Tuesday, March 13, 2007

I am a writer because I can't teach, because a teacher can't be crazy

Thirty years ago, on a bright January day, I decided to stop teaching.

The move was not hard to make.

I had taught six semesters straight, had no summer vacation, was untenured, and felt I was badly used by a liberal arts faculty who just saw me as a supply teacher who could be put into any slot at any time, night or day.

This was hard on the system, my system.
Renaissance man. Natural. Could do anything. Anything? What did I know about math? But I had to teach that too. And psychology, and something called Existential Philosophy, which I immediately found, ah, absurd.

All my writing friends had been bemused by my decision to teach in the first place.

Chickened out, did you? Couldn't handle the pressure of writing. Of deadlines. Took the easy way out!

But the teaching "way out" wasn't all that easy.

Everybody carried knives this long, there were times I had been placed in a den of thugs, not all of them intelligent, and I was getting really tired, as I made my appointed rounds, of being told told by hirsute, hippie-looking barbarians-- other teachers in this cabal-- that they could "hurt me."
I had been a successful magazine columnist and on the strength of that success, I was pressganged as an English teacher in a college whose hiring practice was to hire achievers and not necessarily PhD's.

But then I was surprised to learn that except for two lonely, timorous, frightend Doctors, I was the only degree holder in the Department of Anguish. What was this? Flintstone University?

Alley Oops all, loinclothed and mortarboarded--well, not really mortarboarded, on their dinosaurs.

Community college.

Rock University.

I had graduated from a place called Ryerson, itself once known as "Rye High", but while there, I observed among the teachers, a certain ease of doing things, of making the difficult seem simple, of a great camaraderie, a sense of community. This attitude I picked up, and it really was my style of teaching. Offhand, but, hopefully, with some knowledge of the material.

But the more I taught at X College, the more I realized that students were not taught, they were manipulated, even sexually manipulated. I would see some courses dwindling from 23 to three students, within a few months, certainly with one teacher.

Something was clearly wrong in the state of Denmark.

"Of course, I manipulate students," my department head was saying, in his own queer way. "But it's for their own good."

Damn if war doesn't always come when you're not ready.

My wife was becoming bored with my Dagwood Bumstead routine, my children were uncomfortably bright and needed attention while wifey was student at her night classes; she said something about dating some prof; people were after my job, a class of "graduate students" wanted to bandy words with me when they didn't have the words to bandy and I had to fail three of them because they felt it was above them to actually complete assignments.

I had words with the course head of that particular group of know-it-alls, about their attitude, and he countered by entering my classes and demanding to see my lecture outlines. Happily, for once, I was organized and had all the xeroxes for the class. But what was another teacher doing monitoring my classes? We had words. I offered an elegant explanation: F-off, Burton, and get the hell out of my classes. You are forming some sort of cult here.

Work pressure kept building up. I was teaching about four disciplines now, and even more in night classes.

Old wifey comes home a four a. m. "Did you get laid?" "What if I did?"

Damn that nunnery they have at Glendon York school of French. All men are are arseholes.

The hangers- on at the house that I was getting increasingly good at kicking out, peeing- off the wife.

And all this time building up to a nervous breakdown, big time.

"I've got to get back to being a writer, and not a teacher, because a teacher can't be crazy."

My deparment head, a Fifties man was accused of using greasy kid stuff, had a nervous brreakdown over it and was soon fired.

Suddenly, tenure was upon me. "Lots of work around here, Doctor," the dean had said.

But it was too much and too late. "I finished this last semester, did I not? I hung in and got rid of the troublemakers, not only in my department, but in Physics and formal English. "Now I'm going to have a quiet nervous breakdown."

It was really a defining moment. Another teacher was made department head, but I was too enervated to worry or even care. I had to get out.

Well, get out I did. I went to Mexico, was immediately hired as department head of Nonfiction Writing by the University of California, at least at a Mexican satellite campus. "Feather in your cap," writes the poor wife, stuck witth the children.

My god. Out of the frying pan and into paradise. At least for a year.

I won't bore you with the rest of the story.

When my Ulysses Comes Home (Woof-Woof, Wag-Wag).

"You mixed-up idiot-savant, who's spouting Socracres and Kant
"And here's you coat and shoes, thoughtfully picked by label, Hart.
"Your philandry is plain to see
"You're really not that bloody smart."

Two paradises lost in the space of a year.

My own satirical poetry back in my face, in real time.

Ensconced in a tiny apartment while the lady rents the house.

The moral of the story?

Stay in that kitchen. Take the heat.

Hell is a hundred times hotter.


islandgrovepress said...


