The Key to the Time Machine

Daily Prompt Golden Key You’ve been given a key that can open one building, room, locker, or box to which you don’t normally have access. How do you use it, and why?


For Milo 😉


Drawing by Jules Pfeiffer, illustration for Norton Juster’s great book, The Phantom Tollbooth

“I really like your cell phone case, Professor. Where’d you get it?”
“Etsy.” My backpack is open on my table. My cell phone face down beside it. I’m looking for a dry-erase marker that works.
“No way. You go on Etsy?”
“I have a store, well I used to. I used to sell paintings, but…”
“Why are you teaching us this? Are we every going to use it?”
“I have no way of knowing that. I have no way of knowing what life is going to throw at you. But that’s what this is for. That’s what literature is for. It’s for your life.”
“Is that going to be on the test?”
“There’s no test, Luis. Have you paid attention at ALL???”
“I, like, forgot.”
“Professor, if there’s no test and we’re not going to use this in our lives, why is this a required class?”
“There’s more to life than getting through school, taking tests, getting a job. There’s all the OTHER stuff.”
“What other stuff?”

I wonder, “Yeah, what other stuff?” Maybe there IS no other stuff. Maybe the highest achievement of humanity is my cell phone case. If I’m honest (and soon I will be) I hate most of these students. I have at least as much contempt for them as they do for me and what I’m teaching. I don’t care what will happen to them in their lives. I don’t care if they open up to this or not. The gaping maw of their ignorance coupled with their adamant indifference have proven to be the last straw. And here I had thought teaching an intro to lit class would be a great way to spend the summer, a joyous swan song to my 35 years in the classroom. Instead it has simply affirmed my perception that I’m done, past my sell-by date.

Just twelve years ago I taught the same class. A girl — woman — came in the first day with her little boy who was about 8. “Sorry about that, Professor. But I don’t have a sitter until tomorrow. And you need to know. I hate poetry. Are we doing poetry in here?”
“Yeah, actually, right now.”
“Well, I’ll try.”
“That’s all you can do,” I say and smile at her. She sits down. I go to the board and write, “We never know how high we are.” I stop, look at the class, and say, “It’s OK to laugh.” They do. Then I write the rest of the poem.

We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise
And then if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies—
The Heroism we recite
Would be a daily thing
Did not ourselves the Cubits warp
For fear to be a King—
“That’s Emily Dickinson. She was kind of a weirdo, but she wrote good poetry. She was really shy.”
“What’s a ‘cubit’?”
“Like a meter or a yard — back in the day whenever there was a new king they measured the distance from his nose to the end of his finger, like this,” I stretched out my arm and showed them how a cubit was determined. “It was a pain since everything had to be re-measured, roads, everything. So what’s Emily Dickinson saying?”
“She saying,” said the woman who hated poetry, “that we would do great things if we weren’t afraid.”
“And you hate poetry?” I say, kind of laughing at her.
“Is that a poem?”
“I didn’t know there were poems like that.”
“There are a lot of poems like that.”
“Do you know another one?” asks a kid in the back. “Like that? By heart?”
I think for a moment of the beauty of that statement, by heart. To know something by heart means it’s part of you. Forever. “Yeah.”
“But short, right? I hate long poems,” says a different poetry hater sitting near the door (to make an escape if needed).
I laugh and write another short poem on the board, this one by Stephen Crane.
“How many do you know?”
“I don’t know. We’ll find out.” And so that class begins.
Twelve years later, the only thing I bring to class that impresses my students is my cell phone case. What happened?  The problem isn’t the key. The problem is our willingness to pick it up and use it.
So what happened? Here’s a comment from a Special Ed teacher friend (elementary) who retired a few years ago, frustrated with No Child Left Behind — and for good reason. It prevented her from actually and really TEACHING her students: “Twelve years ago your students weren’t coming out of an educational system that valued a test score over the love of learning. NCLB, and now Common Core, squelch natural curiosity and the desire to explore the unknown in favor of a “standards based” examination score. We are witnessing the beginning of the end of public education.
I believe she’s right. Over the last three years of my teaching career (2011-2014) I heard many students in my university classes tell me that it was the first time in their lives they’d learned something. One of the jobs of public school (IMO) is to foster curiosity and teach students how to learn. It doesn’t do that any more. My final COLLEGE literature class (the highest level non-upper division English class offered by the college) had students in it who had 1) never read a novel, 2) did not know that Greek is spoken in Greece, 3) had never heard of Prohibition, 4) did not know there were two world wars… and on and on and on and on. I LOVED teaching until 2010 when a student threatened to assault me over an A-. So, as soon as I could, I picked up my chips and left the table with a broken heart. Students seldom know the passion and love that person in front of the room has for the subject they teach and the students with whom they share it.
It’s said that a college degree is the key to the future. No. What someone can LEARN in college is the key; it is the key to the time machine of both future AND past.

