Dear Honest Teachers,
My co-workers and administration think I’m a dedicated veteran teacher. They look to me for mentorship and as an example when tough situations come up. As far as most of them can tell I was built with the school. My installation in my classroom has been a permanent fixture for longer than I’d like to admit. The truth is, to this very day, I still see myself as a fraud. Every time I tell my students how important college is I feel the guilt of having not been a student since I turned 16.
I grew up in a rural part of New York, smack dab in the middle of the state. I was never a good student but I never gave my teachers trouble. My high school was small and none of us had dreams of going to college. We all knew we’d work the farms like our families had forever before. I was only ever good at two subjects, art and math, I liked art because it used math once you thought about it. I dropped out of school when I turned 16 because I was going to help ease my dad’s workload in the fields. Back in the early 70’s was long before farmers started attending colleges like lawyers. We knew what we were and we knew we’d never be anything more. Our community was small but it was a tight knit family.
For a few years, life was looking good but I knew my old man was struggling. The big companies were moving into communities like ours and the cost of modernizing was eating up what little profits we made. We weren’t keeping our heads above water and the debt was piling up. We believed we were one bumper crop away from being back in the black. The reality is that a good crop can be worse than a bad crop. The costs of bringing it in, shipping it, and all the other little things that take money out of the farmer’s pocket will be accompanied by low prices as everyone brings in bumper crops.
It wasn’t long until I struck out looking for work. I found work at the power plant of a nearby university and had been there for 3 years when my chance arrived. In the fall of ’63 I was on my way home to my grimy house that I shared with 3 other guys from the plant when I saw a glow in the sky. I looked at it for a moment before I realized that it was the east. There were a lot of old buildings that were on campus; many of the buildings were so decrepit that a strong wind or flung cigarette would have been the end of them. Tonight was the night for one of the buildings. I went straight to the old admin building but it was a blaze. The town had a volunteer fire department, but they couldn’t do anything. The building was a goner; it was a dry Indian Summer and the fire wanted to spread. The firemen kept it contained but the building was a total loss.
In the weeks that followed I was picking up extra shifts helping the university excavate the building. Over a week after the fire I would lift a fallen wall and find the ground underneath was still warm as if the fire had just gone out. As I worked, I realized the opportunity I had been given. I may not have finished High School, but I wasn’t stupid. The admin building had housed many records for the school. The records for students were damaged and destroyed. There was talk of back-up copies but the talk amongst us grunts is that there would be years of administrative butt covering. With my knowledge of the school from having worked there for three years and all the confusion from the fire it wouldn’t be too hard to pretend to be one of those students whose records were destroyed. It took me a year to get all the pieces I’d need but I eventually had all the paperwork necessary to be a graduate of an Ivy League University.
I didn’t want to leave immediately because the girl I was with had helped me get all the right paperwork and even get me a real sheepskin with my name on it. I had a diploma, a letter explaining the university’s situation with the fire, and a set of transcripts that looked official but were a copy of someone else’s with my information typed in. It was two more years of hiding this damning evidence before I eventually left.
It was my girl, Jean, that gave me the idea. She had been at the university to become a teacher and worked in the registrar’s office to pay her way. One night we were out and she was complaining that the guys in her class were given priority in all assignments. In the 60’s guys were so rare in education that schools fought over them. Most were teaching history, math or a trade skill. I did not realize it at the time; Jean had given me my way out. I was afraid to use my degree to apply for jobs because people would know I wasn’t educated. There were not many places I could go where I wouldn’t stick out like a stalk of corn in a soy bean field. If schools were fighting for guys to teach I had a chance. I knew my life was destined to flat line low on the social totem pole since I was a high school dropout. I decided to go back to high school the year fall after Jean graduated and didn’t invite me to follow her back home with her.
I reached out to a buddy from back home; he’d joined the Navy right out of school. The Navy was the only thing that got him through school or he’d have dropped out like me. He was stationed in North Carolina and offered to let me stay with him while I hunted for a job. The weather was nice and area around his base reminded me a bit of home. I found a job on my first application. The principal couldn’t believe his luck when he found an art teacher that could also teach drafting. The school had been built last year and was about to open but was missing the rare combination of someone like me. Someone who had a major in architecture and a minor in art from an Ivy League University. The state’s process for getting a teaching license involved having to fill out a one-page form, show the clerk my records, and pay a $13 fee. I was officially a teacher.
For the first five months I was terrified that someone was going to burst into my room every day and expose me for the fraud I was. One day while checking my Pidgeon hole in the office I saw the local sheriff in the principal’s office. I thought he was there to arrest me; I found out later he was the principal’s brother and he stopped by for lunch often. The veteran teachers in the new building shunned me because I was an Ivy League Yankee. I tried to avoid the other young teachers in my building. This aloof attitude earned me the reputation of being a stoic leader who didn’t get involved in petty politics in the teachers’ lounge. As the years passed I became the elder statesman of my building and was often sought out as a mentor. Countless students of mine went on to be successful in art and architecture.
Over the years I began to weave a narrative that explained many of my deficiencies. I never attended grad school because I was always busy with my family. I married one of the second wave of new teachers; Beth was hired to help me manage the growing population of students who wanted to take art classes. Working together every day led quickly to falling in love. To this day I have never told her about my phony degree. I encouraged her to get her MFA when she suggested I go back to school. I spent so many years pretending to be someone I was not that I began to believe my own story. I once considered attending an alumni event for my alma matter. I found out years later that Jean had the foresight to add me to the alumni list.
I’ve been teaching in the same room for almost 50 years. The grandchild of one of my first students was just hired as a computers teacher. I have told countless kids about the benefits of doing well in school, going to college, and as is the fashion these days I’ve extolled the virtues of being a lifelong learner. I had to learn the hard way how to be a teacher; I rarely asked for help because I was afraid of exposing my ignorance. I have been a lifelong learner and nearly a lifelong liar. I’ve inspired kids to go on and do great things, I’ve had a wing of the building named for me, and I’ve been declared Teacher of the year by my school, the county and the state in my years as a fraud. My deepest wish is that I could tell them all about my lies but I’m afraid of hurting my school’s reputation and letting down the community.
I had written my story years ago in a sealed letter. I planned on leaving the letter in my desk in case I died before retiring. I wanted to come clean, to free my conscience, I want to be able to talk about. I’m glad I was able to tell you. My grandson, who became an engineering teacher, told me I should write a letter to you guys with some of my crazy stories. I don’t think he expected this crazy of a story. In all my years as a flim-flam teacher I’ve learned that good teachers are rarely the best students. Good teachers are the ones with something to prove; they’re innovators and strivers. Good teachers, every one I’ve talked to, good teachers to a one all feel that they aren’t as good as they should be so they try harder every day.
Thank you for listening,