On teaching

by cheri block sabraw

In between learning how to oil paint, trying to take off the 4 pounds I put on during the holiday season (pasta, enchiladas, Chardonnay), and coping with a pesky Labrador retriever beset with acute cabin fever, I have been reviewing my essays, all 400 of them on record here on the blog.

I am organizing, revising, and entertaining myself. Whoop-de-doo!

Entertaining oneself with one’s own painting and writing certainly speaks of something either juvenile or vastly mature.

It also bodes well for that time in my life in which I will be alone, perhaps in assisted living or solitary confinement.

So here is a piece that I wrote in 2009:


The average tenure for a high school journalism advisor is three years. I lasted fifteen. Those were my dancing years. The role of a journalism advisor is akin to a dance in which the right to free speech leads, while the fear of libel follows. But where does poor taste fit in?

As one might guess, I encountered many a frisky reporter over the years. My students were smart and capable and precocious. I was capable and precocious, so it worked.

Aspiring journalists, graphic artists, and photographers started hanging around Room N-9 as early as their sophomore years, hoping to make an impression on the advisor.

“Good Morning. I’d like to welcome you all to Journalism I and II, home of The Smoke Signal, our award winning student newspaper. My name is Mrs. Sabraw. I will be your instructor and advisor, roles which put me into an inherent conflict. My maiden name is Block, but that does not mean I am a square. {New students laugh.}

In reality, I was a square.

In this room, language and how we use it, matters. How we report the news, matters. Headlines we choose, matter. Photographs, political cartoons, columns, and captions, matter.

Your finished pieces, artwork, and photos I will grade. {New students’ expressions change from happy to serious.}

Regarding language in the high school classroom and paper: There are ten words we do not use in this room. You can hear these words out in the quad, in the music and movies that entertain you, and at the mall but not in our stories or in Room N-9. These words are not descriptive, unless for example, you stub your toe on a metal coffee table in the middle of the night. Then one of these words might help blow off pain and steam.

What are these words, Mrs. Sabraw?

I am not going to tell you because I do not use that language in my classroom. {New students look disappointed.}

If we don’t know which words not to use, how will we know not to use them? {Rhetorical question}

And so the dance began.

One of my most memorable dancing partners was a kid named Evan.

That Evan carried a blanket around school with him at the age of 17 was not a problem for me. After all, I was his teacher, not his parent.

That he refused to prepare for vocabulary tests, reading quizzes, or any other symbol of the Man wasn’t a problem either.

That he sat on the back couch in my room as my teaching assistant, swaddled in his blanket while correcting student quizzes didn’t faze me.

Evan was needy. He was also brilliant. And he cracked me up.

When I told Evan that his quips from the couch, while I was teaching English, made us a funny team, he smiled and asked if we were like Johnny Carson and Ed Mc Mahon or Groucho Marx and George Finneman.

He read widely and wrote well. People accepted him for his smarts and humor.

In journalism, Evan became a columnist and in that role, he found his calling. He and I danced around the First Amendment in a West Coast Swing. We debated a Supreme Court Ruling called Hazelwood.

You know, Evan, First Amendment rights for high school journalists are different from those of professional journalists.

Evan had a problem with this distinction.

One day, Evan decided to write a trashy fable about the administration. It reminded me of a poor copy of The Wind and The Willows. Here is the beginning:

“Along the banks of Mission Creek lived three furry critters—Rat, Mouse, and Beaver—and an insect—Gnat. If truth be told, they were wholly feckless. Especially Beaver. Defying her genetic predisposition, Beaver spent her days grooming her tail, wondering about her reputation, and eating Triscuits. Rat, whose given name was Dick, amused himself by scavenging through the trash cans at the local high school. On many of his trips, up the creek bank, across the student parking lot, and into the N-Wing, he collected copies of the student newspaper, The Smoke Signal, lying scattered all over the grounds. He had taken to reading a brilliant column, Through the Looking Glass, written by an insightful person.Since many other creatures inhabited the creek, all of whom depended on the leadership of Rat, Mouse, Beaver, and Gnat, the Four busied themselves attending meetings and issuing edicts.”

The column continued in a sordid way with Beaver and Dick, the lascivious rat.

Even the dullest member of humanity could see that the four critters were the principal, the vice-principal and the two assistant principals.

But Beaver and Dick presented an editorial conundrum.

Evan loved the entangled sexual mystery unfolding in his column and was sure that I, as the provincial square, missed the joke. So, I let his pleasure cure, like a pickle.