While there is no question I am losing it, I somehow lost your comment and the wonderful information about Pam's incredibly beautiful Alpacas out there in Australia.
Got to "Sienna"'s blog all right, and those "cautious camels" are lovely as ever.
I want an Alpaca.


Donnetta Lee said...

Hi, Ivan. I've met many a crazy teacher. I've met many a good teacher. People think since I work in schools that I am a teacher. No, I am not. But my hat is off to those who can take the heat. My hat is twice off to those who take the heat and do it well. I couldn't teach to save my life. And, well, maybe I AM a little crazy...Donnetta

Sienna said...

G'day Ivan,

I enjoyed reading this post too, but I think I feel a little sad over it...hindsight is...and crazy is good, anyway.

This would make for a great movie you know?

The alpacas are the most curious creatures, wary of people, (but I can get near and touch them, not cuddly-type touch, but more a gentle, forehead pat and scratch)...those periscope necks and intense eyes are constantly on the lookout, and they make this high pitched "weeek" when disturbed by something they are unsure of.

They follow me around the paddock when I'm in there, just so inquisitive. They can run? quite fast, looks so loping and ineffective the action...the strangest thing to see.

Ivan I would love to name one of our racehorses after you, I'm not being cheeky, I just love how you write and your humor, we do tend to name our animals after people we admire...so it's an honor-type thing for us, of course I always ask, some aren't comfortable with a racehorse sharing their name. That's fine too, of course.

We have a fine, young, brown horse who is about to qualify and race in next couple of months...(I will put a picture of him up)...we just haven't been able able to decide on a name..your thoughts?


islandgrovepress said...

Hi Donnetta,

It must be the particular school I taught in, but there was so much politicking and empire building
that all your energies seemed spent on protecting your back while there was hardly any thunder left for the students.

Students, at this particular college seemed to get in the way of serious empire building. They were a nuisance, a necessary evil;
Shirked, if possible: give them self-study assignments and hide in the faculty room.
Well, I was hired back. About five times. It is possible that there was something of Jerry Lewis' original nutty professor in me, but the kids seemed to dig it.

Actually, I couldn't cross the campus without somebody throwing a footblall my way. And they liked to gather under the chesnut trees, sitting on picnic tables listening to the professor's B.S.

Miss it.


islandgrovepress said...

Hi Pam,

Ethelred the Unready Prof here.

Oh, don't I love your description of those wonderfu, almost ethereal

Pam, I would be delighted and honored to have a race horse named afer me.

Over here, we have this Stephen Colbert, a cut-up of the Spike Milligan vein who, in his "Colbert Report" always talks about how the eaglet named after him is doing.(His logo is an American eagle falling crazily from the sky).

He has also put our Oshawa Generals on the map by saying his team can play better hockey than the Canucks--and it does.

A movie of my endlessly recurring theme. Hey.
I wish somebody had given me the thought while I still had the new Buick to impress Hollywood moguls with. I hear that works!
Good idea, though.
...Actually, I already have the material in novel form...Give it a treatment, I suppose.

Thanks for your continuing correspondence.
You live in heaven, but I guess you know that.


EA Monroe said...

"I am a writer because I can't teach, because a teacher can't be crazy."

That sounds familiar to me, Ivan. Although, I did get out of the kitchen before the place heated up and I did go crazy, which I have done since. (I was probably already crazy.)

Ah, kids! There's nothing like walking to lunch and hearing fifth graders on the playground shout, "Mrs. Monroe stinks!"

And removing "roach" clips from the hands of nine year olds while keeping everyone out of trouble, myself included!

islandgrovepress said...

That's Blackboard Jungle all right.

It was easier to have been a man in some of those situations. They seem to have more--dare one say it-- respect for a man. Especially if that man had had a school of hard knocks himself till he clambered up to his position."I knows your face, Billy Boy!"

I did find though, that the readl danger came from the other teachers, the empire builders.

They would stop at nothing to get ahead.
Like Professor Laurent Peter once said (he of the Peter Principle):
The competition is so high because the stakes are so low.


Donnetta Lee said...

Sounds like Liz was visiting my school! We watched a drug deal going down outside of our office door last week. Yeah, yeah, turned it in along with names. I caught two cuties "doing it" in an old bathroom. Had to turn that in writing to the principal. Very interesting and very enlightening. Gee, I'm learning a lot! Donnetta

Josie said...

Ivan, somehow I can't see you as "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit". You are what you are, and that is interesting. You let your life take you where it wanted you to go, and you really did not have any control over that. I have always admired people like that. One thing you aren't is a 'fraidy-cat. A cool cat, maybe.

