Diary of a pre-certified teacher, Vol. XIV: The true and only heaven

Augustine Brehon Contributor
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It’s go time.

Now is the season for hiring teachers. Spring and early summer is when the turnover happens, burnt out teachers leave, and principals go through applications. The next few weeks will decide my fate. I will get an offer in the next few weeks, or I will do something else for a living.

I am still several courses shy of certification, but in charter schools and private schools you don’t have to be certified to be a teacher (in the Catholic schools you have to show “a good faith effort” of being in the process of certification). Being in the process, and having a 20-year journalism career to my name, including several books—one which will be published this summer—makes me, I like to believe, a good candidate for a position this fall as a language arts or English lit teacher at a private, charter or religious school. Once employed, I can finish my certification in my spare time and then teach anywhere.

But right now the crucial thing is to get a job. If I don’t in the next few weeks, I will have run out of hope and patience with teaching. Of course, I know what I’m up against. It’s not likely that the Maya Angelou or Cesar Chavez charter schools in Washington, D.C., where I live, will want to hire me. The education establishment is ruled by liberals. Maybe I should have stayed one. I no doubt would have had several offers by now. I’ve written books. I’ve lectured about writing and religion at Johns Hopkins and Georgetown University. I started my own non-profit and have written for major magazines and newspapers. After being a sub for two years I have classroom experience, and I am taking more classes this summer towards certification (even if I will drop them if I don‘t have a job by June). It’s not like I couldn’t teach “Macbeth” to freshman.

But I had become a conservative—even if it was a Christopher Lasch conservative, which is an unusual genus of the species. In his masterpiece “The True and Only Heaven,” Lasch, the genus historian and social critic who died in 1996, argues that American culture, on both the left and the right, has bought into the philosophy of unending “progress.” On the utopian left, of course, life will not be worth living until the world has been cleanse of hunger, bigotry, and competition. On the right there is the god of the ever-expanding market, which will keep growing until everyone is rich. When the inevitable reality of our existence interrupts, both sides retreat to their bromides. The left screams about racism and wants to tax the rich. The right calls for lower taxes and more growth—whether that growth is killing us or not. Lasch’s work is incredible rich and complex, but he once summed up his position this way: “limits and hope.” Lasch felt that the key to a good life was the comforts of home, family, and community, as well as an acceptance of our limitations as human beings. His writing grew increasingly dour because he thought that between the utopian left, which was guided by resentment, and modern capitalism, which was often more about consumption, power and the manipulation of other human beings than practicing a craft, had both left people with lives that were hopeless and spiritually dead. Both sides were congregants in the church of unending progress.

That predicament was one of the reasons I had gone into teaching. It was a profession that didn’t involve manipulation of other people and their money, and the salaries kept you humble. But even here people were often hired—or not—based on their adherence to their adherence to the dogma of progress. In my “Foundations of Education Class,” we are on chapter 10, “School Law and Ethics.” Our professor, Karen, just did a power point presentation on the chapter; we learned that teachers have the right to free speech, even in the school. But in order to exercise that free speech you have to get hired. And if your free speech prior to getting hired leaned right, it might just happen that you won’t get called in for an interview.

I thought about that the other day when I saw Kerry Kennedy on TV. Kennedy was taking about her organization the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation, and I found myself wondering: What would have happened had I kept the job that Kerry Kennedy had given me in 1994? If I had not become a conservative at that time, or had not reverted to Catholicism, but stayed a liberal? I was 30 years old at the when I got the job working for Kennedy. She had hired me based on an article I had written in the Washington Post. It seemed like the break I had been waiting for. I had been an intern at the socialist Nation magazine, and after that went on to work at other small papers and magazines, most of which are defunct at this point. I would occasionally land a piece in the Outlook section of the Post, and it was one such piece that brought me to the attention of Kerry Kennedy. She offered me a job at the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial as an assistant to the Juvenile Justice Project, which monitored the system for jailing and rehabilitating juvenile offenders in Washington, D.C.

