With the election of a new pope, I feel, like Michael Corleone in the Godfather Part III, that a confession here is long overdue. Although not Catholic, I’ve often wished I had the mental wherewithal to have been a Jesuit. That’s the religious order to which Pope Francis belongs, a group of academic intellects second to none. Unfortunately, I was never that smart. I simply am a classroom teacher in an at-risk public high school in Las Vegas.
Truth told, I became a teacher by default, as some do, rather than by a default-setting, as do others. A lifetime of blown opportunities, love lost and a drunken driver who almost totaled my ass into oblivion, I finally came to my place in this world through the proverbial back door. Kicking and screaming all the way. By day, then, I’m a meek, mild-mannered school teacher; and by night, this belligerent, often intellectually ill-equipped writer before you.
Call me Janus, after the ancient Roman god with two faces, his eyes always focused on the temporal beginning and ending of things. And what is a teacher but a guardian at the gate between the past and future? And a writer but another palm-print artist marking the cave walls of eternity?
My palm print: Due to the violence of alcoholism, I lost my family at 13. When I was 15, for delinquent behavior, I spent my 10th-grade year incarcerated in a place resembling William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies. There, I developed a lifelong distaste for bullies and unbridled psychopaths. In an ironic twist, after muddling through college, I attended graduate school at Duke University’s seminary for three years, studying theology. However, in my own personal fall from grace, over that Kierkegaardian loss of love mentioned above, I abandoned the religion trade for secular despair and began drifting.
I bounced from work as a roughneck in the oil fields of Texas to driving a cab in San Francisco to volunteering at a school, in Greece, that taught modern farming techniques to poor village kids. Like many who wander, eventually I was drawn to this Vegas Flytrap blooming in the desert. A creation, unlike any other, that can devour those who get sucked in by its seductive lure.
Here, I had a fateful encounter with an uninsured drunk driver. During my decade-long recovery to normalcy, I wallowed inelegantly in self-pity. One day, a friend suggested I try teaching to get back on my feet.
The first day on the job, in 1988, I felt comfortably right at home. Because an at-risk school environment is not unlike William Golding’s treacherous, isolated island in Lord of the Flies. Just like the place wherein I had, myself, once learned to navigate life.
And from that day to this, my two instinctive teaching rules have yet to fail me: 1.) Never judge a kid, and 2.) Never give up on a kid. Any kid.
Recently, an administrator who soon will be leaving my school, where the turnover rate is fast and furious, jokingly said to me: “Mosher, you’ll never leave. You’ll die at this school someday.”
“I certainly hope so,” I responded.
Therefore, my confession, dear reader: I am the happiest teacher alive!
Though I’ll never be a Jesuit.
CHIP MOSHER is a simple classroom teacher.