Darrell J. Wiens is Professor Emeritus of Biology at the University of Northern Iowa, now living and writing short stories in Kansas City, Missouri. He loves to create stories that involve believable characters involved in college life, long distance running, coming of age, travels in Spain, bicycle touring, biological research, and social issues. An award-winning teacher, researcher, and mentor, he is author of 21 scientific papers and 53 research presentations, most co-authored with students from his laboratory. He is a pacifist Mennonite who enjoys cooking, tinkering with hot rods, bicycling, choral singing and discussions of books and stories.
Be a Teacher?
“Oh, I just wanted to strangle the little witch. She had poisoned not only my eleventh-grade history class but much of the whole school with that collection of vicious rumors she started. And she had half the teachers believing them. In twenty-six years of teaching, I have never run across a more scheming, malicious deceiver. And then, she looked like a sixteen-year-old Cate Blanchet—adolescent innocence personified.” Allison Andrews was now almost quivering in her chair, eyes smoldering with remembered rage. She turned back to Steve, her former student from a decade earlier. “Now what was it you asked me again…”
“A moment you felt like a teacher,” Steve reminded her. He had decided to ask a couple of his favorite former teachers this question to help him decide whether he might go into teaching. He was twenty-seven, single, and had been feeling unfulfilled in his job at InfoTech Financials. It was dry and lonely. He now knew he wanted something with meaningful human contact. Allison looked older, a little gray now, more filled out, and wiser, but she still had that directness. When she looked at you with her intent green eyes you couldn’t help but listen. And her voice—it sounded the same—it commanded a room even though it wasn’t excessively loud.
“Oh, yeah, a moment as a teacher! Sorry, I get going when I remember Terri the Terrible, as I used to think of her. Well, I guess my mind went to that year I had Terri in my history class when you asked your question, and I’m describing that time because eventually I had to figure out what to do about the situation I found myself in. What would you do, Steve? She had half the school believing I was about to be fired as a radical, anti-religion socialist and a pathetic alcoholic unable to hold down a teaching position for more than a year or two.”
“I’m listening. I sure am. I know I wouldn’t know what to do,” replied Steve. “And I want to hear why she went after you.”
“Okay. Since you ask about that, let me tell you the reason she came for me. It was almost trivial. It really didn’t take much to motivate her to destroy a victim of choice. She had her weapons always at the ready. In my case it was a short paper I had assigned followed by a test. I had everyone in the class write a position paper on the topic of banning books. She wrote in favor of it, as did some other students, and I expected that. But she had not backed up her position with evidence from past cases or cogent arguments. So, I wrote comments noting that, and gave her a C. It was well written, but not well supported. And then there was a test a week later over the colonial period, and she got a B on that. I knew she could do better based on her previous tests, and was probably mad about it, but I could tell from her body language she wasn’t finding this to be her fault at all. I later found out I wasn’t the only teacher or student she decided to scuttle. So, after that test she set her sights on me and began to employ her communication weapons.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s a pretty common scenario,” said Steve. “And I take it she was good at it. But now tell me what you did.” He shifted his weight and settled back in his chair.
“Terri was as effective on the attack as any kid I have ever seen, yeah. I realized that after I noticed a change in the way students and then other teachers and staff were starting to behave toward me. I got a lot of stares. I got terse responses in conversation. I got a lot of tangible avoidance. It was puzzling. It became baffling. And then I overheard a couple of conversations in the hallways, just catching my name and a few words and phrases that seemed so strange—why would that be about me? What allowed me to put it all together was an Instagram post I saw over the shoulder of one student showing it to another just as I was walking into class one afternoon, and I could see it was posted by Terri. The post had a picture of me at my desk—I guess she took it secretly—grading papers and looking really disheveled and angry. My hair was all crazy, and I was scowling, just as if I was reading a really clueless paper, you know? And my right hand was holding up a rubber stamp with the word “Cancel” spelled backwards on it. She must have photoshopped that in. And next to the picture was an image of a hand reaching for a glass of whisky. The hand looked like it was coming from me in the adjacent picture. Well, that right there would do it, you know? At that point I realized what had been going on and I was shocked, almost paralyzed for the rest of the day. I think I taught my classes on autopilot. When I got home, I dropped my stuff, poured a glass of chardonnay, and sat down hard in my favorite chair. I started thinking about the whole mess and what I could do about it. That evening I came up with nothing; I was just… grieving, you know? What she had done threatened my identity as a teacher and really, my life. It took the next two days to get back into a functional state. My teaching was on indefinite autopilot.”
