Prime Time

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969).

I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie the summer after my freshman year in college. I read the book because my favorite teacher had given it to my best friend as a graduation present. He gave me The Hours and The Moviegoer (two books!), but I wanted to be sure I read hers, too, and I couldn’t understand why he hadn’t also given me this book. I remember her telling me that he’d said something about Miss Brodie revealing something dangerous, or at least a possibility of danger, inherent in teaching.

This summer, ten years later and three years into my own teaching career, I went to Edinburgh and found myself thinking about Muriel Spark’s novel again. I remembered the title character’s insistence that “goodness, truth, and beauty” matter more than safety, math, and team spirit. I remembered her declaration that art comes before religion, which comes before philosophy, which comes before science; and I remembered the oft-quoted and darkly humorous, Jesuit-inspired line, “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she’s mine for a lifetime!”

When I picked up my now-yellowed copy of the novel, I read with a pen in hand. I annotated and looked up allusions in the early pages, and felt quite pleased with myself when, remembering how the novel ends, I observed an ominous allusion to Julius Caesar. I laughed at Spark’s dry tone, appreciating humor that had been lost on me at 19, and delighted in the descriptions of Edinburgh’s Old City and her poking fun at stuffy Scottish culture.

I also felt a creeping inevitability: I would neglect grading four sets of student essays, making lesson plans, going on a run, folding my laundry, and responding to emails in order to stay up all night and finish the novel. So far, I felt distant enough from Miss Brodie to laugh at her with Spark, but the possibility that I might see myself in Brodie ratcheted up the tension and made the novel impossible to put down.

There is a lot to be said about what I loved in Spark’s novel: it is funny, tightly written, as smart as it is dark, and involves hilariously self-preoccupied young girls. I found myself dreaming up a British literature elective to pitch to my department head, teaching the novel with Angela Carter and George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, and bringing goodness, truth, and beauty to the entire iteration of senior English electives in American public high schools!

There is much more to be said, however, about the terrifying truth in Spark’s novel—about how successful teachers walk a fine line between a megalomaniacal need to be loved and the very real fact that reaching adolescents takes charisma and a personal connection, and about how the near-constant rewriting of curricula and never-ending debate about content knowledge (Do you know what parallel construction means? If I mention Macbeth do you know that’s the title of a play, not its author?) versus data-analysis friendly skills (“effectively blends quotations,” “revises initial understanding”)  puts any teacher who is passionate about her subject on the edge of rabid preaching. (“Goodness, beauty, truth!”)

The fierce need to be loved that Miss Brodie fails to fight is a heavy weight I’ve felt these last three years. How can you change lives without being trusted? (You can’t.) How can students learn if they don’t feel comfortable in your classroom? (They can’t.) How can you motivate students who are unmotivated by grades and not interested in literature if they don’t even like the woman standing in the front of the room flapping a copy of Macbeth around while crowing “Fly good Fleance, fly, fly!”? (You can’t.)  How can a fallible human being with piles of papers to grade, hours of faculty meetings to attend, a “heterogeneously grouped” class in front of her avoid Miss Brodie’s dangerous, though at least temporarily effective shortcut to captivating and motivating students? That shortcut, of course, is that if you can cultivate personal admiration, which, for adolescent girls is often closer to obsession, you can control your students’ behavior, both in and out of school.

“Schools are lonely places for teachers,” that book-giving favorite teacher of mine told me when, the summer before my first year teaching, I apologized for how much of his time I must have taken up with my love for Holden Caulfield, my insistence on understanding why J. Alfred Prufrock might feel specifically like ragged claws, and my requests to go over just one more draft all those years earlier. At the end of a day in which the only adult interaction I’ve had is with a parent questioning my grading policy or an administrator asking why I left two study hall students quietly reading while I ran down the hall to use the restroom, a student who not only wants to talk about literature, but who also clearly admires and desires to impress me, can feel like the only sign that my class matters—that I matter. The year I graduated from high school, my favorite teacher, still young and only four years into his career, left teaching, confiding in me that he wanted a less isolating career, or at least a career with less isolating hours and better pay. I felt sad for the loss to future students. On some level, I also must have felt a little offended: wasn’t it enough to teach curious, Holden Caulfield–loving students like me?

I am lucky: I teach in an affluent suburban district, much like the one I attended, where the vast majority of students live in safe, comfortable homes, and where applying to college is an obligation rather than something I have to convince kids to do. But my school is still a lonely place for teachers.

