Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a high school teacher?
Let me tell you a story or two…
During my first week as a teacher, there were no students. The first week of every school year is full of meetings, training, in-services, and classroom preparation time. Oh, and drinking – lots and lots of drinking. Mornings were relatively low-key, mostly filled with mind-numbing meetings and pointlessly redundant training sessions, but when the lunch break came around, the party started. And this was nearly every day.
For our lunch breaks during in-service days, teachers were allowed to leave the campus for a little over an hour and get lunch wherever we desired. And during this week, every lunch was spent at some sort of sports bar or cantina or anywhere that served booze. The first day, when members of the English department invited me to come with to lunch at a place called The River City Brewery, I thought it would be a good chance get to know my co-workers and sort of introduce myself a little more through conversation. What I was not ready for was this: When the ten-or-so of us sat down and placed drink orders with the waitress, everyone ordered beer (or bourbon). And, of course, wanting to fit in as well as I could, I followed suit and began what would be a distinguished and successful educational drinking career. And the thing is, it wasn’t just a casual beer with our burgers. It was beer, then more beer, then more beer. By the time we needed to return to the school to begin the afternoon in-service sessions, everyone was excessively liquored-up. If the police department had someone giving breathalyzers in the East High parking lot, we all would have gone to jail on DUI charges.
And while we, the English department spent our lunches drinking, the Social Studies department spent their lunches making Bob Marley look like Michael W. Smith. The amount of marijuana consumed by members of the Social Studies department was incomprehensible, even to me. There was just something about history or psychology teachers that coincided evenly with smoking pot. It was often difficult to distinguish the Social Studies Department from a start-up reggae band. (One Social Studies teacher with whom I had an affair used to sit at the back of her classroom during her hour off and smoke a joint, blowing the smoke out the window.) But granted, the drug situation among the teachers certainly was not limited to the Social Studies department. In fact, to my knowledge, the only department that didn’t have anyone who actively and enthusiastically did drugs at any given time during the school day was the Mathematics department. But then again, they prayed together before each of their department meetings. They were an odd bunch. Praying isn’t odd, obviously, but as a whole, they were just a strange group of people. In some ways, they were the ones I would have pictured to have been on some sort of array of strong narcotics. But it was mostly the Social Studies department, with more than a few members of the English department and a few sporadic members of the sciences dipping in as well.
And all of this was done with the full knowledge of our bosses, the administration. One lunch during a mid-year in-service day (during my third of fourth year, I think), a big group of us went to lunch at a nearby restaurant called Margarita’s Cantina and we, of course, all ordered giant margaritas (because, well, that’s what you do at a place called “Margarita’s”). And of course, true to form, we pounded them down like mineral water in the dead-of-summer and grew relatively wasted in a relatively short period of time. And as we sat at our big table drinking (perhaps fifteen minutes into our lunch, and likely on our third margarita), two of the assistant principals walked into the restaurant and got their own table across the room from ours. I thought for sure we were busted. I thought for sure we’d be told not to return to school in any kind of impaired condition. I thought I was in deep shit. I thought this, until I glanced over and saw the two assistant principals being delivered their own jumbo-sized margaritas.
A few years later, while I was operating as an administrative intern at Wichita East High School (which is the principal version of student-teaching while I worked on my Master’s Degree), I was walking the halls with a walkie-talkie, listening to the chatter between the security staff and the administration. It was the annual day when the Wichita Police Department brought in the drug dogs to sniff-out the school, trying to bust the dope-smoking demographic of the student population. They walked the halls, sniffing the lockers, finding a few dime-bags here and there, and then went out to sniff the cars in the student parking lots.
As I was listening to the back-and-forth conversation on the walkie-talkie between the administration and the security staff, one of the security officers told the administrators that the dogs had just finished sniffing the seniors’ parking lot and were going to make their way to the juniors’ and sophomores’ parking lots. In order for the police to make the most direct walk from the senior parking lot to the juniors’ parking lot, then the sophomores’ parking lot, they would have to cross through one of the teachers’ parking lots.
“We’re done with Senior Lot,” I heard one of the security officers say on the radio, “and we’re taking the dogs to Junior.”
“Security,” the radio said in the voice of one of East High’s assistant principals, “do not take the drug dogs through the teacher parking lot!” He paused. “I repeat, do not take the drug dogs through the teacher parking lot!” He almost sounded panicked.
“Okay,” the security officer replied on the radio, laughing. “We’ll walk the long way around.” He was being accompanied by several Wichita police officers, who also complied and avoided taking the drug-detecting dogs through the faculty parking lot.
The administration was fully aware of the extensive drug use that was happening among the faculty during the day, and frankly, there was already a teacher shortage.
On the weekends, the teacher parties dwarfed the student parties.
There was an interesting dynamic at play when it came to accommodating the out-of-control partying behavior of the teachers. Every year during the first week of school, teachers were informed that they were required to attend two extra-curricular activities as sponsors or chaperones or whatever, and one specific one was required: Graduation. Thus, there were numerous options for teachers to choose in order to fulfill that other requirement, most of which were school dances. There were three major school dances: Fall Homecoming, Winter Homecoming, and Prom. Sign-ups to work these events were limited and first-come-first-serve. There were two understandings. First, the Fall Homecoming, the first of the three to occur, was more-or-less reserved for the older and more apathetic teachers who wanted to merely get their requirement done and out-of-the-way; second, Prom was reserved for the younger, alcoholic, drug-addled partying teachers because for the teachers, Prom wasn’t so much about Prom, it was about the After-Prom. Thus, the Winter Homecoming dance and the few other random events were the catch-all for whoever didn’t fit one of the first two categories.
