by George Bishop, author of The Night of the Comet: A Novel (Ballantine Books, July 2013)
In my new novel The Night of the Comet, the protagonist is a high school science teacher in a small Louisiana town, circa 1973. Frustrated in his work, belittled by his family, mocked by his students, he hitches his aspirations to what he believes will be the astronomical event of the century: the coming of Comet Kohoutek.
For my portrayal of Alan Broussard, the teacher, I drew on my own experience in the classroom. I’ve taught English for most of the last two decades—enough time, certainly, to give me a sense of the rigors and rewards of teaching, and also to raise my esteem of those who have been doing it even longer, and in more difficult circumstances, than I have.
I was also inspired, in my story of Alan, by movies I’ve seen that feature teachers as heroes—but not in the way you might expect.
You know the type of movie I’m talking about: The teacher (Michelle Pfeiffer/Robin Williams/Sidney Poitier) is thrown into a hostile classroom. She’s heckled by the students, abused after school, and encounters various setbacks on her mission to reform the class. Outside the classroom, she has to go up against doubting and intractable administrators/parents/significant others. Eventually, though, she wins the trust and respect of the students, and together they rescue the failing class/school/team, thereby proving to everyone that the teacher was right all along.
I don’t mean to make fun, at least not much. I’m a sucker for that kind of movie, and as likely anyone to stand up and clap at the end. But those stories have never quite jibed with my own experiences as a teacher, and so while they might give me a temporary boost of pride in my profession, they have also always bothered me. Because (I’ll confess it here) no gang of students has ever hoisted me onto their shoulders and paraded me around the schoolyard. No coterie of professors has ever lined up to lay their ink pens reverently on my lunch table. And I’ve never, ever thrown myself into the line of gunfire to take a bullet for a student—and God willing, I never will.
The truth, as any teacher knows, is that in real life, our battles in the classroom, the wins and losses, play out on a much smaller scale, and much less dramatically than what we see in the movies. Nevertheless, they still happen every day, dozens of times a day. I’m referring to the small triumph of coaxing a smile from a sullen eighth grader; or of getting the worst student in his grade to finally sit up and open a book; or of watching the whole class take an idea from a story you’re studying and run with it, argue back and forth as they struggle to express some truth about the world they’ve gleaned in their reading.
To be sure, these things might not look like much to an outsider, but teachers know that such small, daily victories snowball over time, and while we might not be hoisted into the air at the end of the semester, our influence over the lives of our students can be nonetheless profound.
This, in part, is what I hoped to capture in my depiction of Alan Broussard in The Night of the Comet. Indeed, near the end of the novel, his son has an epiphany about his father, the beaten-down teacher, as he watches him do “something that still never fails to humble and amaze me.” He sees his father get up in the morning, shave at the sink, comb his hair, line up the pens in his shirt pocket, and set off to school. Before the first bell rings, he’s walking down the hallway to his class, swinging his briefcase stiffly at his side. He welcomes his students back for the new semester, pushes up his glasses, picks up his chalk, and, dependable as the Sun, turns to the board to begin his next lesson.
“If I had to put a word to that,” the boy concludes, “I’d call it heroic.”
George Bishop holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where he won the department’s Award of Excellence for a collection of stories. He has spent most of the past decade living and teaching overseas in Slovakia, Turkey, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, India, and Japan. He now lives in New Orleans.