The Taughter Files is a series of reflections about my four-year career teaching high school English. It proved to be highly instructional, for me at least, if not my students.
Where to begin? I suppose explaining the word “taughter” would be a good start . . .
A few weeks after the end of the school year, I was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and looking at the newspaper. This routine, although recent, was predictable enough that today my two-year-old, who was already actively engaged in applying her breakfast to her face and hair, wouldn’t let me sit down until I had both my coffee and the paper, in my hands, simultaneously. The conversation went something like this:
Maria: “Daddy! Daddy! DADDY! . . . Coffee?” I was holding a cup of coffee. She recognized my coffee cup. Isn’t that cute?
Me: “Yes, Maria, coffee. Will you please not touch your hair when you’re eating peanut butter toast?”
Maria: “OK.” Hands clutch hair tightly.
Me: “I said don’t touch your hair.” She lets go, smiles wryly, and grabs two fresh handfuls. “Maria, I said no!” She freezes, drilling me with that adorable, defiant, maddening smile. Realizing I'm not ready to die on that peanut-buttery hill yet (it's only 7:30), I try instead ignoring her, pretending to engross myself in my coffee cup. I pull out a chair and begin to sit down.
Maria: “NO!NO!NO!NO!NO! Daddy, daddy, DADDY! . . . Paper?”
Me: “What paper?” Then, realizing what she was referring to: “Right, newspaper, I forgot the newspaper. I’ll be right back.” I set my coffee down. “Do you think you could eat your breakfast instead of rubbing it on your head?”
Maria: “OK.” Her hands begin moving spastically all over her head.
I stare blankly for a moment. Alright, I think to myself. What’s the next move? Do I yell some more? I could count it as cardio work. Do I lecture her about how much it’s going to hurt when we have to “brush the stickies” out of her hair? Right, use the old foolproof two-year-old lecture strategy. Do I do the only logical remaining thing and simply handcuff her and/or shave her head? I wisely opt to grind my teeth (it's only 7:31) and, very patiently, pick up the newspaper from behind me on the counter. “See? Paper?” I say with the cheeriest tone I can manage with a clenched jaw. I reach for the chair again.
Maria: “NO!NO!NO!NO!NO! Daddy, daddy, DADDY! . . . Coffee?”
Me: “My coffee’s right there.”
I pick the coffee cup up.
Maria: “Daddy, coffee?”
Me: “Yes, Maria.”
Maria: “Daddy, paper?”
Maria: “OK.” Her hands are firmly planted on either side of her head. It may be that they are stuck there; but the calm, peaceful, happy child has returned, and for that I am thankful. More importantly, she has allowed me to sit down in my own kitchen. I look at her hair, a gooey, tangled mess, and accept defeat philosophically. Oh well, I think. It’ll grow out eventually.
About this time, my older daughter comes in. She takes a seat, plops her chin onto her folded arms, and regards me sleepily. Somehow, this precipitates a fit from Maria, who starts screaming because Jessica is sitting too close, or not close enough, or, more likely, is there at all. I’ll spare you the play by play; just fill in the next three minutes with the general sounds of screaming and the image of a two-year-old trying to assault a nine-year-old with a flimsy piece of toast from the confines of her highchair.
Eventually, I am able to say, “Good morning, Jess.”
Jessica: “Good morning, Dad. What are we going to do today?”
We’re two weeks into summer vacation, and she’s already bored out of her mind. Part of me feels bad for her, because 60% of my attention is on what I need to do today, and 40% is on what I am going to do with Maria today, which leaves 0% for what I am going to do with Jessica today. And then I think: nobody planned my day for me when I was nine. My mom and dad didn’t go out of their way to make sure I was entertained on a daily basis. I entertained myself, dammit! My thoughts turn dark.
Me: “Oh, I have a great day planned for us! First, I booked us on a tour of a rendering plant, where they make hamburger and sausage. We’ll get to see them grind up cows’ noses and pigs’ lips and other easily identifiable body parts and turn it into the food we eat everyday!”
Me: “Then, we have reservations at eleven o’clock to see a performance where they make music using only their own fingernails and giant chalkboards!”
Jessica: Eye roll accompanied by a jaded shake of the head.
Me: “And then, after Maria’s nap, I’m taking you to a petting zoo! I reserved it just for you. It’ll just be you and hundreds of small goats, fawns, llamas, and other innocuous-looking farm animals! For three straight hours! Can you imagine the fun you’re going to have?”
Some people fear clowns; some people are afraid of heights. My daughter is deathly afraid of petting zoos.
Jessica: Head falls face-down, back onto arms. She is already inoculated to my particular strain of sarcasm, and none of this has had any effect on her. “Never mind,” she says, voice muffled by her arms.
A minute passes. I’m almost able to start reading the paper, but I’m gun shy by now. However, Maria appears to be consumed with the mangled piece of toast on her tray, and Jessica looks like she might have gone back to sleep.
I pick up the sports section. Oh, here’s a story about the Diamondbacks possibly having to move to the American League in a few years (Over my dead body!). I am just working myself into a state of righteous anger, when . . .
Jessica: “So, you’re really not going back to Glendale next year?”
Me: Still reading. “That’s right.”
Jessica: “And you’re not going to teach anymore?”
Me: Still reading. “Uh-huh.”
Jessica: “So, what are you now?”
Me: Not reading. The question struck me as it must have stricken her. What am I now? I wanted to tell her that I’m a writer now, but what proof could I offer? My daughter has a very legalistic mind, and she pounces on the smallest discrepancies like a dingo on a baby. How do I answer that? “Well, that’s a very good question (Need more time). . . And I’m glad you asked me (What am I going to say?) . . . I guess the best thing to call me right now is a taughter.”
Jessica: Arched expression. She senses a fast one in progress. “What is a taughter?” She says it slowly, suspiciously, as if I’m trying to get her to say “Seymour Butz” or something.
Me: “Well, a taughter is a teacher who doesn’t teach anymore. You see, if a teacher is someone who teaches, then a taughter is someone who taught, but doesn’t teach anymore. Does that make sense?”
Me: “Sorry, sweetie, but that’s the best I can do right now.”
As subsequent mornings passed, I grew smart enough to make sure I had both my coffee and the paper in hand before I tried to sit down at the table. But I’m still not smart enough to not say the words “hair” or “head” while Maria’s eating her peanut butter toast or oatmeal or mashed banana, or whatever. Needless to say, she takes many baths. And I still don’t know how to answer Jessica’s question. I believe I am a writer, and I believe I will make a living at it somehow, at some point. But until it starts paying for the peanut butter toast, can I really call myself “Writer?”
Maybe not, but I do know that I am definitely a taughter.
And that’s the origin of the word “taughter.” Stay tuned for part 2.