This Writer's Life

Sticks and Stones: Memoirs About the Writing Life


My Father the Teacher

Recently, my mother sent me a poem I wrote at the age of six on a sheet of mimeograph paper. I turned the poem over and saw that I’d written it on the back of a copy of my father’s 1967 teaching schedule from San Bernardino State College. I thought of my father in his early thirties, leaving our house every morning wearing a tie and his corduroy jacket, leather satchel crammed with books, files, student papers, and the lunch my mother packed for him.

My father was a born teacher. A professor of German at the university level for many years, he ended his teaching career at the Defense Language Institute in San Francisco, where he taught enlisted men and women the rudiments of the German language. At DLI, most of his students were young, some still in their teens. When they started my father’s class, they were eight weeks from shipping out. Most of them had never visited a foreign country. “When my students finish the course, they can ask for directions, order food in a restaurant, buy things. It’s a start,” he told me.

After my father died, I found photographs of him surrounded by smiling young people. I didn’t recognize any of them. I assume they were his DLI students. I kept the photographs for a few years, and only recently, reluctantly, threw them away.

My father lost his job at San Bernardino State College in 1971 during a statewide fit of budget-cutting. He spent the next several years in a variety of jobs: taxi driver, lumber yard worker, translator, librarian. He wrote a book, did some freelancing, and went back to school. Eventually, he started working at the Defense Language Institute. After five years, the San Francisco DLI moved to Monterey, one hundred twenty miles away. Unwilling to move and disillusioned with teaching, my father worked as a technical writer until he retired. After retirement, he substitute-taught in the public schools in Sacramento County.

The 1970s and 1980s were hard on teachers. I just finished reading The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein. Goldstein, the daughter of two teachers, writes compellingly about the history of teaching in America. “A Nation at Risk,” the 1983 landmark study, “set the terms of a debate we are still having today” (Goldstein). Standardized tests, teacher accountability, school prayer and charter schools forged a new and unfamiliar landscape.

I owe a huge debt to my teachers. Even the bad ones helped me learn, if only as an act of rebellion. I remember Mr. Hamilton chasing a wild boy around our fifth-grade classroom with a ruler (teachers still used corporal punishment in those days) and Miss Mead, turning the lights off and reading to her fourth graders as we lay our heads on our folded arms. In college, I discovered teachers who loved poetry as much as I did, and encouraged me to achieve my dream of being a writer.

“Teaching is the most fun I was ever paid for,” my father said more than once. “Seeing a student achieve an understanding of a new concept never gets old. I lived for that.”






3 replies »

  1. I love reading this about your father and the sad hardships of being a teacher. I can’t imagine how he must have felt having to give up the profession he so obviously loved. Reading this reminded me that I started writing poetry when I was in kindergarten. I would ask the teacher every morning if I could read a poem to the class. Many years ago I found a poem I had written when I was seven, the first line was “Now that I am old…” I wish I still had that poem. I would love to read the poem you wrote when you were six. Makes me wonder what makes a young mind think about the world poetically.

    • Thank you, Robin. My father’s ups and downs in his career were very hard on him, and on us, his family. I have the greatest respect for the teachers who keep going, in spite of the many and formidable obstacles in their paths.

      And, since you asked, here is the poem:

      Birds Bird Birds!
      here They are, and I stand ther
      waching, eating a candy bar.

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