Titus, Julius and Me
One of the most common complaints I heard in high school was “How in the world am I ever gonna use this out in the world?”
For a lot of us in pegged pants and Pendleton shirts that question pretty much covered all our classes. Since the science staff had deemed that I was undeserving of a slide rule, my whine was not aimed at basic Algebra or numbers but at Julius Caesar. What sort of latter day Torquemada had dreamed up that bit of teen punishment? My English teacher seemed to believe that students were like children; slap them daily because you might not know what they did wrong but they will. He couldn’t hit us (only the Dean could do that back then) so he slapped us with Shakespeare instead.
After our graduation and discharges from the Navy (yes, all Honorable) my friends and I took up pretty much where we had left off before the draft had scared us to death. We went to school as an avocation, and focused on a career in partying. Then a strange thing happened. I liked college. I started accumulating credits and eventually reached a point where I would lose some of them if I didn’t watch what classes I signed up for. Suddenly working and in a relationship with a girl who already had a year old son, I found myself staring at the upcoming semester’s schedule. The only class I could take that would fit into work and babysitting was, you guessed it, Shakespeare. I was doomed to be haunted by the ghost of Caesar instead of Hamlet’s father.
My trepidation was short-lived, however. Julius Caesar suddenly made sense. The rhythm of the language and all those great phrases that had peppered our lexicon. What’s not to like about a Titus Andronicus, the play of a Roman lord who kills his second wife’s sons and feeds them to her in a pie? It was like Hamlet having a head-on collision with King Lear. I loved that class.
I’m really awful with names and dates but I do remember my favorite teacher in those post-Navy days. His name was Mr. Johnson (always Mister Johnson; I don’t remember ever using his first name and I’m not too sure he had one). He was the head of the U.S. History program. Another favorite was Mr. Anderson. While Johnson was all warmth and compassion, Anderson was like a marine. He said that out of 100 students in our night Environmental Studies class, only 3 really were interested in ecology. The rest of us were vets taking any class available to keep our G.I. Bill checks coming in, or students forced to take a science. Regardless, vowed to teach to those three interested souls. The rest of us could hang onto their tails as if that holy trinity were kites.
Once married, e began to plan. Maybe I could transfer to Sonoma State University and get a B.A. before my benefits ran out. Maybe I could get a teaching credential. Then I learned what Mr. Johnson made a year. It turned out that I was making more money working on the loading dock of a large insurance company than the head of the JC History Department. My B.A. ushered in a management trainee job and then promotions to mid-management and my dream of hanging around college the rest of my life was ground into the dust by my new tax bracket. Mr. Johnson’s salary was static while mine kept increasing.
Now retired, I play tennis around the county and find that many of my fellow players are, or have been, teachers. I’ve mentioned the story above to most at one time or another, admitting my regret about going for the money, such as it was. Most replied, “You had to take care of your family.” I’ve never heard one teacher express regret their own choice of careers
So, I shake my head when I read letters and columns about the evil teacher’s unions and how their detractors would love to have a cushy job that gives you the summers off, in-service days and, yadda, yadda, yadda. Teachers, along with my wife and big brother, saved me from a likely partier’s fate of alcoholism, loss of family and friends, a constant parade of meaningless jobs, and a lot of tattoos, a topic I’ll save for a future column. I have a huge respect for those people who sacrifice a high salary in order to pass along the culture’s flame of knowledge. For them, I imagine loving what they do for a living is payment in full. For me, I believe they earn every dime and deserve a few pennies more.