By Roxanna Elden
It was while teaching high school English that I learned to read like a writer.
A common strategy among language-arts teachers is to share excerpts of “mentor texts” to help students learn specific skills. Students might copy the structure or rhyme scheme of a poem, or mimic the punctuation of a specific sentence to harness its rhythm. It was only a small jump from this teaching strategy to one of my favorite habits as an author: cataloguing books on Goodreads in painstakingly precise categories, then trying to reverse engineer what I love about the writing. As a result, I’ve spent many years thinking in an extremely technical way about what sets my favorite novels apart.
Three of my all-time favorite novels are “On Beauty,” by Zadie Smith, “A Man in Full,” by Tom Wolfe, and “A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan.” Each of these novels features an ensemble cast of fully rounded characters, allowing the stories to filter through different personalities, opinions, and even blind spots. They also feature great workplace scenes: Zadie Smith nails university politics down to the smallest detail. Jennifer Egan captures work pressures for a range of characters, from freelance publicists to safari tour guides. Some of Tom Wolfe’s deepest character development takes place during a meeting at a bank.
Another thing these three novels have in common? Their most significant scenes aren’t always dramatic. As a teacher, this made perfect sense to me. Yet it seemed that nearly every story I saw or read about my profession relied on thumpingly obvious cinematic shorthand: Here is a bad school! Here is a dedicated teacher! Here is a kid who seems tough but just needs to be understood! Low points showed students getting violent, or confronting the teacher with aggressive, on-the-nose monologues. There was always graffiti everywhere.
Meanwhile, real teachers know that objectively bad moments — like a fight in the classroom — are not always the ones that feel the worst. Handling a crisis well can even be a confidence booster. On the other hand, a moment that seems like no big deal from the outside can drag a teacher’s faith through the mud. As Egan, Smith, or Wolfe could tell you, it’s context and character that make the difference.
One of the toughest moments of my own teaching career, for example, wasn’t dramatic at all. It was an almost-normal day leading up to the big, important state test. I was teaching a class of fourth-grade English Language Learners who were a generally nice group of kids; they had never once provided the type of confrontational scene that might kick off a hero-teacher memoir or Hollywood edu-drama. But they were nowhere near ready for that test.
We’d been doing nonstop practice tests, even though even though this went against everything I believed about being a good teacher. But it wasn’t working. No number of worksheets or strategies, no bribe or threat I could think of, could get my students to pass the practice tests — and if they didn’t pass the test, they wouldn’t pass fourth grade.
At one point on this otherwise normal day, we took a bathroom break, and when we got back into the classroom, there was suddenly a huge commotion. The controversy turned out to be about whether one of the boys had — get this — used the hand sanitizer from the girls’ supply basket.
Maybe because I was so nervous about the test — or maybe because I was on my second or third Red Bull of the day, which I realized only later did not help my mood or patience — I couldn’t believe the kids were getting hung up on this little detail. The test was so close. The test!
So I said, in a voice that communicated my sense of urgency (a.k.a. yelling): “IS THIS REAAAALLLLYYY THE MOST IMPORTANT THING WE HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT RIGHT NOW?!”
Every single one of my students turned toward me and yelled back, with an equal sense of urgency: “YESSSS!”
Another thing novels allow us to do is move back and forth in time. And so, this feels like a good opportunity to flash forward and say I have since told this story to other people, and they usually think it’s funny. Now, over a decade later, I think it’s kind of funny, too. But in the moment, this whole scene felt like proof that I had failed completely at motivating my students. All I could think was, What ever made me believe I would be good at teaching?
It was exactly then that I realized I hadn’t refilled either of the hand sanitizer bottles for a very long time. Which made me realize the only reason the girls’ hand sanitizer bottle was full was because the girl in charge of carrying supplies had been refilling it with water from the bathroom sink. On top of all my other failures as a teacher, every kid in my classroom had been walking around with toilet germs on their hands for weeks.
Like I said, the worst moments as a teacher aren’t always the most dramatic. The good news is that the best moments aren’t, either.
This is one of the nuances I tried to capture in my novel, “Adequate Yearly Progress.” The novel follows several teachers as their professional lives crash into their personal lives, and vice versa. I wanted to break through the conventional, flattened narratives about what makes teaching a struggle, or a lifelong passion, and focus on the complicated humans who do the job. Fiction, with its bountiful toolbox, has hopefully allowed me to do just that — and I’m grateful to the writers, the colleagues and the students who shaped my own experience to give me the chance.
Here are the first three installments of this series: