Pencils, Progress and Perfection

Pencils often lie, erasing mistakes in the gray matter of memory, turning stories, once etched in ink, into new shades of half-truths.  Pencils promise perfection. Keep erasing the mistakes and slowly we evolve (or is it "descend with modification?") into something stronger and more efficient.  The word "efficient" is, in itself, deceptively inefficient with vowels and double letters reminding even the most ardent linguist that form sometimes trips up function.

I yelled at a student today after he told me to "fuck off." For the record, I don't think he literally wanted me to fuck off. He just wanted to win an imaginary battle he was having with me or with the system or with whatever the Universe throws at a twelve year old enough to cause an unprovoked "fuck you."  

I didn't "raise my voice."  I screamed.  Red faced, eyes bulging, monster in the classroom.  I scared him.  I scared the classmates.I scared myself.  When it was over I cried.  I think my crying scared him even worse.  Then I apologized. I think the apology was the scariest part. I get the sense he wants to believe that grown-ups aren't as vulnerable as this.  

Pencils promise perfection, but as long as I'm around, imperfection abounds.  If I were a sentence, I'd be a past progressive turned imperfect tense.  Always imperfect.  Sometimes tense. Pencils provide a mythology that the education factory can turn out a series of codified best practices and with just the right amount of training, we'll never screw up again.  

This evening, my daughter, now three, threw a temper tantrum when I tucked her doll in wrong.  I tried to comfort her, but she kicked me in the stomach and slapped my face.  I cried like a baby, feeling broken down by a broken world.  She stopped me and said, "It's okay, daddy.  It's okay."  I'm supposed to be strong here and prove that I'm her protector and here I am holding a child who gets angry for no particular reason and I cannot help her. "I love you even when you cry," she says. 

That's always the right answer. Not much is permanent anymore, but I'll etch that one in India ink. 

"I love you even when you're angry," I answer.  

I go to bed tired, but I'm not sleepy, so I light the gas lamp and pull out the paper.  Edison is promising to replace teachers with motion pictures and phonographs.  At some point, we'll have no purpose.  A lesson is much more efficient when produced by a corporation.  Some day learning will be customized to every student and teachers will be obsolete. Gray films, gray lines, gray matter expanding with the march of industry - a concrete tabula rasa etched with steel.  Either embrace the machine or become the machine. And I'm too tired and yet too resilient to do either. 

I am not a Teacher of the Year.  I am not an award-winning mega-star.  I will not have my picture on the gray print newspaper or star in a monochromatic motion picture.  But I'll be here, in my classroom, vulnerable and broken and ready to cry and apologize and forgive.  I can't offer progress.  I can't offer perfection.  But I can offer myself, inefficient, sometimes even ineffective, but always real.  


  1. When I become a teacher I want my students to think I'm tough. I don't have a clue what I would do if one of my students ever say to me what yours said. I would most likely cry before I ever screamed. I hope to teach elementary school and hopefully my students won't be "bold" enough to say something like that.. Never know though.

    For a pencil to be perfect, we must make it that way. And no one that I know of is perfect. My pencils are definitely never going to be perfect.

    Don't you know you have to tuck the doll in right?? Lol.

    Thank you for this eye opening post!

  2. As teachers, we cannot offer perfection, but we offer ourselves, our knowledge unselfishly every day.

  3. Everyone is human, and everyone will always have their imperfections, even pencils. There is a standard I think teachers are expected to live up to, and when we break that standard people don't know how to react. Not long ago I remember looking up to my teachers as virtually invincible in some way. At times we may forget in the process that people we look up to are human too. I think your daughter and the student didn't really mean what they did, they were testing your limits and how untouchable you really are. I personally think you helped the student come back down to earth and remember that you have feelings too. I'm curious to know if his behavior towards his teachers will change in the future.

  4. I have been something of a yeller, but that is not really the point. We make our mistakes and the hard part is we know the children will carry this for the rest of their lives. I have my stories from school and I am certain I am the source of stories to this day.

  5. I know what you mean. It has me thinking, when the dust settles, that the best thing a teacher can offer is a humble response to imperfection.

  6. Thank you for sharing this. I'm still in ed school and lately, I've been scared that I'm too emotional to be a teacher. It's reassuring to know that an occasional crying spell, however undesired, isn't career ending. Knowing someone I respect can apologize and move on means I have a model for dealing with an emotional outburst if I can't avoid one.