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Confessions of a Quiet Teacher (With a Short Review of "Hustle and Flow")

I taught high school English for a couple of years when I was fresh out of college.  At the time, I was under the impression that teaching was going to be my day job, but then my passion for writing would pull me up to a higher level and I'd be off to fame and fortune before too long.  (Then the county ran out of money and all the other new teachers and I got fired, but that's a rant for another day.)

It's been almost ten years since then, and I catch myself wondering at times if I should try to go back to teaching as a career.  Then I remember how frustrated and depressed I felt, and so I go about my day as usual.  Anytime I look back, I'm hit with a sense of unease and discomfort as I place myself back into the classroom.

It was not a job I was particularly good at, nor did I have much enthusiasm.  But those were minor challenges when you consider that most of the world is made of people who kinda hate their jobs.  The real challenges were more banal and indestructible.

For example, being quiet.  Teachers cannot be quiet.  A loud, booming, commanding voice is essential for classroom management and basic respect.  But I am not loud or booming.  The sounds in my head tell me that I'm screaming, yet everyone around me struggles to hear.  And since I typically have no use for shouting in my day to day life, I'm not good at it.  My voice cracks and breaks and falls apart, and the end result is less a commanding bellow and more a creaky-voiced teenager pretending to be an adult.

A quiet teacher might still be able to succeed under some circumstances.  Say, if you had a smallish corner classroom with solid brick walls and a door that you kept closed, and you were teaching a reasonably well-behaved group of kids.  In that case, you won't really need to shout, and so you can just sustain your voice at a "slightly louder than chatting" volume and maintain awareness.

But that's not what my classroom was like.  My room was crap.

You see, sometime back in the 1970s or whenever the hell they built my school, some douchebag had this great idea:  "Let's get rid of all of the walls and just have one huge, giant room where students can interact with each other!!!!"  This is probably the same genius who came up with painting nurseries with lead and giving kids lawn darts for Christmas.

Predictably, that plan fell apart, since all children will spontaneously develop ADHD when overstimulated by the presence of two hundred other children sitting around them.  So the school was stuck with these enormous suck rooms with an open floor plan.  Since it would have been too expensive to renovate, they did the next best thing and stuck in a bunch of partitions to create makeshift "rooms."

The problem is that these partitions never actually rose to the ceiling.  They came up about three-quarters of the way and then stopped - probably due to a fire code issue.  This meant it was impossible to conduct a single lesson without having literally the entire English department either hear what your students were saying OR to hear what every other student in the department was saying.

The noise level was compounded by the fact that I was stationed in the room next to Ms. Thundershout, a woman who was boisterous, spirited, and apparently beloved by her students.  God, I hated her.  She made teaching look so easy, and all of her kids responded to every damn thing she said with love and appreciation.  Meanwhile, I was lucky if only three students called me a loser.

Ms. Thundershout was one of those people who communicated to her students through catch phrases and co-opted bits of media.  Whenever it sounded like a student was hesitating, she'd do a Billy Madison impersonation and go, "T-t-t-t-today, junior!"  And whenever it sounded like she wanted to dismiss a student's complaints about something, she'd say, "It's hard out there for a pimp, son!"

At the time, I only tenuously understood that "It's hard out there for a pimp" was a reference to Hustle and Flow.  I hadn't seen the movie when I was teaching.  I only just saw it last week for the first time.

Maybe it's the fact that "It's hard out there for a pimp" was constantly interrupting my meek and middling attempts to connect with my students on any level, or maybe it was the fact that at the time I was a teacher, I was also dreaming of a much better life, but I really felt connected to the DJay character in Hustle and Flow.

It's a great movie about panic, trepidation, dreams, and despair - all old friends by this point. The scene where he is about to record a track and needs to go talk to his neighbor to get him to turn down his music really got me pretty hard.  Terrence Howard absolutely nails the right look of desperation as DJay runs across the street and begs his neighbor for a bit of silence.  At that moment in time, surely some part of him probably realizes that it's a little bit silly - that he could record his vocals another time, or that putting his track together is probably not going to be the lottery ticket that takes him out of the 'hood and brings him to stardom.  And yet, in that moment, there is nothing more important for DJay.  It's serious.  And nothing can convince him otherwise that he is doing exactly what he was meant to do with his life at that moment.

Of course, in real life, I didn't get arrested for shooting Ms. Thundershout's posse in the men's room.  I just stewed in my classroom and waited ten years to whine about it on the Internet.  So, I guess you could say that DJay and I are very different people.

Anyway, I enjoyed Hustle and Flow quite a bit, even though I'm not much closer to achieving any of my dreams now than I was way back then.  I'm also still searching for what it means that a movie about a drug-dealing pimp reminded me of my first career.