Steve tried to imagine himself dealing with it, but he too had nothing. “Wow, that’s worse than a hostile outburst. It’s worse than a physical fight. Yeah, by far. But you eventually came up with a plan of some kind, right?”
“I thought and thought,” Allison went on, “and I had to dismiss, you know, just suspend all the hurt and anger…had to do that to think rationally. It occurred to me that I could go to the principal and explain what had happened. But that would lead to a number of issues I would not be happy with, sharpening Terri’s hostility leading to more attacks—she would probably manage a way to do it despite any sanctions from the principal, and probable loss of respect from the principal and some teachers who would come to view me as incompetent to deal. Plus, there would be no easy way to undo the damage she had done in the minds of students and teachers. Eventually I knew there would be no use in seeking any kind of revenge. The girl would fight back, and with her head start and her well-honed skills, she would be able to destroy my career. Maybe she had already done that—if she was thinking that far ahead. So, I had to come up with something she would not expect and that would change her state of mind. It meant I had to talk to her. Of course, that would not be easy to manage for a lot of reasons. But it’s what I decided I had to do. So the question now was how to do it.”
Steve’s brow was now baring worry lines. “Yeah, you could hardly corner her in the classroom or hallway,” he ventured. “She’d sure see you as having figured things out and very hostile. She would be avoiding you anyway, right? And notifying the parents would likely deepen her hostility and maybe even ally them with her against you…”
“Oh yeah, she was already avoiding me. And I wanted to avoid involving the parents or anyone else. So here’s what I did: I wrote a note, a fairly long one, to the innocent-looking little bully. No email or messaging out of caution. It said that I had been looking over the scores of everyone and noticed her dropping grades on the recent two assignments and that I wanted to help. It said I knew she was a good student, someone who wanted to keep her marks up, and that I had a plan for how she could fix things. Could she please stick around after class for a few minutes to talk on Friday? I knew she didn’t have another class or activity right after. This was a gamble, because smart and socially tuned in as she was, she could easily refuse by making an excuse. I was banking on her affinity for perfect grades. I put the folded note on her desk right after class Wednesday as she was packing up her things and getting ready to leave. She did take it, but she didn’t look at it then. She just looked puzzled. And she left. Just as she went out the door she turned and looked at me, and I put on the kindest, most benevolent smile I could muster. I was ready with it, and I managed to do it only by imagining I had just been given a grand illustrious award for kindness above and beyond. I practiced it in front of a mirror! Well, she smiled back by way of reflex, but I saw that disappear fast as she stepped through the door.”
Steve laughed out loud. “You’re as good an actor as teacher!”
“I had to be. There was a lot on the line there! And thanks for the compliment.”
“Well, you’re just about the best I ever had. Did she show up Friday?”
“She did. I wouldn’t have bet on it. And I didn’t have any plan B. But right after class, she left with the others—probably didn’t want anybody to know she was meeting me—and then she came back in after about a minute. That was a long minute, mind you! Her innocent face had no expression I could read at all. Totally indifferent. I felt sure she could succeed at high stakes poker. She put down her backpack and sat down. I reinstalled my benevolent smile and pulled up a nearby chair.”
“You have me in suspense Allison. This must have been like a poker game, and you were bluffing with only two pairs in your hand. How did it go down?”