First drafts of all stories were due on Monday morning by 11:00 a.m. and went to the editors for review. Evan met with Elizabeth, the Editorial Editor, about his column. Elizabeth loved his piece and called the Features Editor over for back up. Should this column stay or should it go?

It should stay, definitely. So the column, entitled The Wind in My Pillow, found itself ready for review, on my desk. On the square’s desk.

I called Evan over for the perfunctory conference.

This fable seems symbolic. Is it?

Mrs. Sabraw, really, you have made your life’s work finding symbolism, even in rocks. Good job. Yes, an allegorical element resides in this fable.

Well, Evan. This fable is tasteless and crass. There are other ways to make your point about administrative failure than in this way.

The following week, the routine repeated. Thursday arrived. Evan sat on the couch wrapped in his blanket with his fable. The newspaper deadline was one day away.

Elizabeth convened an editors’ meeting on the south side of Room N-9 again, far away from me. They were puppies up to no good. Evan arrived with his fable, newly named, The Beaver in the Office. All systems were go. Evan got the green light {He remarked later how Jay Gatsby had seen the same green light at the end of Daisy’s pier.}

Evan and I met. {Again}

Funny how things got quiet that morning in the journalism room.

Here’s the final draft, Mrs. Sabraw. I think you’re gonna love this one.

I reread. {Editors and reporters, alike, smirked in the superior knowledge that this square, this bastion of banal bull, was getting snookered, big time.}

Evan, this isn’t going in the paper.

Mrs. Sabraw, give me one good reason why my words, assembled with creativity in my fable, full of humor and symbolism, aren’t being published? This is censorship. I am calling the ACLU. Mrs. Sabraw?

Atmospheric pressure in Room N-9 plunged that day with the utterance of THAT word. {Censorship}

The humming room became as quiet as a courtroom before the verdict is read.

Evan, I may be a square, but I know what a dick is.



About Cheri

Writer, photograph, artist, mother, grandmother and wife.
This entry was posted in Writing and Teaching and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to On teaching

  1. Sharon says:

    😂🤣😂😂! Emoji says it all: laughing till I cry!!

    • Cheri says:

      I laughed reading it again. What a kick that kid was…of course, he wasn’t my child. Had he been, I’m not sure what I would have done. So much lost potential. I’m not sure what has happened to him.

  2. wkkortas says:

    So, when you said “dick” did the duck come down from the ceiling?

    /waggles eyebrows knowingly

  3. Cheri says:

    Hmmmmm….I am sure I am supposed to recognize this allusion but perhaps my coffee wasn’t as strong today as it should have been. Still thinking…..

    • wkkortas says:

      It was the Groucho Marx/George Fenneman gag from You Bet Your Life; whenever Groucho said the “secret word”, a duck, replete with Groucho-esque glasses and cigar, would drop from the ceiling. I should also state for the record that I only saw the show in re-runs.

      • Cheri says:

        Ha! LOL. My husband would have known your reference because he loves those re-runs.
        I will state for the record that I watched Lawrence Welk at my grandfather’s home in the late 50’s and early 60’s.

        • shoreacres says:

          I’m sorry — or glad — to say I got the duck reference immediately, because I watched those shows as a kid. I’ve just added another item to my list of “things I remember that most of the world doesn’t.” It’s growing exponentially.

  4. It’s the Evans of the world who enhance the teaching profession. Fortunately they didn’t didn’t find the Art department interesting enough, though they probably would have fit in wrapped in their blankets. Very cute.

    • Cheri says:

      Oh yes. This young man, Evan, was an art connoisseur if I ever knew one! Thanks for reading Aunt Kayti. I hope you are well and that your eyes are OK…Much love, Cheri

  5. Richard says:

    Broadly speakiing, the short words are the best,and the old words best of all. – Winston Churchill

    My father always used to call me Dick. In fact he wrote Walter de la Mare’s poem out and hung it up over my window where the full moon crossed.


         Into his drowsy eyes
    A great still light began to creep
         From out the silent skies.
    It was the lovely moon’s, for when
         He raised his dreamy head,
    Her surge of silver filled the pane
         And streamed across his bed.
    So, for a while, each gazed at each-
         Dick and the solemn moon-
    Till, climbing slowly on her way,
         She vanished, and was gone.

    Walter de la Mare

    All words can be used to good effect in the right hands, it is the despoliation and banning of them that is the real offence. The prurience of the ubiquitous ellipsis […], so beloved of the respectable press, simply denies the use of a perfectly good word. What, then, of true reporting?

