They say nowadays people can expect to go through three careers, so I clung to this fact as I sold the coffee shop franchise and said goodbye to the long hours and big paycheques in favour of teaching fifteen- to eighteen-year olds how to be entrepreneurs. The high school granted me status at the top of the salary grid thanks to my fifteen years in the private sector, so the pay’s not as bad as you might think, and I get to be a hero to my two children who, at eight and eleven, are young enough to give me this opportunity.
The first day was perfunctory. A staff meet and greet, distribution of timetables, class lists and the afternoon to make sure textbooks, course outlines and lesson plans are in place. Part of being an entrepreneur is working well with people, so it wasn’t a problem making a good impression on my department, but when I went to sleep that night something was different. I awoke with a sense of apprehension, and as I straightened my tie in the mirror and looked at a promotional pennant from the store, I knew more than my job would change. Two deep breaths and I entered the living room to see my wife Cheryl eating a bowl of cereal with a newspaper in her lap.
“High school, huh?” she said with a grin.
“That’s a long way from running your own business.”
“Are you nervous?”
“Then why are you holding my squash bag instead of your briefcase?”
Two hours later I stood before a class of thirty-five seventeen-year olds with glassy eyes. I slid a set of silver relaxation balls in one hand and held a piece of white chalk in the other. After counting heads with the chalk, I stepped toward the class and said, “Eighteen boys, seventeen girls. That’s close to a fifty-fifty split, but you won’t find anything close to that on most executive teams in the country. Does that mean that men are better at business than women? No. Does it mean that men have traditionally had more opportunity than women? Absolutely. Twenty-five thousand small businesses are started every year in this country, yet less than a third are run by women. And if business is the pulse of a capitalist life, does that suggest that women have less to say about being alive? There is a copy of The Entrepreneur’s Handbook on each of your desks.”
Caterina, a Russian girl with a thick accent, put up her hand.
Her slender finger pointed to the relaxation balls.
“What are those?”
I held up the silver balls so the class could inspect them. “These? They’re relaxation balls. I used to hand gesture too much when I worked in business, so I started using them to keep my hands occupied.”
Darren, a handsome guy with cornrows and a movie star smile interjected.
“Sort of like a pacifier?”
The class laughed and for a moment I wanted to laugh too.
“I guess you could look at it that way. O.K., so we’re supposed to start with debating.”
“I don’t know how to debate, sir,” Darren said.
The class didn’t know whether to laugh or wait for me to explain, so I stepped toward his desk.
“Yeah, I only know how to argue.”
The class got that cue, but many of the laughs were nervous, the type that come from relief that they’re not the only ones who don’t understand something.
“Fair enough,” I said. “How many people feel they don’t know how to debate?”
Most of the hands went up, including a kid's at the back with his head buried so far into the nook of his arm on his desk I was sure he was asleep.
“O.K., so then maybe we should start with something else.”
I pivoted so the heal of my shoe made a sharp sound and stepped again towards Darren’s desk.
“How do you feel about tipping?”
“What do you mean?”
“Etiquette suggests we leave twenty percent.”
He scratched at a carefully-kept goatee, saying, “Etiquette can kiss my ass.”
The class oohed loud now, and I had to work harder at not smiling when Amanda, a thin girl with a ponytail, spoke with a voice strong enough to silence the room.
“Seriously, you never tip?”
“Never,” Darren said. “Not anybody. Not my barber, not waiters, not the pizza man.”
“Well you should. That’s how those people make a living. It’s a service and it’s important. It’s hard work, so I say they deserve a tip.”
Darren leaned into his seat, his arms spread across the back of his chair.
“I believe you feel that way, Amanda, because from what I hear you deserve a tip every Friday night.”
A mean-spirited but genuine break of hysterics flowed through the room warning me to regain control, so instead of pressing forward, I sat on my desk and pointed at Darren with the chalk.
“Be specific this time. Why don’t you believe in tipping?”
“There’s no reason for it. My mom works at a bakery. Should everyone tip her because she pulls a cupcake off a tray? It’s extortion.”
“That’s a good point. Imagine if I had a tip jar at the front of the class and if you liked the lesson, you left a tip at the end of the period and if you didn’t…”
“We spit in it,” the kid with his head on the desk said without looking up.
A ripple of laughter distracted for a moment, so I rolled with the energy, nodding in an exaggerated manner when Darren stood up.
“It’s true, and if you think about it, we tip the wrong people. I mean, if you’re gonna tip anyone tip the man who made your meal, not the man who brought it to you.”
“Now you’re thinking,” I said.
Darren turned to Amanda, his hands accentuating every thought with movement like a conductor.
“And if we’re doing it out of sympathy, then tip my mom because working in that heat and scrubbing stoves is no fun.”
I slid off the desk and stepped towards them, a little too close to a guy in the front row who avoided eye contact. “O.K., so you’re a believer in bottom lines. Can I assume then that you’d agree that an unsatisfactory paper deserves an unsatisfactory mark?”
“Unless there were circumstances,” Darren said.
“A bad day,” the kid with his head on the desk blurted out.
“For one, yeah,” Darren followed. “A bad day or a heavy schedule that week.”
“So you acknowledge the human factor?”
“Then I want you all to take out a piece of paper and write the reasons for tipping on one side and the reasons against tipping on the other.”
The students organized themselves and I took a moment to be pleased with a job well done when Caterina raised her hand.
Her slender finger pointed again the relaxation balls.
“Can I play with your balls?”
The class erupted into laughter and once again I had to hold back a smile.
And that was one teaching day down. When I first quit my own business I expected to mark these days off like a prisoner, but it’s clear my students won’t let time pass so blandly. High school definitely isn’t the private sector, and this isn’t going to be easy. My first day taught me this, and I’m sure the days that follow will teach me more.
Copyright © Scott Carter 2004. Title graphic: "In Class" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2004.