By Matt Love M.A.T. ’88 (Adapted from Gimme Refuge: The Education of a Caretaker, Nestucca Spit Press, 2010)
Western Oregon. Willamette Valley. It’s a Monday morning in the fall of 1989. The first bell rang four minutes ago and in one minute another bell will mark the beginning of my first class of my first year as an Oregon public high school teacher. At 25, I’m starting my first adult job. At long last, I have health insurance and a pension plan, relieving my mother to no end.
Sleep didn’t visit me one minute last night. I was hired on Thursday afternoon to replace a social studies teacher suddenly promoted to the counseling office. On Friday I threw out a log truck full of worksheets he had abandoned, roughly two decades’ worth of curriculum. He wasn’t returning. He was gone for good.
Over Labor Day weekend, I crammed (unpaid) to teach American government and psychology. I consider myself an expert on the former but know virtually nothing about the latter, although I do repress a lot.
One hundred fifty-seven students spread unevenly through five periods are poised to deflower Mr. Love as a virgin teacher. I sit at my desk in a former art room, writing in my journal. A mothballed kiln rests behind me. A photograph of sportscaster Howard Cosell smoking a cigar dominates my bulletin board. “Always tell it like it is,” he says.
Ten minutes ago, per an administrative memo, I patrolled the hall in front of my classroom to establish the “correct first-week tone.” I was the only teacher in my hall doing so. Giddy teenagers swayed by, carrying bulging backpacks. I listened to a din emanating from each end of the hall and breathed in a lot of perfume and a hint of marijuana. I was reminded of the moment before a rock concert begins.
The students stream in: West Linn Lions, the loathsome, wealthier archrivals of my beloved, poorer alma mater, Oregon City High School, just across the polluted Willamette River. When these Lions discover their new teacher is an Oregon City Pioneer…
The Old Man, my father, a master classroom teacher of 35 years, told me to ditch all the mandates. Engage. Engage. Engage. Relentless is the word the Old Man preached. Be something different than media or a textbook. Undermine any way you can the disease of popular culture. Teach in such a manner that—as Samuel Johnson once admonished writers—when faced with the choice of giving people the “water or the wine,” you choose wine.
The bell rings. I stand up from my desk, straighten my tie, run my fingers through my hair, and walk to the front of the class. I sit on a bar stool and face 33 sophomores, juniors, and seniors. “Welcome, everyone. My name is Matt Love, Mister Love, yes Love, and I was hired five days ago. This is my first teaching job, and I’m 25 years old. This is Beginning Psychology, and I’m pumped beyond anything you can conceive. Ten years ago, I was a sophomore at Oregon City High School. We hated West Linn, and I know you hated us. I would like to start today, and my teaching career, by reading what I wrote about West Linn a decade ago in the first journal I ever kept…”
From my journal, October 10, 1979:I heard Pioneer Pete (Oregon City High’s mascot) got busted because he hung a sign up on the old bridge that read: “Welcome to West Linn, suburb of Oregon City.” Hey, that’s all right! That’s excellent school spirit.
It’s on. I don’t know what’s going to unfold this year but I know it’s going to be hot. I also know that in all likelihood when Christmas break rolls around, I’ll count myself a junior varsity member of the classic American over-the-header team, whose all-stars include Andrew Johnson after Lincoln’s assassination and Herbert Hoover after Wall Street’s crash.
One academic year on this gig. I signed a contract for a nine-month suburban tour of five 52-minute shows a day, five days a week. I have staked a claim with this inaugural teaching job, and I expect a Sutter’s Mill strike of golden material. After I sluice it and quit teaching forever, give me six months and I’ll produce the great American high school teaching novel that’s never been written. That’s the plan on this first day of school of the first day of my teaching career.
Now I read from my journal reporting a crush from my sophomore year. She jilted me for a jock and I let it bleed in the black and white marbled composition book. This is the first time I’ve read in front of an audience. I think a kid’s even taking notes. No one talks and all eyes suck me up in a sensation I’ve never felt before. I’d ask a student to open the window and let some air in but the windows are all open.
I read on, better. I finish the passage and begin my first lesson. Roll call will come much, much later.
Matt Love is the author/editor of The Beaver State Trilogy, Citadel of the Spirit: Oregon’s Sesquicentennial Anthology, and Super Sunday in Newport: Notes From My First Year in Town. In 2009, he won the Oregon Literary Arts’ Stewart H. Holbrook Literary Legacy Award for his contributions to Oregon history and literature. He lives in South Beach with his dog and teaches English and journalism at Newport High School.