25 thoughts on “The Key to the Time Machine

  1. I’m sorry to hear that your teaching days have ended on a rather sour note. But I’d also like to add that students will be students, and sometimes need encouragement; motivation to use the key and unlock their potential. Unfortunately, a lot of teachers have ruined learning for us. I can vouch for this personally when my high school literature teacher turned my favorite subject into my most dreaded class. I think if you have been enthusiastic and passionate, and made a difference in even one student’s life, you have succeeded in your career. 🙂

  2. Garry was subbing at a local High School one 9/11. He said “We should talk about the day and what it means.”

    They said “What day are you talking about?”

    He told them. They still didn’t understand.

    • Yeah. Like the chick this past summer who asked me why I taught them about WW I. “That was really depressing. I don’t know why we had to learn that.” Well, it’s 2014? And the world hasn’t gotten better? And you LIVE here (if what you’re doing is LIFE which is, IMO, doubtful).

  3. Having been an English teacher myself in an earlier time in my life, this piece resonates with me. Knowing that most high school students have little love for poetry, I used to read my own favorites aloud to the class, using every bit of drama I knew to turn the poem into a living, breathing thing.

    Sometimes, it worked for some of them.

    • I have done that too. I was a very effective teacher for 30 years. Then a student attempted to physically assault me over an A-. It’s not about literature or teaching literature. For the students in this abysmal college class it was about trying to get through an onerous requirement with the least amount of work in the shortest period of time. This was a six-week class that was supposed to equal a semester length class. The hidden message was “don’t let anyone fail.” I designed the class as a literature appreciation class. I made it interactive and used everything in my power (film, history, oral interpretation of poetry and my own enthusiasm) to get it going. After about two weeks, I realized my students did not have the educational background to be in a college level literature class and there WAS NOTHING I COULD DO ABOUT IT. They were resentful that the class required anything. I do not know what is taught in high school any more, but the majority of them had never read a novel. We tend to blame the teacher and say, “She/he should’ve done this” but it’s not always the teacher. There are times when what is asked of the teacher does not coincide at all with the abilities of a class. This is OK if the attitude of the students coming in is overall positive, but more and more students’ attitudes toward required classes are NOT positive or even open-minded. Because of no child left behind students have learned to hate school. I know this because my students have told me things like, “This is the first time in my life I’ve ever learned anything. Until now it was just study and take a test, study and take a test.”

      • What you describe is one of the reasons I no longer teach. Fortunately for me, I taught in private Christian schools, where old-fashioned literature classes were still required and where teachers still had some authority; most important, where parents were usually wholeheartedly behind the teacher. I miss the classroom, because I truly do love to teach. But I don’t miss all the work that goes with it 🙂

      • Here’s a comment from a teacher friend who read the blog on Facebook. She’s right: “Twelve years ago your students weren’t coming out of an educational system that valued a test score over the love of learning. NCLB, and now Common Core, squelch natural curiosity and the desire to explore the unknown in favor of a “standards based” examination score. We are witnessing the beginning of the end of public education.”

  4. I am sure I would love to visit an english poetry or literature course. Part of my education missed out on it. We had it in school, but no fun, it was not presented in a fun way and it was “how I learned to dislike Shakespeare”. No pleasure because I had to do it an not because I wanted to do it. Now it is too late unless I want to go into the details of Kafka, Goethe or Hermann Hesse and Dürrenmatt which would all be available in Switzerland. I could do it, but it would not be the same. And so I am left with Jabberwocky.

