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.