University of Minnesota
minnesota writing project
center for writing

Minnesota Writing Project.Center for Writing's home page.

Marie Hansen


marie hansen readingThe Top Five Reasons Why My Job as a High School Teacher is Like a Reality Show

On my first day of real adulthood, I threw up and fainted. Many college grads share a similar story of losing their breakfasts on the first day of their new jobs. I hope they puked discreetly in an office tower’s private bathroom and then snuck back to their cubicles in secret, popped in a stick of gum, and smiled at their boss as if they hadn’t just been hunched over a toilet. They didn’t hurl in front of 350 teenagers during sophomore orientation in a high school cafeteria and then end up stuck in the nurse’s office for an hour after being mistaken for a student. Oh, no. That’s just me. At twenty-two, I walked back into a large, suburban high school, but this time it was as a teacher. My life hasn’t been the same since. Every day, I ask myself, “Is this really happening? It must be scripted!” When I think of what has happened to me over the last three years, I realize that real life can have more excitement than any fictional tale. My job as an eleventh grade English teacher has more in common with reality shows, from classy to trashy, than you might think. You just can’t make my stories up. Your day at work will never top mine.

Two words: condom balloon. That’s my answer when someone asks, “What’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you while teaching?” During my first year teaching, a tall kid in a ski mask burst through my door and lobbed a water balloon at me. It bounced off my right leg and exploded all over the front row of my students. As I stared at the empty plastic on the floor in shock, these thoughts ran through my mind in the first thirty seconds: “I thought that guy had a gun or a grenade and that this was going to be Columbine. That was a water balloon. Wait, that doesn’t look like a water balloon. Is that a condom? Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh no. Ew. Ew. Sick. No. This is not happening. Maybe they won’t figure out what it is.” However, after a few seconds of shocked silence, the uproarious laughter and screams of “That’s a condom!” shattered whatever fading hopes of innocence I had.

The condom balloon lives on in infamy, told by seniors to each new class of juniors, so I can never really get over being punked by a group of seventeen-year-old guys. They thought it would be funny to dare a kid to throw a condom balloon at me. They watched too many episodes of Jackass and blurred the line between home and school. I’m the one who won’t ever be able to forget it.

The Real World
This show lives up to its name—it is real. I’d bet you twenty dollars that every single conflict on The Real World has occurred in my classroom in some form. Many people might feel upset like these roommates, but these characters break down common boundaries of communication and say whatever pops into their heads, good or bad. Sometimes they even write it in letters to their roommates in a drunken miscalculation. Really, it’s not just television stars: all adolescents emotionally barf on whoever is in the way. Once I confiscated a note in study hall that said, “I hate Ms. Hansen as much as Osama hates America. I’m going to slash her tires with my lumberjack axe.” Let’s just say that one did not end well.

More specifically, in every episode of The Real World, someone ends up crying and pouring their hearts out to anyone who will listen. Teenage girls end up in my classroom bawling about everything—their boyfriend dumped them, no one asked them to prom, their parents gave them a curfew, their friends looked at them weird in the lunchroom, or they have cramps. Some of their issues actually matter. Their eating disorder is back, a family member is mentally ill, they lost their virginity and wish they hadn’t. Like a roommate yelling about a messy kitchen because her roommates touched her curling iron, my students fixate on the strangest symbols of their pain. One girl sobbed, “We don’t have a dining room table anymore!” when her parents divorced in the messiest way. The worst is when the teenage boys cry. It’s so uncommon that it shocks me into silence, and I have no idea what to say.

Some might say that The Real World isn’t real because no one would become that close to a stranger. Those people haven’t spent any time with teenagers lately. They’ll spill their guts to anyone who will listen. I am happy to hear what they have to say because knowing that I’m a safe shoulder to cry on makes me feel as if I’ve done something worthwhile in this world. But, as I drive on the entrance ramp to the freeway on my way home, tears well up in my own eyes on these days. I wonder how on earth I became the safe keeper of these terrible secrets.

The Rachel Zoe Project
“Ms. Hansen, your favorite color is NOT pink!”

“What?? You don’t know what my favorite color is.”

“Yeah, we do! It’s blue!”

“You guys, my favorite color isn’t blue. I promise!”

“Yes, it is! You wear blue clothes like every day!”

My entire class proceeded to list all my pieces of blue clothing, which I apparently wore too frequently. I thought that when I went back to high school the second time, I could stop caring what I looked like. No one would notice, after all, and I wasn’t trying to impress any cute guys. Nothing is further from the truth.

