepy that cheerleaders are assigned a football player and have to bake cookies for him and decorate his locker before every game.

And, as I said, my colleagues are driving me insane.

Some are incompetent. Besides the guy who requested the level-three classes so nobody would care if he wasn't working, there is a teacher who calls everyone "sweetheart," and nobody gets below a C in her class. (Her relentless friendliness also hides a passion for the status quo and a fear and loathing of anyone different. Caroline and I develop this personal litmus test where we figure that the few kids who see through this lady are really something special.) Captain Jack only periodically showed up drunk and then stopped drinking when he got cancer, so he's still there and sober and in remission, though he is still not really doing much teaching.

Some are racist. Last year, a teacher who should have packed it in years ago, a walking cloud of bitterness, was finally given the gate for saying to the one Hispanic kid in his class, after the kid wasn't paying attention when he asked a question, "Why don't you get welfare to buy you a hearing aid?" Caroline was actually instrumental in getting the kid to report this, and as a result she is a total pariah with most of the faculty now. She's also looking for another job. In my second year, the lady who runs the student community-service club has kids pretend to be dead on some drunken-driving-awareness day. As the day goes by, more and more kids "die" from drunk driving. They signify that they are dead by painting their faces black and not speaking. I complain about the incredibly racist symbolism, talk about Ralph Ellison and black invisibility, and she listens politely. Dead kids continue to wear blackface annually thereafter.

Many more are just old, tired, and bitter. They complain about everything. All the time. They don't show any passion for their work, and I wonder if they ever did. The school lets out at one forty-five. It's an absolute ghost town by two, though our contract requires us to stay until two-thirty. The people who are quickest to file a grievance when the administration doesn't adhere to the contract, including our union rep, are impossible to find by two.

Some young people have been hired, but by the end of this year everyone under forty who was there or was; hired since I was will have left. Why not? Why stay here? These are not people who are iin teaching because they love it—they are in teaching, by and large, because they wanted a dependable civil-service job, or they wanted to be able to spend their entire summer on the Cape, or they wanted to coach hockey. Teaching is an inconvenience.

And you can't ever talk about it. They are all so insecure that they view any talk about teaching as an attack. (Though from the little I know about the history of this place, sometimes it really is an attack, so maybe they're not as paranoid as I think.)

So the people I work with feel more like the people I work against. When I see the students for between forty-five and ninety minutes, and I try to get them to use their minds and open up, they are coming from hours of lackluster classes in which they are either beaten down, bored to death, or insulted with easy work.

And the worst part—and this is the part, I think, that is keeping me from sleeping—is that I am turning into one of them. On my worst days—days like tomorrow, for example, when I will be barely functional due to lack of sleep—1 am doing a better job for these fads than most of the people I work with. So why try to be excellent, when even good enough is better than most? I am starting to mail it in. In another year, or two, or five, I will be mailing it in every day.

And I will be bitter because I am stuck in a job I no longer love. I will be bitter because I hate myself and the people I work for and with. The burnouts' victory over me will be complete. I will have become them.

Over the course of several sleepless nights, I come to a conclusion. I have to stop working here. I would rather not teach than continue to teach here, because I will soon be the kind of teacher that gives teaching a bad name. This must be how people feel when they decide to end a problematic relationship (I was always on the receiving end, so I am only speculating here, analogy-wise). It breaks my heart, and I don't use that loosely, I mean it really makes me sad in the way that saying good-bye to someone you love makes you sad, to think that I might not be teaching. But if teaching means staying here, I can't do it. I'm still in love, but this relationship just isn't working. Come January, I decide, I will send in my letter of resignation. This is well before the teaching job hunt gets under way. So I will be committed. I won't let myself get trapped by the security, the insurance, the pension, and I will not tell Northton High that we can still be friends, though I will say it's not you, its me.

You’ll finish reading Losing My Faculties and reflect on what makes you happy in some jobs and miserable in others. He puts words and tells stories about feeling each of us may have at work.

Steve Hopkins, October 28, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the November 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: My Faculties.htm


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