As usual, though, I have had a number of ideas for what to write, even if I have not had the energy to do much with them or the time to devote to them. One of them centers on a book I bought quite a few years back: Neil Zawacki's How to Be a Villain: Evil Laughs, Secret Lairs, Master Plans, and More!!! It was a purchase made as a lark when I was a young man flush with cash from delivering pizza, and it is one that ought not to surprise those who know some of my more public personas (...English Department Warlord, Destroyer of Grades, Resident Villain of the Church of the Village...). It is also perfectly suited for reading in those moments when the mind needs something with which to occupy itself but nothing so deep as will require sustained attention or will keep the body from sleeping--and it was in the latter sort of moment that I was reading it again and saw the "mean English teacher" listed among potential evil henchmen.
As a teacher of English myself, and one not seldom called "mean" by students (I simply insist upon them performing at the level of which I know them to be capable and refuse to reward them for not doing so!), I found myself offended by the depiction. I'm not a henchman; I have henchmen, dammit! (Seriously: some semesters back, I had one I called "Sidekick," and he seemed to relish the descriptor even years later.) How dare he!
Then I got to thinking about it, and I realized that there are a couple of important things going on in the listing. One of them is that English teachers are, in fact, henchmen. There is a hierarchy of administration reaching upwards from the individual teacher (at whatever rank: teaching assistant, instructor, lecturer, or among the professoriate). The assistant or deputy chair, the department chair, the college dean, the executive vice president for academic affairs or provost, the university president, and the oversight boards all exert control over what the person traditionally at the front of the classroom is allowed or required to do. At the primary and secondary levels in the United States, the department chair, vice principal, principal, superintendent, and school board and higher bodies do the same thing. In either case, authority descends from on high, much as in the traditional villainous organizational structure, and the teacher is far from the summit, indeed.
Another thing that came to mind is that humor (and the book is one of humor) works best when it does not have to be explained. That is, it is funnier when people are already in on the joke, and that means that the joke has to work from a common understanding. If that is the case, then Zawacki's description of mean English teachers, which I offer below, has some disturbing implications:
These sadistic henchmen are perfect for when you want to inflict the greatest amount of pain possible. They are arrogant, humorless, and ridiculously strict, insulting their pupil's [sic] intelligence because they couldn't become writers themselves. They can extinguish any sense of creativity once held by an individual, as well as transform previously enjoyable literary works into nightmares of horror and confusion. Their monotonous tones are capable of driving even the sanest person to the brink of insanity, useful when you are in need of a torture master. Long after a child has grown up and become a hero, the sign of a mean English teacher continues to cause fear and discomfort. (104)If this is how English teachers are viewed...I am not working hard enough. More seriously, it suggests to me once again that people are often badly taught. And it suggests to me that a few people have managed to ruin things for a great many others, for while I admit to the truth of some of Zawacki's points in myself, others are flatly inaccurate--and not just for me. I am admittedly far from humble, and I am not especially yielding in my expectations of my students. Too, I have managed to ruin some of the stories my students have like to tell one another and their children (there are some particularly frightening messages in the movies people's young daughters watch)--and it is through stories that we make meaning from the world. But I am far from humorless (and even if you disagree with my determination of what is funny, there should be no doubt that I find things funny, and many of them). It should be obvious to whomever reads this that I am a writer, else how would the words have gotten where you can see them? (Also, I have papers out under my name, and I am working on others pretty much all the time, as well as less formal and more narrative ideas.) I work towards my students examining artifacts and ideas and generating new understandings of the world from them--which sounds creative to me. I exhort my students to find the joy in their work, something I have noted (here and elsewhere) is important to me in my own. I am far from speaking in a monotone (about which I must ask you to trust me). And I am not alone among English teachers in any of these, not by a large measure.
Get away from the stereotypes, people. In a joke, they serve a valuable function. But in the reality that the joke often helps us negotiate, they are not as accurate as people want them to be, and acting as if they are is not helpful for any of us.
~Zawacki, Neil. How to Be a Villain: Evil Laughs, Secret Lairs, Master Plans, and More!!! Illus. James Dignan. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2003. Print.
*I am not offering formal citation for my own writings linked in the article. The links should suffice, particularly since I tend to regard my blog posts as belonging to a single work, if an ongoing one. And there is no question of me appropriating the words as my own, since they are already mine.