I never was a cool, young teacher. After all, I was older than most when I graduated from college—that, and I grew up wearing pigtails and watching no television. And in many ways I was still culturally illiterate as an adult, not knowing, for example, the latest movies or dance moves. And my vocabulary was, let’s say, archaic.
“You’ve got it made in the shade,” I might say to students when something turned out well. And they’d look at me like I had just drifted in from the Middle Ages. So I’d try to move it up a few decades and say, as they were leaving class, “I’ll catch you on the flip side.” Apparently, I needed to make greater chronological strides than this because they’d still shake their heads and roll their eyes. They might not have understand my words, but I could understand those gestures.
I wasn’t slow on the uptake. I could have learned by listening, but using their vocabulary—like saying, “Yeet,” or “That’s lit,” to show enthusiasm for a project—only brought exaggerated sighs.
So I couldn’t compete with Mr. Ulery down the hall. Being young and cool, he had a natural rapport with students, speaking their language, wearing their type of clothes, using examples from modern movies to make conceptual points. He was techy and informal and kids wanted to be like him. They needed him as a model. And I valued—and sometimes envied—his influence with them.
But I discovered that students also needed me. In some ways they saw my age an asset, or at least a fascination, coming as I did from another time and culture. To them, I was history walking—having lived through the moon landing and the Civil Rights Moment and the Viet Nam War and flower power. We might not have had much in common, but my distance from them in chronology and experience and culture gave them practice in relating to someone “different.”
And there was something about being so “old” that garnered some innate courtesy from students. I reminded them for a while of their parents and later their grandparents, or of the parents or grandparents they wished they had. They brought me their confidences. It’s not so hard, after all, to reveal vulnerabilities to someone with no coolness factor.
Toward the end of my career, it became common practice for students to give me a hug at the end of a school day or in the grocery store. I may not have been a cool young teacher, but maybe I was an old, groovy one.