The teachers who worked Prom made just as big of a deal out of it as the students did. Of course we had to help set-up and tear-down, and monitor the students and keep order and what not. But it wasn’t just the duties. We all got into suits and dresses, we all brought our spouses, we even danced, and more than half of the teachers who showed up to work prom were drunk when they got there from the dinner we’d just attended together, and we subtly kept drinking throughout the night. And the debauchery wasn’t just chemical. One year, as we were all helping set up, trying not to ruffle our nice clothes, one of the assistant principals walked by the teacher who was in charge of organizing Prom, saw her in her tight black dress, and said, “Damn, girl, when are you and me gonna go someplace dark?” (Seriously. He said this. Word-for-word. And it was just no big deal, although I’m not 100% convinced that they didn’t “go find someplace dark” sometime during the dance that night.)
And that’s just how things were.
The teachers’ After-Prom party was an annual event. Both teachers and administrators alike attended these gatherings and the supplies of alcohol and drugs were endless. One year at our After-Prom party, I played a late-night game beer pong with one of the administrators, but he thought using beer was weak, so he poured Jack Daniels in his cups. I won the game and about fifteen minutes later, he puked, impressively.
At the very first teacher party I attended, I dropped the gauntlet. The party (which I think may have been a Spring Break party) was at the home of an older (but still partying) teacher who threw the shindig for whoever wanted to show up and have a bonfire at her farm. So when my wife and I showed up, I had with me a 30-pack of Keystone Light and a roll of duct tape. People asked why I had duct tape, and I played it cool and mysterious in order to get as much attention as I could. So, in front of everyone, I chugged my first beer, then took the empty can, placed it under a full can, and duct taped the full can to the top of the empty one, cracked it open, and began to drink. And with every new beer I opened, I put the full on top and duct taped it to the stack. By the end of the night, I looked like an alcoholic wizard with my staff of beer cans – Gandalf the Drunk.
This is just how things went – regularly. Every Friday after school, a group of teachers met at a bar down the street from the school called The Anchor and got utterly wasted. And this bar was the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a hippy bar, but the crowd was so ridiculously diverse, and yet, it seemed to work. There were guys with knit beanies and sleeve tattoos sitting at the bar next to guys in thousand-dollar suits. The place smelled like a blend of patchouli and Hugo Boss, which hovered over the greasy stench of burgers, onions, and sweet potato fries. But the smell was neither off-putting nor pleasant; it just simply, was. And so, on Fridays, the hoard of khaki-and-t-shirt wearing teachers strolled in and claimed the same four or five tables, and commenced with the liquid therapy. This is where the bitching began as well, like the Festivus “Airing of Grievances.” I have never seen an occupational demographic of individuals who hate their jobs more than high school teachers.
I dove into the drunken revelry whole-heartedly. Once I got the impression that being a teacher was – to a significant extent – about how hard I could party, I decided to throw my stock into the exchange and watch my investment flourish. There were two contrasting concepts: Booze and drugs. The drinking seemed like second nature, as though it was my responsibility and everyone who was anyone was a hardcore drinker.
The drugs, however, were different. More people were on drugs (marijuana, cocaine, pills, etc.) than I probably knew about, but what I did know was that everyone knew that it was heavily going on, but literally no one talked about it. It was always a wink-and-nod sort of thing. They talked in code, or just consulted a Thesaurus before conversing about it in an attempt to over-speak any layman that may be listening. But regardless, you would often see two or three teachers subtly stepping outside to smoke a joint, or casually slipping into the bathroom for a line or two of cocaine, and Vicodin and Percocet were passed around like Tylenol. But that was simply the modus operandi of the teaching population. Teachers from other schools often showed up at the after-school bar as well, bringing with them their own array of drinking preferences and chemical enhancements. It wasn’t uncommon for the principals to join in too, drinking just as heavily as teachers and acting every bit as foolish.
Often, two flirting teachers briefly left together, and no one said anything about what everyone knew; they would return some time later, blushing and disheveled. The sex and the drugs were things that everyone knew but no one mentioned, as though talking about it would make the entire educational system come crashing down.
These experiences solidified my routine and reputation among my fellow teachers as a partier, and it wasn’t long before the booze-fueled partying brought booze-fueled sex right along with it. I look back on my out-of-control life as a teacher and I cringe. I had such a great opportunity, and I threw it all away because I wanted to live a life I had no business living. I knew there were teachers who were drinking, doing drugs, and even having relationships with their students, so my own cognitive distortions led me to think that since others were participating in these behaviors, then it must be okay.
God, forgive me; how terribly wrong I was…
This was the context in which I lived. And while I do not – at all – blame the teachers’ partying culture for my actions (because my actions were my choices, and nothing more), it is very important to understand the impact of context in our lives. In the words of Hugh Laurie in his novel The Gun Seller, “You may say it’s a pretty poor life I’ve been leading. But then you see, context is everything.”