“You know, it went down pretty smoothly.” Allison leaned back in her chair with raised brows and a crooked smile. It reminded Steve of Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt. “I had to play the cards I had, so there was no other strategy. I stuck with what I had written in the note and didn’t let on that I knew what she had been doing. I gave her the option of rewriting her paper on book banning with some solid support for her position. She might have thought she had to change her position, but I had told her that wasn’t the problem. At any rate, she didn’t bring that up. She just nodded and said she understood. And then I told her she couldn’t retake the test (my policy), and that it wasn’t so bad; it would pull down her average a little, but if she did well on the remaining tests, she could still reach the A range by the end. She nodded and her face got a little softer then—barely perceptible, but I saw it. Her poker face fell just a little. She sat and thought for a beat. And then, she nodded again and said she thought it was fair. She agreed to do the paper again and said she would study harder for the tests to come—she said she hadn’t studied for that last one enough because she had a ‘lot of stuff going on’. I said I understood, and I thought she could do it. And then we got up and she left. Her poker face was still pretty much on, but we had an understanding. I was relieved. I didn’t know what would happen to my reputation; a lot of damage was done, you know? But I thought at least she would stop the campaign. That was the moment I felt most meaningfully like a teacher.”
“Yeah, that’s a major win,” said Steve. “You shifted the dynamic in a big way. It had to have changed the way she was thinking about you, and if she had any moral compunction at all, she must have realized she was responsible for doing damage. A sixteen-year-old might not see all the ramifications, but she had to be aware to some degree, right?”
She cornered him with her formidable green eyes. “Steve, don’t forget she was a bully and they have their defenses. I know sixteen-year-olds well— they’re all over the place as far as understanding implications of their behavior. Some will never allow themselves to admit guilt, even if they are aware. With some, it creeps in gradually, slowly.”
“So all this was five or six years ago. And you’re still here, gainfully employed, apparently. What was the aftermath then?”
“Well Terri earned her A in US History. And she must have stopped the on-line bashing because the way the students and teachers were avoiding me and staring at me gradually eroded. Terri didn’t interact with me for the remainder of that year nor the next. She graduated near the top of her class. I don’t know how she was doing otherwise, except that I noticed she seemed to be studious and a little withdrawn, you know, whenever I’d see her, she was not so much hanging with a group of friends or laughing it up as much. As for me, yeah, the damage had thrown me into some depression, and that was tough. I kept wondering what people thought of me. But classes of kids come and go, and I gradually woke up to reality that the new groups didn’t know; they hadn’t heard the rumors. And the teachers, well, most of them faced tough situations with students of one kind or another. Battle scars. And they knew I wasn’t foisting socialist agendas on my students or perishing in alcoholic oblivion.”
“That’s good to hear,” said Steve. His face brightened a bit. “You know, it has me thinking that your ‘moment of teaching’ was not much related to what most people think of as teaching. It was just a tough confrontation you resolved in a creative, unorthodox way. It could have happened in a workplace, a neighborhood, or a family setting as well as in a school.” He looked down at his clasped hands a moment. Then he looked up and said, “but I think it often fails to resolve successfully.”
“You have a good point. But I would say that in a school we have a distinctive stage for ‘the play’. You have young people, impressionable and on their quests to build their lives, and they should be there to learn, and you have teachers who have prepared to engage with and guide them. It’s not a perfect play and failure is common, but the stage is set every day. It’s the nature of a school to create these opportunities for learning.”
“But you asked about the aftermath,” Allison continued. “And there is one more thing I can do to fill out this story for you. Come with me.” She got up and walked out of the classroom. Steve followed. She turned to go out through a door that led to an adjoining room, a sort of prep room crowded with three desks, shelves with books and stacks of papers. There were two women who looked to be in their twenties, but one was just leaving with a notebook and coffee mug. The other was sitting at one of the desks, intently reading and marking a stack of student papers. She was petite, blond, and pretty. She looked up from her work as they came into the room. Allison walked over toward her and said she had someone she wanted her to meet.
“This is Steve Henson, a student I knew from about ten years ago. He’s here visiting, asking questions about being a teacher. He’s thinking about whether to commit to that idea after a few years working for a tech company. And Steve, this is Terri Raiden, a student teacher working with me since September. She wants to be a social science teacher and managed to get assigned to the very school from which she graduated six years ago. Steve, Terri and I usually have a few drinks and pizza Friday evenings downtown at the White Rabbit. It usually leads to a poker game with a few others afterword. Care to join us?”