An old maid schoolteacher… a stereotype that needs little explanation: the unsociable bookworm, the taciturn Grammar Nazi, the bearer of ill tidings to many a parent; I think Webster’s dictionary might say something like “…One who cannot go on dates for various reasons, which may include but are not limited to the following: social awkwardness, inability to refrain from critiquing penmanship, unusual affinity to red ink…” I struggled in vain for two years to overcome the stereotype, and had I continued with my teaching career, I doubtlessly would have continued to wrestle it. And even though I have quit teaching, I do still struggle with the “old maid” stereotype. In fact, as I presently write my first draft of this post, my little sister is playing Sims 3, and she makes a character of me with a child (to simulate my Chihuahua, who is in fact my baby). I tell her to make a boyfriend for me, so she says ok and asks if I want to be married. I answer, “Heck no, make me a swinger!” Yes, I’m living vicariously through my baby sister’s Sims game. And yes, I say lame things like “swinger.” Don’t judge me.
Of course I’m kidding – to an extent. [Awkward laughter ensues.] But I have found a book with a lighthearted but brutally honest tone that sheds light on my situation. In her debut work, my cousin, friend, and fellow educator Rowan Knicks discusses the lifestyle of an unmarried, twenty-something-pushing-thirty teacher. The title itself – Rants of an Old Maid Schoolteacher – immediately excited me. She and I had ranted at length about teacher drama on several occasions. I remember once in particular, over milk and cookies (that’s what old maid teachers usually choose over beer and pretzels), we fumed over discipline problems, lamented over those many hours of our lives we’d never get back from boring staff development days, ranted over class clowns gone amok, and mourned the loss of our dignity to those hard-to-please administrators – the “Catherine de Bourghs” of high school offices, for you Jane Austen fans. And I thought to myself, “She’s finally putting it into writing!” I quickly downloaded it to my Nook. I had already known I would enjoy this book based on my previous conversations with Rowan, but when I read the dedication, I was thoroughly convinced: “This book is dedicated to all the people who have ever pissed me off.”
While my aim is not to simply “review” this book, I must do a little reviewing to begin… While Knicks herself claims, “This is not an attempt at a literary masterpiece,” I feel that she has in fact done something masterful, something that I have most recently found in the work of that literary giant Leo Tolstoy: she offers genuine insight into the human experience. She gives us readers an honest glimpse into her life in several areas. Those to which I relate most are being single, teaching, and the body.
I am just as secure in my marital status as the next person. That is to say, I’m just as grim and jaded as many others, and I’m not really sure what I think about marriage in my future. I do however relate to Knicks’s aversion to those Facebook status updates saying things like, “I have the greatest husband!” or “I’m so in love!” Or my personal least-favorite, “I ❤ my husband!” which the teacher lingering in my brain causes me to read as, “I less-than-three my husband!” which of course is both semantically and syntactically a nightmare of a phrase daring to parade itself around as a sentence… I digress… Maybe this is really why I’m still single… And deep down, my beef isn’t with the sweet statuses; I am actually a fan of the institution of marriage, and I am genuinely glad when two people make a successful life together. My beef – nay, my entire Big Mac with cheese – is with society. (Isn’t that how it always is for writers?…) Society seems to have a handle on this uneven dichotomy: the satisfying, happy and productive lifestyle of the married, the leprosy of the single. I, along with Knicks, wish to shout to the world, “There is nothing wrong with being over twenty-five and unmarried!” And look, I know not everyone looks at me that way; but there sometimes are those proverbial judging eyes on the back of my neck. And there are times that I actually agree with them. Regardless, I’d really like to be rid of them…
And plenty of those judging eyes were found in the audacious faces of my junior high and high school students. Some people retain their child-like ability to boldly say whatever they think, and I’m convinced they were somehow all assigned to my classroom. And I’m sure those who were quiet about me in my presence were more open with their opinions away from me. And no, I don’t mean to go into detail about why I quit teaching in this section; it may seem so, but just hear me out. My reasons for quitting were numerous, and having my rather fragile feelings subject to ruthless teens was only one among them… I go on… I won’t spoil Knick’s delightful anecdotes about Arachnae the spider girl, the case of the abused flamingo, or the phantom panties… But yes, these things all did occur in her classroom. And equally disturbing (though sometimes entertaining) events occurred in mine. When asked to describe her experiences with her particularly difficult students, Knicks simply replied, “They simply aren’t as cool as they seem to think they are.” Can I get an amen?… What people don’t seem to realize about educators is that their entire day (literally – the entire day) is spent in a colossal effort at educating other people’s children – awkward, demanding, unruly, tiresome, and disresepctful as they may be.
I could go on and on about teacher drama. But that’s for another blog, another time… At present, I have neither time nor space – nor liberty – to adequately express all my sentiments on that topic, and honestly, I’d rather not think it over right now. Therefore, I move on to a sensitive topic that Knicks describes with humor and honesty: one’s own body. Since I know her, I can attest to the fact that Knicks has no need to worry about her appearance; however, I can still relate to that insecurity that every woman feels at her own imperfections, whether they are simply perceived or otherwise. Personally, I know my problem: I’ve suffered over a few things the last few years, and at the young age of about twenty-four, I started to let myself go. Now, at twenty-six, when things are looking up a little bit, I see myself as a Brobdingnagian mass of a human being, on bad days. On good days, I just say, “Hey, I’m fat. I won’t freeze to death; it’s all good.” I found a scribble on the girls’ restroom wall on my hall one day that read, “Mrs. Cheatwood is fat.” My annoyance came not from the student’s pointing out my large figure, but rather (A) that this girl didn’t know the difference between “Mrs.” and “Ms.” – there they go trying to get me married again… and (B) the fact that I hadn’t taught them any better adjectives than “fat.” We’d just spent a week on choosing vivid, descriptive words in writing. I mean, I just said “Brobdingnagian,” for goodness’ sake; they could have at least given me a “massive” or “immense.” Knicks describes how her own figure was perceived by her students by discussing how she hears boys, shall we say, talking positively about her, uh, posterior when she would write on the board. Flattering, yes, but not what you want your teenage male students focused on…
When asked to comment on the reason she chose the subject matter she chose, Knicks replied, “I’ve been called a crazy cat lady, I’ve been called a ‘bitter, old single woman,’ and I’ve been called an old maid. I’m actually a teacher. The other labels come from teenage students who do not realize that the majority of them are the ones who are crazy (especially on schooldays prior to holidays), bitter (about pop quizzes I give them), and guess what? They’re not married, either.” I agree wholeheartedly with Knicks, and my hat is off to her for graciously and powerfully doing what I could not – continuing to teach, with everything it entails, even with those “extras” not spelled out here or in her book. And like Knicks, I feel that I am not as young as I once was, but I’m still young enough to dream – and dream of simple things… “I long for reunions where people don’t ask me why I’m still not married. I dream of fast-food workers who accurately complete my order…. I wish for a lifetime supply of chocolate and pink champagne.” I want endless cups of coffee and big books. I dare to dream of the day I write my own book. Until then, Knicks and myself, along with our kindred spirits out there, will be ranting, old-maid schoolteachers – and ranting, old-maid ex-schoolteachers/department store supervisors. Let’s stick together, all you remarkable ranters. We’ll do what we can: as Knicks says, “All I know to do is survive. And take my medication.” We’ll make our dreams come true. And we’ll be just fine. And hey, if all else fails, there’s still my Sims character.
Pages: 40 FoA Pages: 10,088