Rachel Zoe styles clothing as if it’s life or death. Choosing a fabulous outfit causes her to pronounce, “I die!” while seeing a fashion faux pas photographed on one of her clients is the worst possible fate. I am in the same situation at school as my students assess the color schemes and trends in my wardrobe. They don’t usually have a flattering image to work with. I’m photographed in the background of their pictures looking like those warning photos in tabloids of stars in unflattering bikinis, accompanied by captions screaming, “What happened to this poor young woman?”

Then again, that’s probably good. I’ve learned exactly how to style myself to minimize getting hit on: no eyeliner, only pale lip gloss, no skirts or dresses—especially the maroon one—undershirts up to my collarbone, and wide-leg dress pants. My work wardrobe choices in store dressing rooms usually swing in favor of looking older and unappealing instead of young and hot. Celebrities in Hollywood might be photographed every time they leave the house, but I live under a microscope, too, and teenagers’ eyes are even more critical.

Jersey Shore
Parents, I know you like to think that MTV is dragging your child’s morality into the gutter. You must block them from viewing this trash because your precious baby should never be exposed to anything so degrading. Sleeping around, wearing slutty dresses, grinding on random strangers, screaming at people in public, and getting completely trashed are all activities your saintly child would never participate in. Trust me—we’ve already gotten to that low state. Ever been to prom?

I love planning prom until about 11:00 pm. When I see laughing kids all dressed up enjoying themselves underneath perfectly executed balloon arches and well-coordinated decorations, I can’t help smiling. Organizing prom makes me happy, most of the time. But even though I check every purse and pocket for flasks on the way through the door, for the last three years running, I’ve been forced to hand out minors during that last witching hour. It’s still a strange concept. I still wish all my students would graduate from high school without touching alcohol like I did. That’s why I don’t really understand how I became the teenage drunk whisperer.

When a chaperone whispers to me to come talk to a student, I know it’s begun. The flashing strobe lights give me a headache as I wade through girls thrusting their butts in random guys’ crotches and drag a drunk kid off the dance floor. When I finally corral her in a corner, I track down the police officer.

“You know, she says she’s going to get kicked off the volleyball team if you give her a minor,” he begins.

“Maybe she should have thought about that before she got drunk at prom!” I retort.

“Can we just give her a warning? Otherwise I have to call a squad car to bring a breathalyzer, and that’s kind of a hassle,” he whines.

Isn’t that your job? And who doesn’t bring breathalyzers to work a high school prom? I think, but I respond more diplomatically. “Do you see those few hundred gawking bystanders staring at us? If you let her go with a warning, not only does it encourage them to drink, but then I have to deal with them trying the same trick of hiding tiny vodka bottles on their garter belts next year. Please don’t make me do that!” Usually, at this point, they cave and hand out the citation.

I’m just waiting for the year when I have to become a bouncer and break up a bar brawl. That one Saturday night each May is like a dream, or maybe a nightmare, compared to my typical classroom order. Prom ends up looking more like a nightclub where you’d find Snooki or the Situation rather than a school sponsored event.

The Bachelor/Bachelorette
I’ve always hated this show. It’s so unrealistic—twenty-five contestants compete for true love on television. This situation would never occur during a normal relationship. But, it does scarily resemble an untenured teacher’s journey to job security. It’s a desperate long shot, and we all know it. When you tell someone that you’re graduating from college with a teaching degree, they ask you, “Where do you want to sub?” or “Are you going to move to Iowa like my cousin who couldn’t find a job in the cities for four straight years?” Thank you, by the way. Those questions inspired so much confidence in me. No one with any sanity enters this job market willingly. Perhaps I shared the doe-eyed romantic optimism of contestants on The Bachelor because I dreamt that maybe, somehow, I could be the one who found a job and kept it.

Administrators can choose whoever they want to hire and cut during the three years of a young teacher’s probation. I teach in a great school and like my principal, but not everyone is in this fortunate situation. If your principal doesn’t like your hair or hears one negative comment or wants to hire someone from his alma mater, you’re done. My college roommate lost her job because not enough parents called her principal to compliment their child’s teacher. This woman sat her down and said, “You know, your last principal said you were great, but I’m just not feeling you right now.” That was it. She was voted out. And, sometimes, even if you show up to work in a batman mask like Jeff on the latest season of The Bachelorette, you still end up with a job while everyone else is let go. Still more people seem like they might win but then leave of their own volition because they just aren’t falling in love.

Then again, my dream came true. I am now tenured in a fabulous school, and I’ll tell anyone who cares to listen that I’m thrilled. But, I know that’s not common. Legislators say nowadays that tenure hurts education because it’s so easy for bad teachers to achieve it. Apparently, you can earn a permanent job with the intelligence of a monkey. Have they ever tried to get a teaching job and keep it? If they think they can handle living in a reality show every day, then I’d like to see them win this contest.