The whole concept of the wife and the kids and the dog and the cat and the station wagon (or SUV) and the mortgaged house in the suburbs is really a myth created by people who wanted to sell you all those things. You weren't buying. So, you shouldn't regret it now. I think people, even whole families, can live better when they're not boxed in by all that.

I didn't raise my daughter that way, but she has bought into that myth, and it is stifling her and her children.

Consider yourself really lucky to have lived the live you did.

I think Pam should name one of her racehorses after you, you deserve it! Maybe it will run like the wind.


islandgrovepress said...

Thanks, Josie.

That's quite a take.

Sometimes the "hero" gets his lance broken and his dvd's seared. Damn dragons have flamethrowers now.

I am told a good armor maker and a urologist can cure these things...Sure made a mess of my chainmail pants.

Maybe the menders have done their work.

A lot of my male friends have made similar observations to yours.
"It was your life. You picked 'er."

Seems parts of the family are trickling back anyway.


islandgrovepress said...



I know this kind of thing has been going on for the past twenty years, but right in the school?

Ineresting what JR may have to say about it.


doubting thomas said...

A race horse named Ivan! That little horsie would always start on the pole (Pole). Puns aside, do you remember Annabelle the Wonder Horse? She was Rimmer's hobby for awhile.

islandgrovepress said...

Poles apart in our thinking?

Famous Pole in New York named Staschiu Liberty?

"Rimmer", or Paul Rimstead was our sort of Jimmy Breslin in Canada, with a touch of Russell Baker thrown in.He was a wildly funny writer.
Also fond of the Damon Runyon life, including horses.
Paul and I sometimes worked for the same magazines, though he was truly some sort of original.


Sienna said...

Ha haa, rubber neck software..

I am up to (your) chapter 34...this ends okay doesn't it?
I'm worried for this bloke.


islandgrovepress said...

Ah, yes, Pam.

I had mentioned in your blog comment space that Alpacas were very cute and very tall, and since they can look down on us humans, they are probably developing an overview, and maybe even high intelligence. Perhaps one could eventually become a dalai llama. I could just hear them saying, "We are tall, we have long necks, and we are developing software"

But I got back to reality and realized tha alpacas already carried software, that is to say, they are woolly.

I am so flattered, Pam, that you have actually read my uh, magnum opus, my novel, "Light Over Newmarket".
Yes, in Chapter 34, my Kevin Logan,
too naive to go to first-class rehab, ends up in The House of Pistachios, veritably a nut house that he'd signed himself into.

Talk about Hogarth and that Rake's Progress.
I left out some bits, including the shrink saying that Kevin was a different kind of rake, but still a pistachio.
The book is left sort of open-ended
with a flash from the Surangama
Sutra (For Kevin, heretofore, it was really the Kama Sutra. LOL).

"Chuffed" that you're reading my book. Thanks for staying with it.


Donnetta Lee said...

Ivan: Yep, these things go on right in the school. We had a "lock down" at the middle school. One female student brought a loaded gun to school in her backpack. Oh, she wasn't going to use it. She was bringing it to a friend to use it on her boyfriend. They did a locker search and found knives and drugs in several students' lockers. Had a kindergartner bring a knife to school the first week and threaten another kid on the playground. Well, it keeps ya interested.

And as to the other issue: We do shape our lives. I believe that. I just wish that whenever we do it, we knew what in the h**l we were thinking!!


islandgrovepress said...


Good on you for hanging in there at what must surely be a fingernail-on-the-blackboard situation. I am convinced that nowadays there just don't seem to be enough brave and able people.

How many southern Californians does it take to change a lightbulb?
Three: One to change the bulb and two to "share the experience."

Yeah, all this laying- out of the soul does seem a little mawkish at times.
But there is an ousdie chance--very outside--that we may be doing something right.

The old "artist" thing?
We weep like hell, but one eye is open a bit to see if someone else is watching...? LOL.


Josie said...

Ivan, I think you have the most interesting blog in the blogosphere (is that a word, or did I just make it up?)

You shouldn't be blue, you are a very cool dude.

I did my taxes today. Usually I have to pay, but this year I got an $85.00 (ha!) refund. Oh, what, oh, what am I going to do with all that money?


islandgrovepress said...


Part of the reason for my "blue Wednesday" was a realization--especially after reading your blog on the condition known as Synesthesia, that I had been imitating the actions of first-rate adepts--and they all seemed to have Syneshthesia, that is to say, having player-piano responses to things, and in in colour, that most people don't seem to have.

So where there had been "anologue" in these people's perceptions, I was trying to ape them with a digital copy-catting, that is to say, epistemology, if you can wrap your mind around that.