    • I discovered Goethe by accident in 1998. I was planning a trip to Italy to visit Genova and Pinzolo (I was in love). Anyway, I went to the college library with my students who were doing a scavenger hunt. While they were hunting, I went looking for a tourist book on Italy. I found Goethe’s Italian Journey. I decided (since I’d seen Goethe’s picture painted on the front of a restaurant facing the square of St. Peter’s Church in Zürich, that I’d read it. I didn’t have an ID card. The librarian said, “Are you a Goethephile?” I said I didn’t know. I’d never read Goethe. He checked out the book for me. I met in that book one of the most wonderful people. I’m happy I didn’t learn about him in school; I’m sure he would’ve been turned into a stuffy precious intellectual irrelevancy, but since I met him THAT way, we became friends. I have his picture on the wall in my living room. It’s on a menu from a German ocean liner from 1932, Goethe’s 200th birthday. On the front is his picture and the back has a scene of Frankfurt and another of his cottage in Weimar. Inside a menu in English and German. I learned more from Goethe than anyone else ever in my life. One of the wonderful things from the literature class 12 years ago (and the woman who hated poetry) was a present of an old book she found at a yard sale — it’s an anthology of German literature, translated by Longfellow, much of it — published in the mid 19th century. She knew I loved Goethe because this is one poem I put on the board (in German and English). Alles geben die Götter, die unendlichen,
      Ihren Lieblingen ganz,
      Alle Freuden, die unendlichen,
      Alle Schmerzen, die unendlichen, ganz.


      From that another student in that class — half German, half Mexican — decided to go to Germany and meet his German family. Years later he ended up with a PhD in German literature.

      Sorry for rambling on, but Goethe taken as a man rather than a character in a literary pantheon, is a very wonderful thing to read. Shakespeare, too, I think, but school really messes him up for people. As for Kafka? No thanks. Hesse, for me, was an adolescent moment. Goethe and I have been together for almost 20 years now. Anyway, IMO, Jabberwocky is about as good as it gets.

  5. […] WHAT? River of Life FlowsGolden Key A Nameless SpaceStairway to Heaven CRAZY ARTBraveheart soldiers I’m a Writer, Yes I AmThe Key to the Time Machine Ripples N Reflections Ripples N ReflectionsThe Wait Hope* the happy huggerA Pop of Colour & a […]

    • Thank you. I didn’t realize until I wrote it — and responded to a friend about it on Facebook — that I have a broken heart. In spite of all the good stuff around me and the future ahead of me, I’ve felt an “owee” in there some place. Now I know what and why and I can probably get over it now. Maybe even later on down the road, I might figure out a way to stem this tide.

      • I think you are going to come across quite a lot of surprising things coming out, there in your new place. You’ll deal with them, but I think there will be pain …

      • Yeah. I think so too. I’m going to face it and not run away from it, though. I don’t think there’s any other way to get through it. I guess it’s a kind of grief.

      • Yeah — it was a relationship. A long-term passionate and very meaningful relationship with ups and downs, a lot of challenges and rewards. It’s sort of like losing a long-term lover or life-long friend. I’m just glad I realized that it was just over for me and left. Anyway, I’m glad I saw it clearly today. I’m sure you’re right; there’s more stuff ahead.

  6. Martha this is a poignant post, such memories are to be cherished. Chris said to me when I left my job that my contribution was appreciated, but it was like pulling my arm out of a bucket of water. Once gone, the water wouldn’t even show that the arm was there. I didn’t like this analogy, but it was probably true. I did like to think my teaching meant something! The memories stay…

    • That’s interesting — my grandfather used a similar analogy to describe life on earth, that it’s like sticking your finger in a bucket of water. I guess up there in Montana it’s so cold you don’t want to put your whole arm in!!! 😉

      • This made me smile! I guess you’re right, here it is rather refreshing to put the whole arm in. I hope you are coping with the cold in your new house….

  7. “…by heart…” you stated this so poignantly, that it is a part of yourself. I am sad for the future generations who do not care to understand.

    • I think so but it’s that “you can bring a horse to water” thing and I am sure there are young teachers today who cared as much as I did. I taught a few of them. 😉

Comments are closed.