    There again, in childhood ignorance, I once asked my father the meaning of a word I had learned in the playground. He said, “That is a very bad word. Never use it.” As you see, I still find it supremely difficult to disobey him.

    • Cheri says:

      Dear Richard (Dick),
      Thank you for your poetic contribution to this post.
      You will always be Richard to me.
      As I said, I know what a dick is…
      Of course, I am Cheri, sometimes mispronounced as Cherry.

      Hee Hee

      • Richard says:

        Cherry! I am shocked beyond words. Cherries are red, round and fat.

        Please let me know when your blog is issued in book form, the easier to refresh happy memories. I could never manage vellum scrolls.

        • Cheri says:

          I am hoping to organize the writings that I like into chapters and maybe a book in 2017. But…I have started oil painting. Now THAT’S a challenge. Your friend, Cherry

  6. cpartner@comcast.net says:

    ahahahaha What a great break this story has been from my job looking. Thank you! sis

    • Cheri says:

      Thanks for reading, Cindy. Other than our nephew Tyler and brother JIm and occasional son, Ben, you are the only relative that actually reads my writing. You will be provided for in my will.

  7. shoreacres says:

    What a great tale. As I recall, our creativity as high school students flourished most readily when we were trying to fool someone: parents, teachers, administration, each other. I might note that adult attempts to fool others — customers, voters, neighborhood association members — usually have lost their creative edge and are simply boring or irritating.

    Great post, and a wonderful way to start the day.

    • Cheri says:

      Well, thank you. Had I only kept detailed notes throughout the years of teaching…what a treasure trove of scoundrels, schemes, and merriment I could chronicle.

  8. Cheri, I just began reading your blog, apparently for the first time. I have no idea why I never attempted to find out what your blog is about. I find it refreshing, honest and, interesting.

    I have some questions for you. What became of Evan and if you know, did he ever ditch his blanket? He reminds me of the Peanuts cartoon.

    And, I discovered that one of my favorite bloggers follows you- Linda of Shore Acres.

    • Cheri says:

      Dear Yvonne,
      Well! First all, thank you for reading. All writers write not only for themselves but also for an audience. Having your readership as part of my small audience means a great deal to me.

      Funny you would ask about Evan. I lost track of him shortly after high school. He kept his blanket all through high school and even took it up to the podium on graduation day. He was popular and loved by many. You are referring to endearing Linus of the Peanuts gang. I was often called Lucy (not sure if that was a compliment or not….) mainly because my maiden name was Block and she often called Charlie Brown a Blockhead, right?

      Linda is one of the most talented bloggers out there. She has been writing a blog as long as I have. In trying to organize my many essays into a book format, I am reprinting a number of them that my newer readers would not have read and that they might enjoy.

      • Gee, Cheri, thank you for the follow, it was not necessary but it is appreciated. I would like very much to read your older essays. I know that I’ll be entertained.

        Yes, Linda has been writing a blog, I think, around 9-10 years alth0ugh I began following her maybe four year ago. Not sure about that.

        I wish you could do a follow up post of what happened to Evan. That would be very interesting but I suppose that just isn’t possible. I often wonder what becomes of so called peculiar individuals after they leave high school. Many are gifted and one has to wonder if their particular gifts have or were ever utilized.

  9. Chris says:

    Oh, to be a fly on the wall in your classroom. I think I would have passed my days with a big smile on my face always. I did LOL reading this blog and want Amy to read it also. This highest compliment that I can give you is to say that I wish all my grandchildren could have had you as their teacher. You have a gift and your blog is your willingness to share it with others.

    • Cheri says:

      Dear Chris, Coming from an esteemed principal with years of experience in evaluating teachers, you are too kind to this old English prof. And having met your outstanding granddaughters, I would have loved to have been their teacher. I had a lot of fun (and Control) while teaching.

      Your comment does bring to mind, however, one evaluation I received from K. Miller, a former English teacher and newly minted Assistant Principal at our high school.

      The scenario went like this: I had most of the walls in my large classroom decorated with everything from student art to Van Gogh posters. I found it stimulating.

      Ms. Miller sat in the front row of desks while I led a discussion about wealth and poverty as it related to the Grapes of Wrath. She had a squenched and pinched look during the entire lesson and took copious notes.

      Mind you. In all of my years of public education, I had only received glowing evaluations.

      When I met her at her office, stark and cold, she told me that my room gave her a headache.

      So. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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