I share a classroom with a woman I like, trust, and respect. Often, even now that we are friends who meet for dinner and share book recommendations (I actually gave her a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), we share no more than a rushed greeting at school. The first year we shared a classroom, I did not have her phone number until November, and I did not know how to call in sick, or know who to ask how to call in sick, and so I went to school with a fever for three days in a row until it finally went away and I’d likely infected half of my students. If I had anything like a friend in the building that first year, it was the sophomore in my eighth period class who loved Beat poetry or the fastest girl on the track team I coached. I remember feeling at once lighter and heavier when one of the students who I knew liked me came to visit: my charismatic performances, my zany enthusiasm, my sincere investment were paying off! But, by becoming a performer, I’d won over teenagers for whom I was responsible, which is hardly friendship.

Kids are needy: even the luckiest, healthiest ones. They feel misunderstood and they want validation. Teachers, especially young teachers, fill an amorphous role that is not quite that of a friend, but also not always entirely authoritarian in nature. I remember this from my own high school years. I was a good student, and could rely on fairly regular praise for my work. Unlike my parents, teachers did not have to deal with my occasionally snide tone of voice or fights with my brother, but they seemed to have answers, at least about literature, and often, particularly in English class, about the oft-referenced “human condition.” They might like a sentence I’d written, a point I made in class, the attitude I took toward my work, and it felt like wholesale approval of me as a human being. As much as I wanted approval of my work, I wanted someone, particularly someone whose opinion I valued more than the opinions of my teenager peers, to value me as a whole human being.

It is easy for teachers to be needy, too—even in districts where the need is not material, not for paper or chalk or new books, but for support and appreciation and validation. In four years of teaching my classes have been observed seven times. Four of these were state-mandated observations and three were part of a conversation with my curriculum leader about how to approach leading discussion in an AP class. I could have come in hungover, late, in messy clothes, grumpy, or bitter, and at any time outside of those seven forty-three-minute intervals, no authority would have known.

But kids would have known. They would have gotten bored, been rude, cracked jokes, texted under the table, rolled their eyes, complained about me in the hallway, maybe imitated me at the dinner table until an attentive and concerned parent called in. The kids hold that power.

Sometimes it feels like a bargain students are deft at making: I’ll pretend to like Antigone if I can tell you about how I pull my hair out at night, how I don’t want to live, how I think I want to kiss other girls, how I hate my mother, how I’m afraid to come to school.

At other times, it is heartbreaking: sometimes, for brief fleeting moments, I don’t want to live, either. One year I cried when I taught The Catcher in the Rye, saying over and over, to my class no less, “Holden isn’t going to be OK. And that breaks my heart.” This is not so far from Miss Brodie.

I became an English teacher because I love literature. I love reading and writing and talking about books. Books often feel very much like friends to me. I also like high school kids. Their honesty cracks me up, and their genuine wonder is refreshing (though, admittedly, this seems to be less the case with each year that I teach). I think I am a sensitive person and a compassionate person. I  hated high school myself, and my fondest memories of those four years are of afternoons whiled away in the office of my favorite English teacher.

I did not become a teacher so that I could hold grades over someone’s head in exchange for love, or so that I could feel needed when a journal entry about throwing up dinner hits me like a cement block. I did not become a teacher so that I could justify my standards to parents or to colleagues or to students. But all of these things are part of being a teacher.

A close friend and former colleague used to reassure me: “It will get better once you’re in a relationship.” And it has. The interactions I have with my students are no longer the most important of my day. Now, I interrupt my grading to see if my boyfriend has emailed me or to look up a recipe we’ll make for dinner, and I try to leave school before it gets dark so that we can eat together.

When I first started teaching, my department head helped me with my uncertainty by saying: “Schools rely on young teachers. Without first-year teachers, schools would not function. Who would run the yearbook club? Who would stay until seven at night? Who would attend the Christmas concert?” Maybe that’s part of what’s disturbing about Miss Brodie: she’s not young, she doesn’t seem to be working very hard, and her dramatics often seem almost purely self-serving. She takes students to the art room and asks them to prop up their textbooks so that if “intruders” (other teachers) enter, it will be easy to mask the fact that she’s midway through a story about the lover she lost in World War I. Once she has decided that she cannot allow herself to become romantically involved with the art teacher, she plots to have Rose—the most beautiful of the Brodie set, and a girl who Miss Brodie claims “will be a great lover”—act as her stand-in and report back. While not all of the girls in her “set” are aware that this is going on, it’s around this time that they start to wonder if she is past her prime. She is vindictive, willing to humiliate one student to unite the rest of her set. She is unbecomingly suspicious, stubborn in her enormous misevaluation of Fascism, and unwilling to slip gracefully from either the school or the role she has come to occupy at the center of her set’s lives. Even in her old age, she wonders aloud to one of her former students which one of them betrayed her in her prime.

