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The Book on Teachers

The literature our students read may reveal what they see in us.

School gaze

by David Booth  

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Fictional teachers

by Francis Chalifour  

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A Few Fears and Fantasies

The high school experience haunts a 50-year-old man's dreams.

by Linwood Barclay  

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Dead Faint

What you learn about Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndromes could save a life.

by Rosemarie Bahr  

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A Few Fears and Fantasies

by Linwood Barclay

I have this nightmare.

It comes to me in the middle of the night every few weeks or so. Sometimes I wonder if it's something more than a bad dream, if it's an actual cassette that's been popped into my brain and someone is hitting the play switch. Perhaps it's a virus. All I know is a lot of people I've talked to experience the same nightmare. Maybe it's constantly on tour, like Mamma Mia.

Anyway, I am inexplicably back in high school. I haven't been a high school student since 1973, when I was finishing up Grade 13 in Fenelon Falls Secondary School. But now I'm back. It's as if I've been beamed down from outer space.

“I'm standing in a busy, vibrant hallway, kids heading in all directions. Everyone's in a hurry…”

I'm standing in a busy, vibrant hallway, kids heading in all directions. This must be between periods. Everyone's in a hurry to get to where they have to be.

I'm not sure where I'm supposed to go. That may have something to do with the fact that I have no binder. I have no timetable. I don't have any notebooks or textbooks and I have no idea where to get them because I don't know where my locker is. And even if I could find it I wouldn't know the combination to get into it.

Somehow, I actually end up sitting at a desk in chemistry class. Now, this was a pretty frustrating place to find myself when I really was a student. Chemistry was, in fact, the only subject I ever bailed on before the end of a semester. For several weeks I thought one of the elements on that table at the front of the room was called Leon, but that turned out to be the instructor's first name. (Okay, maybe I made that up.)

But it wouldn't matter whether this were chemistry or geography or math or English, because I have no notebook, I have no notes, I haven't done the homework and I have no idea where we are in the curriculum.

I'm not even going to get into the part about the teacher being a huge, talking rabbit.

With any luck, at this point in the dream, I wake up.

It says something about the high school experience and what a gruelling coming-of-age process it can be, that it can haunt a 50-year-old man's dreams.

But as frustrating a dream as this is, I can imagine one even worse. That would be to suddenly find myself back in school, not as a student but as a teacher.

Imagine landing in a school you've never taught in before, teaching a curriculum you're totally unfamiliar with, and there are 30 kids waiting in your room for you. You've never seen any of these faces before. You don't know anyone's name.

Of course, that's not exactly some wild, never-could-happen scenario. I think that's what many teachers refer to as “September.”

That beats my nightmare, hands down.

Maybe, if you've been in the profession for a few years, you get used to this sort of thing, but I still don't know how teachers do it. If the nightmares ended after that first day of school maybe I'd learn to cope, but the fact is, they don't. Teaching is an endless series of frustrations, and fortunately, for hundreds of thousands of children, most teachers thrive on the challenges that those frustrations present.

I've never been a teacher but I know a little about the kinds of nightmares a teacher can have because I sleep with one. Actually, it's not so much that my wife has nightmares. She's just awake all night, staring at the ceiling, thinking about what she's going to do in her class the next day. This is one of the things I believe writers and teachers have in common. When you're a writer you're always thinking about what you're going to write, and when you're a teacher you're always thinking about what you're going to teach. You're never away from it.

The biggest problem about being the spouse of a teacher is that you don't feel you can complain about your own day, especially if you happen to be one of those aforementioned writers, particularly one who happens to work from home. When your wife shows up in the driveway at the end of the day, her body covered in tiny bite marks inflicted by very young children, it can be risky to say that you were driven crazy by, say, a punctuation problem.

Or: “All day I struggled for just the right adjective.”

“Get out of my way.”

“Somehow, I actually end up sitting at a desk in chemistry class.”

When I speak to teacher groups I ask them to imagine what it would be like if James Bond, agent 007, that guy with the licence to kill, finally got married. And what if the woman he married turned out to be a teacher?

I picture James Bond getting home late, maybe eight or nine, and his wife is at the kitchen table marking papers and preparing lessons. His wife says, “How was your day?”

And James Bond sighs and says, “Well, it could have been better. Dr. No dropped me into a pool of sharks right after breakfast and once I managed to get out of that I was captured by Goldfinger, who strapped me to this table and rigged up this laser beam that was directed right at my private parts. And once I wriggled out of that one I tracked Blofeld to his chateau in the Alps and to get away I had to ski down the side of this mountain, but they were after me and they shot off one of my skis and I guess that was what set off the avalanche. So I could sure use a martini, shaken not stirred.”

And Mrs. Bond says, “You weren't locked in a room with 30 kids all day, so shake it yourself.”

The thing is, I complain about what teachers have to contend with more than teachers do themselves. They just go to work day after day and do their jobs. Sure, the class sizes are still too big in many schools, there's not enough Special Ed support, more money's always needed for supplies, and if there's one more indoor recess this week, well, it's not going to be pretty.

But most teachers I know shrug and say, “Tell me something I don't know,” and just keep on doing their jobs because they care about kids.

Imagine if it ever dawned on everyone in the teaching profession just how tough their job really is. Teachers might decide they've had enough of it and that would be a nightmare for all of us, and our children.

So if you're a teacher I have one wish for you: sweet dreams.

Linwood Barclay is a columnist for the Toronto Star and the author of the Zack Walker series of mystery novels, Bad Move and Bad Guys, published by Bantam.

Thanks to the staff and students of Oakwood Collegiate Institute in Toronto for their assistance in illustrating this article.