I could call it deja-vu. Maybe reincarnation. Perhaps a step back in time.
Whatever its description, my recent encounter with a modern American high school often produced an eerie feeling as if I were reliving a past life.I had been there before - and at this particular high school. I graduated from Highland High School 24 years ago.
But this return to my alma mater put me on the other side of the desk. I wasn't there to soak up knowledge. I was to disseminate it as the teacher. The big difference, however, was that the regular English/journalism teacher, Joan E. Reynolds, would be there, too.
8:30 a.m. I walk in from the infamous south parking lot, where the rebels - we called them "greasers" - hung out when I went to Highland. Cigarette butts are scattered on the ground by the door, probably because several kids took their long, last puffs right before class.
Stragglers amble down the hall, engaged in those "did-he-really-say-that?" conversations.
Announcements blare over the public-address system, urging the kids to be on their best behavior because visitors are on site to proclaim Highland a drug-free school. Somebody better clean up those cigarette butts.
English is my first class of the day. It will be followed by another English class and then journalism. They're in the same room where I took my first journalism class back in 1967. A weird feeling.
There are 40 kids in the first class, 35 in the second. Only journalism, with 12 students, seems manageable.
Reynolds is talking individually with the students, mainly 16-year-old sophomores, about their reading and writing goals for the next month while the rest of the class writes on computers.
Today I'm officially an observer, but Reynolds suggests that I walk around and talk to the students about their writing.
They suffer from the age-old problem: What should I write about?
I suggest to one girl, who is thinking about writing why her family doesn't take a family vacation anymore, that she might focus on a particular vacation.
What appealed to you about it? Put it in the context of what your family was doing then, I suggest.
Another girl has a great idea. She plans to write a science-fiction story about what the world would be like if everyone could pick their own relatives. I suggest she select one or two relatives as patterns for her characters.
It's a lot like working with real reporters on their stories. Hey, maybe I could be a teacher.
Several kids have honest, compelling pieces. Janis wrote about a divorced father who showed up again after a five-year absence. Autumn pays great attention to detail.
Are these students only 16 years old?
Several girls, who say thay can't write on a computer, are seated at a table trying to figure out Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." They mostly giggle.
There's little time between classes, only a five-minute break. Reynolds must immediately shift gears from one class to another and answer questions.
When do teachers have time to go to the bathroom?
More writer's block in the back of the room. I suggest to several students an old reporter's trick: Don't worry so much about the beginning. Start in the middle and work both directions.
It's hard trying to talk to everyone in 45 minutes. Last night Reynolds wrote post-it notes and attached them to the students' papers. But to individually talk to each student, Reynolds makes after-school and Saturday appointments.
I start cramming for my teaching days. I begin re-reading "Julius Caesar." I also spend an hour searching for examples of good leads, stories to share with the journalism class.
I spend the day reading Shakespeare. I earned an "A" in my university Shakespeare class, but that was 20 years ago.
A regular teacher wouldn't be barely ahead of the kids, would she?
It's too bad I didn't have a teacher's edition of the play when I was in high school. It's great. It contains all sorts of questions to ask, explanations and writing exercises.
Saturday and Sunday
I spend both afternoons reading two years' worth of the student newspaper, Highland Rambler. High school humor escapes me.
I also outline my ideas for lessons on story development and leads for the journalism class.
This is a lot of work.
The big day arrives. I ask the journalism class to list their paper's strengths and weaknesses. They know the paper's qualities and tick off a list similar to one I'd make.
I launch into a discussion of areas that need improvement while, at the same time, pointing out examples of good writing and story development.
The class goes poorly. The kids can't handle criticism. The more I say, the worse it gets, and I find myself becoming nervous.
At home I work on my lesson plan for the next day and type a handout. Depressed, I worry that I've offended the journalism students.
Reynolds talks about Brutus' blind ambition and mentions Richard Nixon's Watergate-era adviser, John Dean.
The kids have never heard of him. "Why don't you talk about somebody who was president when we were alive? Maybe Ronald Reagan," a kid pipes up.
I feel old. Maybe I could teach ancient history.
Journalism actually goes quite well today. I start by asking the students to explain the message in my critique. I explain I was attempting to have them see ways they could improve the newspaper.
We manage to smooth out the rough edges of our tenuous "teacher"-class relationship. We brainstorm about stories, ideas for their newspaper.
At night I have to cover a marathon Salt Lake Board of Education meeting. I'd rather be home polishing my lesson on Mark Antony's funeral oration. Reynolds has suggested I compare Antony's eulogy to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
Dale Manning, district personnel director, catches me in the hall, asks how the new "teacher" is faring.
"Yesterday I bombed but today was a lot better," I respond.
"Hey, a lot of teachers think 50 percent is success," he says.
The alarm clock rings at 5 a.m. I must write a school-board story for today's Metro edition. I'm so tired. I can't think of a good lead for my story. Ironically, later in the morning, good leads will be the journalism class discussion.
The "Julius Caesar" class goes well.
We talk about whether Brutus really killed Caesar for the common good. I ask the kids if society can ever justify murder for the common good. The students excitedly debate what the conspirators did in "Julius Caesar" vs. a legal execution.
This is fun. I like helping them shift through the play's motives and messages.
"It's a rush, isn't it?" Reynolds says later when I explain how I felt.
The time is slipping by too quickly. I rush through the end of Antony's eulogy and on to Martin Luther King Jr. I don't do it justice. I'm just about to make a point when the bell rings.
Ugh! I won't be back tomorrow to finish.
Everyone who knows I spent a week in the classroom asks two questions:
Do you think you could be a teacher?
Yes, with the help of a mentor teacher, I think I could learn to handle a class. Working with a mentor teacher as capable as Joan Reynolds would be a big plus to anyone thinking of jumping careers.
Would you want to be a teacher?
Maybe. I enjoyed my "Walter Mitty" experience, and I think teaching could be an enriching profession.