In a word, I was a normal guy trying to be a genius, without realizing geniuses seemed to have eyes like trilobites, that is to say, to be able to see in prisms--and very early in evolution.

What's a poor guy with the IQ of a mildly retarded high school teacher to do? I want to contract Synesthesia, and I want to get it now. LOL.
No wonder those genius folk seemed so twisted. They simply didn't see the world the way you and I normally see it... Malcolm Lowry comes to mind--I do believe he spent a long time on Vancouver Island or somewhere.

For a while, I tried to imitate Malcolm Lowry--with some success; Doubting Thomas seemed to think I wrote a lot like Lowry.
But again, you can't imitate the actions of the tiger. You've got to be the tiger/tigress.

So I just write a lot of sh*t, edit, edit, edit, and come out with something resembling a blog.
But thanks for your compliment anyway.
Yes, blogosphere is a word.

And you run a pretty cool blog yourself.



Josie said...

Ivan, I don't think having synesthesia makes anyone a genius. I have it, and I'm no genius. I would most of the great writers didn't have it. What they had was experiences that they wanted to write about, or fantasies that they wanted to write about.

When my daughter was a little girl, I imagined that she would one day be a GREAT ballerina, like one of the great Russians. I think greatness is mostly a matter of pure, dumb luck. Some of the most published, successful writers wrote nothing but crap. I'm sure you can name a few...! They just got lucky.

Can Celine Dion sing? Ya, okay. Is she a great singer? Absolutely not! Is she disgustingly successful? Should she be?

What more can I say :-)


islandgrovepress said...

Yes, I think it was Joseph Conrad who said writing the "perfect" book was just a small part of it.
He went on to say much the same things as you about luck, connections and right-time-at-the-right place, even if the work is dull.
Celine Dion: I am proud of her, of course, but it should have been Ginette Reno, a little older, who should have had the crown.
Ginette dumped that grey-haired old fart that Celine is so enamored with. He robbed the cradle and got the diva. Made her a diva.

On "genius", I find your watercolours nothing short of amazing. And I have studied some art history.



JR's Thumbprints said...

The one thing I like about teaching in a prison is that you have to check your ego at the door (or get your ass kicked).

islandgrovepress said...


--or worse.



islandgrovepress said...

p.s. to JR,

What do you think of Donetta's miscreants in the schools she works in?

...Or would your rather send an email?


Donsie said...

I could not have said it better!!!! Well done!

islndgrovepress said...

Hi Donsie.

South Africa.

Migod. We're getting hits from all over.


leslie said...

one student threatens to jump out a second-floor window...

one student runs away down the street, principal running after...

female student (gr 12) refuses to leave room when told (because of her attitude and rudeness). teacher goes to phone principal from the office. female student follows, yelling "you're a BITCH" when who should come around the corner but the principal...

two male students write on the outside of the school building "Mrs. C. sucks..."

elementary student brings liquor to school and forces other students to drink it...

teacher is attacked by student...

parents complain that teacher doesn't like "little Johnny"...


It was the administration that did me in. I highly recommend retirement. ;D

islandgrovepress said...

Hi Leslie,

I am so familiar with your right-on comments over at Josie's blog.

Wow. Looks like I had come across the recalcitrant student syndrome rather early in my career.

Looking back at it all and considering comments and observations from you and other former teachers, it appears I was not alone in some of my troubles.
My surprise was, that in the episodes I'd cited in my blog, the students already had their BA's--Where had they gotten them and who had trusted them not to embarrass their institutions should they had gone to post-graduate work?
If they refused to produce work for me, whom did they produce work for to get their Bachelor's in the first place?
Much later, I did manage to see a thesis or two from one or two home-study universities.
To introduce rococo Quebec references to articles of church worship, TABERNAC! Drivel, and copied drivel at that.
Ralph Klein of Alberta comes to mind. Ralph Klein? He was doing correspondence course work on his B.A. at Athabaskan University where more than one professor was accusing Mr. Klein of plagiarism.

But the group I had didn's seem even resourceful enough for plagiarism. But did they have attitude!
The upshot of it all was a cancelling of the entire Historical and Interprative course, the course head (my antagonist) was fired and is now
mucking about in some park in B.C. where he has landed some sort of job as Smokey the Fire Bear.
It was a Pyrrhic victory for me. Damn near broke my back.
That was the point at which I gave up daytime teaching.

Yet no sooner did I clean out my desk than some barbarian, another teacher, hissed, "I've got you scalp nailed to the wall."--This after I'd evaluated him for his own job in the first place.

But that's community college and university politics.

The Public school experience, from what you cite would cause some teachers to wear asbestos suits, I'd bet. Extreme heat!


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