02/19/2013 03:42 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2013

In Praise Of (English) Teachers

Suddenly I have a lot of new friends. Mostly public school teachers, a group of professionals who find themselves under constant attack by politicians and privatizers these days.

When I was young and my whole life lay ahead of me there were two things I never dreamed about - growing old and becoming a teacher.

In fact when I was in elementary and middle school, it never occurred to me that teaching was actually a job. I thought of my teachers as simply people who arrived at school earlier than I did and stayed later.

In third grade I remember a couple of the bigger boys in my class engaged in a heated argument at recess as to whether Miss McLaughlin, our spinster teacher, actually lived in our classroom.

"Can't be," Joe Hendricks said, "she's got no cot in there. Where would she sleep?"

"I don't know. But I've never seen her leave our classroom?" Keith Ransom asked.

"Heck," Randy Haber chimed in, "I've never even seen her get up from her chair."

Nor had any of us eight-year-olds spotted Miss McLaughlin squeezing peaches at the A&P or shopping for a toothbrush at the Woolworth's. Though a long shot, there existed the possibility that Miss McLaughlin, whose bi-focal glasses hung from a #8 shoestring around her neck, never left Room 6 at Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Elementary School.

It wasn't until I was a high school freshman that I understood teaching was actually a career path. I realized this only because a lot of pretty girls with C+ averages who played flute or drums in our school's marching band were also members of Future Teachers of America.

But Mabel Simms, my sophomore English teacher, forever changed the way I viewed teachers. Mabel Simms seemed as if she stepped out of an unproduced Tennessee Williams play. She was a former southern belle who had failed as an actress, twice as a wife and whose daily hangover was telegraphed not only by her bourbon breath but also by her fire engine red lipstick that spread well past the corners of her lips.

And though I sensed she'd rather be home reading a Harry Crews novel and sipping Jack Daniels, I was enthralled by her. She hated Nixon and the Vietnam War and once she looked up at us and said, "How are you going to learn anything if you're stuck in here with me for an hour every day?"

One afternoon Ms. Simms pointed to a stack of paperbacks, snapped a finger at us and commanded, "Read."

Then she settled behind her desk and began to grade the essays we had turned in weeks earlier.

The book was Catcher in the Rye and I, like many a 16-year-old males with little or no interest in literature, was hooked from the get go.

Somewhere around page four I timidly approached her desk. I had a question about boarding school but before I could ask, Miss Simms leaned forward and whispered, "Sit down boy or I swear to God I'll castrate you."

That night I stayed up and finished Catcher in the Rye. The first time I read a book from cover to cover in one day.

Catcher and Miss Simms may not have been the primary reasons I became a public school English teacher 20 years ago and am still one today but they got the ball rolling.

Recently, I signed onto Twitter. I know I'm light years behind but a fellow teacher encouraged me to explore the National Council of Teachers of English website and engage in a conversation on some aspect of of education.

I poked around and discovered that many of my coast-to-coast colleagues, in describing themselves on Twitter, did what great writers do - express a lot in few words.

Now I follow dozens of English teachers because they know things I want to know and because I wish I taught alongside them. I marvel at how they have captured their essence in such short, sweet and clever verse.

I grouped them like this:

The Dreamer
@caseyjz - I live a glamorous life in my head

The Givers
@CatStathulis - Teacher of readers
@Educator86 - Influencing one mind at a time

The Activist
@iPretendTeach - I teach Eng @ a Title 1 School. You know where the students who can't afford charter schools go. That is all

Lovers of Language
@brandilust - Educator in the art of lovely words
@sarahERod - Lover of narratives

The Stand Up Comic
@eMeL_Clemente - I'm your English teacher and you love it

Born to Teach
@AlisonDumas2 - English teacher by day...and most nights

Too Cool for School
@JennyFraker - English teacher, wife, ashtangi, mermaid
@Mr.Armstrong - I teach middle school English and stuff
@MrTheriaultFVHS - Eng teacher/learner, sports nerd, food geek, reader of graphic novels, collector of memorable moments, I'm just a Minor Threat

This is Me and All My Teacher Friends
@MizFoley - Teacher-reader-writer-espresso-eat-sleep

I didn't start out to be an English teacher and I assume that like some of the above I took a circuitous route into the classroom. Yet as I read their descriptions, I realized how lucky their students are to have such thoughtful teachers standing at the head of their class guiding them.

And I realized that in this nation that is fighting an undeclared war on public education and public school teachers, I am keeping damn fine company.