Finding My Chicago


On Television

The year I lived and taught high school in Texas—June 2009 to June 2010—I watched Friday Night Lights. The fourth season was airing, and it was, satisfyingly, thematically pegged to my life. Coach Taylor, no longer head of the Panthers, was putting together a team from scratch. His players were unschooled in the rudiments of football; many of my students were unschooled in the rudiments of English. He struggled to regain his players’ respect after forfeiting the first game of the season; I struggled to regain my students’ respect after crying in front of them. Many of his players lived on the wrong side of the tracks; some of my students lived on the wrong side of the border. There was a fundamental difference though: He knew what he was doing, and I did not.

Coach Taylor is not just a football coach; he is a “molder of men.” I was more like the young teacher played by Austin Nichols who shows up in season two just long enough to give Julie a copy of The World According to Garp and then get yelled at by her mother. I was twenty-two, fresh out of college. I was hardly molded myself.

I was living in McAllen, a booming border town, where I taught English II and ESL to high-school students. My twenty sophomores couldn’t, for the most part, read on grade level, but they could read. Though I struggled to teach them, for example, how to identify the tone and theme of a text, how to parse how each was constructed, and what purpose each served, I could at least be sure that they understood the words coming out of my mouth. This was by no means true in my two ESL classes. I was supposed to be preparing my students for the state-mandated ninth-grade English exam—though it didn’t go very far beyond reading comprehension, it was nonetheless challenging for students who didn’t read English—but reading in class was time consuming and frustrating for everyone involved. Mostly we memorized basic vocabulary words and conjugated verbs.

I had applied to Teach for America my senior year of college. It wasn’t exactly a whim. Still, my decision had less to do with an honest desire to bring quality instruction to low-income students, and more to do with a determination not to move to New York. New York was the default option; I wanted something different, something harder. Chicago, a city I’d never visited, loomed large in my post-graduate fantasies; I had romantic ideas about brutal winters and the Midwest.

I clicked through the online application hurriedly, ranking regional preferences according to gut feelings; Boston ended up near the bottom because I had decided it wasn’t a real city. I must have ranked the Rio Grande Valley—the region which includes McAllen—fairly high, but I honestly don’t remember; when my placement came, I was shocked to see how far away the Valley was from Austin.

It was also far from Dillon. Dillon is a hardscrabble ranch town full of flat, open spaces. McAllen was flat, but in the way that crappy suburbs are flat. There were at least three Targets and two Walmarts within a ten-minute drive of my house. Most of the time, it looked exactly like every other anonymous place in America, though there were moments—sitting on my front steps drinking beer on a Friday afternoon in October; tossing a football around in the backyard on a brisk Saturday in December; getting out of school at five thirty on a Wednesday in April, the sun on a downward trajectory and the wind picking up—that felt so appropriately melancholy that Tim Riggins himself could have ambled over to me, greasy and half drunk, and I wouldn’t have been surprised.

Bingeing on old episodes after a chaotic and disappointing day in which I had taught nothing but learned a great deal about my own failings—after three days of trying to teach the difference between simple, compound, and complex sentences, I had finally given up the cause as lost—I began to notice how expertly the show dramatized those moments when adolescents, almost unconsciously, begin to act like adults. Landry telling Tyra that he is sick of being her giving tree; Riggins telling Lyla she has to leave him and go to Vanderbilt. In the fourth season, Matt, who stayed in Dillon to be with Julie, his high-school girlfriend, disappears without saying goodbye. When he comes back with stories of Chicago and a plane ticket for Julie, she tells him no. She tells him that she needs to find her own Chicago. Coach Taylor’s influence lurks in the background; can anyone doubt that his lessons about trust, self-respect, honesty, and determination prompt these random acts of maturity?

One morning, I saw one of my sophomores in the cafeteria standing apart from her friends, sipping a small cup of coffee. Her gaze was focused on some point in the distance; she reminded me of my own not-so-distant high-school self, who carried her own travel mug and would run through to-do lists in her head in the morning; each piece of homework done, each set of lecture notes retyped, each parental argument moderated was a step in direction of maturity. I remember the weight of responsibility as heavy, but not unpleasant. Some time later, when I called her house to let her parents know how well she was doing in my class, I discovered that she lived with her grandmother while her mother worked four hours away. A student who was reading Tucker Max’s I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell at the beginning of the year started coming into my classroom during lunch to talk about Robert Lowell and small liberal arts colleges. After I gave up trying to explain how to outline the introductory paragraph of a persuasive essay to a kindhearted but hyperactive sixteen-year-old, his friend—who was punk rock enough to wear screws in his ears, but, by the end of the year, not too cool to ask me for a letter of recommendation—patiently walked him through the process.

Somewhere near the end of the first semester, when I had run out of ideas but not quite given up, I let my sophomores watch the series premier of Friday Night Lights. Mostly I was tired of coming up with lesson plans, but it’s also true that I adored my students, and I wanted to share something that was important to me. It’s great for a lot of reasons—that shaky camera work; Matt’s banter with Landry; Kyle Chandler—but it’s also appropriate in a way that I, guilty about lost instructional hours, discounted at the time: It’s about a moment I was trying to force my students to live; it’s about a moment that forces everyone to grow up.

At the end of the year, I wrote each of my sophomores personal notes. I tried to be encouraging, hopeful, honest; I now realize what I was trying to say was, You have to find your own Chicago. You have to grow up. You have to leave. As much as I love Berryman and Didion—both of whom I tried and mostly failed to teach—what I really wanted my students to have at the end of the year was a sense of possibility, and the tools—the ability to correctly punctuate a sentence, to write a coherent paragraph—that would allow them to pursue it. I was only marginally—say, twenty-five percent—successful because, as it turned out, far from being Tami or Coach or even Austin Nichols, I was Julie. In June, I left, and in August, I couldn’t return. I had to find my own Chicago.