This is my fourth year teaching, and I sometimes catch myself mistakenly referring to this as my senior year, or my first year as my freshman year. The freshmen I taught as a new teacher are seniors now, and sometimes I find myself a little envious of their coming departure. Yesterday, in organizing the details for an upcoming track meet with one of the senior captains, I heard myself say first to her: “Hold on a minute,” and then more loudly, even a little shrilly, to the team at large, “Excuse me! I am having a conversation with Sydney and I cannot answer all these questions at once.” I thought then about when Sydney was in my class as a freshman. She often forgot to do her homework, and I often pretended not to notice when she handed it in late. She smiled at me, and participated in class when discussion got quiet for too long, and I was immensely grateful for her. I wondered if this slightly shrill version of Ms. Parrish was as surprising to her as it was to me. Next year, there will be no students in the building for whom I was ever a young, new, inexperienced teacher.  

I haven’t been at school past six this year, except on back to school night. I have said no  to additional obligations, even when it means turning down extra pay. This is also the first year I’ve started to think about doing other things: writing, teaching in a college, getting a PhD in literature . . . the weight of those stacks of papers and of those earnest journal entries seems too much if those relationships aren’t front and center in my life.

I have thought a lot about how some teachers can stay for years–for decades. Of course there are the disgruntled older men, using xeroxed copies of mimeographs of handwritten worksheets based on some long-discarded text book, too lazy (or maybe the more fair word is tired) to stop kids from openly sharing answers during quizzes that have been given to thousands of students before them. I assume these teachers stay because of inertia, because of job security, because of summers off, because their spouses are teachers and they can enjoy shared vacation time, and probably, in schools that are more social than mine, for the camaraderie.

There are teachers who love their subjects so passionately that they cannot imagine doing anything else. This seems to happen most for English, art, and music teachers, for whom there are few other career options so directly involved with the literature, art, or music we ourselves fell in love with long ago. These are the veteran teachers who embody another of the teacher archetypes: the single and matronly women of unknown age who, at least to her students, seems to love Shakespeare more than any living person, whose hair, if we still had chalk, would often be coated with a thin layer of white dust. In his ode to the process of making art, “An Horation Notion,” Thomas Lux writes: “you make the thing because you love the thing/ and you love the thing because someone else loved it/ enough to make you love it.” My high school English teacher, himself no longer a teacher, loved it enough to make me love it. But how long can I love the thing enough to make someone else love the thing?

And then, there are a few Brodies: teachers who ask students to bring them coffee in the morning, and seem to hold court in their classrooms at lunch, doling out their attention and favor to the most loyal and to those who most obviously demonstrate that the teacher—her love of her subject, her taste in jewelry, her manner of speaking—is worthy of imitation. The sincerest form of flattery. Being in a Brodie’s class, if you are not in his or her set, must be miserable.

I have often worried that I will be betrayed. Not in the Brodie sense, where a student who I’ve inappropriately taken into my confidence uses that knowledge to undermine me, but that the time I called Chillingworth an asshole (he is an asshole, but why did I say that out loud in class?), for all the laughs it got, and the point it may have made, will come back to haunt me. I worry that there’s an error in my grade book and a parent is going to find it and my life will be a living hell during the weeks it takes to determine that I’m not the most organized record keeper before I’m fired for failing to adhere to a district policy I don’t even know exists. I think about a time I told a kid he was the laziest person on the track team. (He was. He then quit.)

I am not sure if I am becoming a better teacher or a worse one. Am I even winning the struggle against egoism and the megalomania that comes from feeling unrecognized or under-appreciated? The battle not to become Miss Brodie? Does any amount of knowledge, experience, or confidence make up for fierce devotion I once had for my career, and with it, my students? Does any amount of youth, insecurity, or uncertainty excuse dealing in the currency of adoration and favoritism that Miss Brodie and her set exemplify? By what means, and on what terms, can I continue to teach for another thirty years? Or even another five?

The more I can remove myself from the emotional needs of my students, the harder it is to sit down and grade a pile of mediocre essays. It’s easier to feel like I’m fighting a cyclical and losing battle year after year. The more I invest in my job, the harder it is to go home before dark, to sleep through the night, to get through The Catcher in the Rye without crying.

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