Unfortunately, it was at this exact time that I was beginning to question assumptions about liberalism itself. In 1994 I had read “The Culture of Narcissism” by Christopher Lasch, and it changed my thinking. Lasch held that the breakdown of the family was causing psychological problems in people, making them narcissistic, which means not a raging ego but it’s opposite, the absence of a core self. This loss of family life made people restless, unhappy, and dependent on the state and the helping professions for their wellbeing, which was unattainable due to the free-floating anxiety, sexual voraciousness and political rage characteristic of the narcissistic personality. Capitalism itself had also changed, going from the ethic of deferred gratification and craftsmanship to a consumerist culture saturated with images of the good life and spurring people to “making it” at any cost. Starting with the industrial revolution, fathers had left the home to work, and increasingly making it meant the manipulation of other human beings and their emotions—playing the game. As Lasch put it, we had gone from Horatio Alger to the Happy Hooker. In short, liberalism’s attack on the family and tradition had messed the country up, and the transformation of capitalism from physical labor to industrialization and then information technology and consumption had only made matters worse. We had gone from the tough and patriotic liberalism of John F. Kennedy, a liberalism that recognized limits and the value of hard work, to CodePink.

After reading Lasch, I was no longer sure that unlimited welfare from pampers to dementia was a great idea. I hesitated when a fellow traveler announced that we should trust the Soviet Union. I doubt the wisdom of affirmative action. I didn’t think America was such a lousy place, or that her traditions were so medieval. Worst of all, I was compelled by Lasch’s emphasis on the irreducible importance of the family in providing the stability, love and discipline necessary to produce well-adjusted human beings. The RFK Memorial, like every other liberal organization, was wonderful at talking about root causes for crime like poverty, but positively negligent when addressing the root cause of all root causes when it comes to crime—family breakdown.

I still clearly remember the day that I made my final break with the left. My main job at the juvenile justice project was to sit around bullshitting with the two others members of the JJP staff; we rarely did any work, ever. (I used to try and get them to let me write articles and editorials about the Dickensian treatment of young offenders in the District of Columbia, but I was always told to wait. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that DC has a very liberal government, and the RFK Memorial didn’t want to make them look bad; I don’t know.) So we were sitting around bullshitting one day, and the subject of welfare came up. “I don’t know,” I said. “Sometimes I think it can be a gift when someone has their back up against the wall and is forced to provide or starve. It motivates them.”

The two staffers I had been talking to just looked at me in silence. Then the collected their bags and left for the day. The next day I quit. There was no looking back.

Had I stayed there and swallowed my doubts, stayed in the safe sandbox of leftist orthodoxy, I probably would be the president of Georgetown University by now—or at least a very well paid bartender at Hyannisport. But I came to my senses, and now, years later, I was trying to penetrate education, which is still largely a fortress of liberalism. And if I failed there were not many alternatives. At 45 years old and having just survived cancer, I did not want to sit in an airless room all day living off of other peoples money and ideas. So I would be a teacher, and if not a teacher, a bartender. I would live on a beach somewhere with Jimmy Buffet.

I would be a failure. But maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. In “The True and Only Heaven,” Lasch laments the degradation of work that has happened in western societies. About his own children and they way he and his wife raised them, he he observes that “our failure to educate them for success was the one way in which we did not fail them—our one unambiguous success.” He explains that in modern America:

None of [our children] could hope for abundant, ready-made opportunities…in some honorable line of work that would make the best use of their abilities, provide them the satisfaction that comes with the exercise of responsibility, and bring them some measure of financial security an public appreciation. Success was no longer to be had on such terms. The “best and brightest” were those who knew how to exploit institutions for their own advantage and to make exceptions for themselves instead of playing by the rules. Raw ambition counted more heavily, in the distribution of worldly rewards, then devoted service to a calling—an old story, perhaps, except that now it was complicated by the further consideration that most of the available jobs and careers did not inspire devoted service in the first place.

I still have hope that teaching could provide that devoted service. The next few weeks will tell.

Augustine Brehon is a name assumed to protect the author, who is currently receiving his education certification near Washington, D.C.