I was recently asked why I chose to be a teacher. And it caused me to reflect... because it wasn't so much a choice. Life has a way of directing you to where you are supposed to be. Turns out I was supposed to teach writing.
I was living in Astoria, Queens. New York City, recently married and stuck in a dead-end job to support a writing career that hadn't happened yet.
A sad sack friend, who was always depressed and lamenting his lifestyle and his job, one that he was very good at and afforded him a lifestyle many would envy. I asked him, if he could do anything, income not being an issue, what would that be?
Being a sad sack he didn't know. So, he bounced the question back to me.
"Teach. I'd like to teach," I said.
The New York City Teaching Fellows was in its early years, still. They recruited people from all walks of life. The New York City teaching Fellows Program offered someone like me a deal: the city would provide me with a Masters Degree in Education and a career placement. All I had to do was teach in failing schools, hardest to staff districts, and the worst neighborhoods in the city.
I.S. 218 stood at the corner of Broadway and Nagle Streets, just south of Dyckman, and steps away from the 190th street stop on the A train. It was down the hill from Fort Tryon park to the West and Fort George to the east. I.S. 218 was in a gulch. Cars were double and sometimes triple parked. Musc blared out of shops and apartment windows. People shouted greetings to each other on the street.
New York City had been my home for years. The East Village, the West Village, Upper East Side. I had lived in Park Slope, Alphabet City and most recently, Astoria, but Washington Heights was a foreign land to me.
The students at I.S.218 were mostly Dominican and African American. Some were Puerto-Rican and some Cuban. The staff reflected the same demographic.
I was raised in an upper-middle class family in Toronto. We had privilege. I went to private school. Went snow-skiing every winter weekend, spent my summers at camps and lakes. My parents hired housekeepers and nannies. Someone else made my bed every day. When and if I worked it was because I wanted to, not because I had to.
I spent the first few months watching amazing teachers motivate these kids. They were pros - confident, strict, intelligent, organized. They did not play, and the kids knew it. Those kids who decided to test these teachers found out quickly who was in charge.
I had none of these qualities. What I did know was how to write. And as it turns out, I knew how to spot writing talent in others.
When notice of a city-wide playwriting contest came to my attention, I invited a handful of students to join a playwriting class. We walked through the how-to's of writing a play. I taught them what had been taught to me:
"Write from your own back yard; write what you know. Know what your characters want, why they want it and what they're willing to do to get it."
These kids wrote about their lives - parents and relatives in jail, one parent at home, often a father with another family down the block. They wrote about growing up without and making do. They wrote about being kids and having fun the way they knew how. They wrote about their plans to get out to a better life for themselves and their kids. They wrote from their heart.
16 students wrote 10 scripts together. We mailed the scripts off to the Playwriting Competition which was held by a well-known New York City theatre. The kids went back to their classes and their live and we waited.
About a month later, the results came in: 8 of the students won awards for their plays. They won over countless other New York City student playwrights. We travelled to the mid-town theatre for the awards ceremony and readings of the winning plays. Some of these kids had never seen the inside of a theatre - and here they were, winning for writing a play. It was nothing less than miraculous.
I knew then that, as much as I loved writing, teaching was a calling. The smiles on those kids faces was the proof. The children showed me why I need to teach.
Hi. My name is Stephen Tesher. I am a novelist, screenwriter, educator, and father. I've authored three books, staged numerous plays and optioned screenplays, articles, and this blog.