As usual, we'll share our most-read articles of the year on the Tendency between Xmas and New Year's. Until then, we're offering a Patreon-exclusive peek at some of the pieces that have made the list and are one of the "Top 18 of '18," along with micro-interviews with their authors.
Published: November 13, 2018
Author: Shannon Reed
Where did you get the idea for this piece?
All of my humor writing comes from my life, and this piece is no exception. I’m currently a Visiting Lecturer in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh, and this is my 19th year of teaching: before this position, I was an adjunct at Pitt and other schools and, a Teaching Assistant/grad student at Pitt, a high school English and Theatre teacher for eight years in Brooklyn and Queens, and a preschool teacher for four years, in Manhattan and Pennsylvania. Since I’ve moved throughout several different worlds in teaching, I’ve had the let’s-call-it-great luck to hear the different assumptions people make about each one. When I taught preschool, people often assumed that I just played all day and that it was a complete blast (although you’ll note that adults do not often pursue long-form recreational imaginary play with toddlers as a hobby). When I taught high school, they assumed it was for the “summers” off (in NYC, that summer was seven weeks, filled quickly by decompression, lesson planning, and professional development). Now that I teach at a college level, people do seem to think I wing it every single class, just sort of free-styling on my thoughts about literature and writing to rapt classes of undergrads. In every position, there’s been assumptions that people who have never taught could do my job, which I find just nuts: I don’t think that about anyone’s job. All work has challenges!
For a long time, I’ve carried around those various assumptions, allowing them to burn a rage hole into my subconscious, my favorite form of artistic creation. But the immediate inspiration for this piece was the sudden recollection of a parent-teacher conference at one of the high schools where I worked over ten years ago, at which a mother accused me of failing her child (who had not turned in a single assignment that semester) because I “didn’t like” her. Wouldn’t it be nice if I had gotten over that long-ago insult? Wouldn’t it be fantastic if my fame and fortune had burned away the recollection that this even happened? Yes, but then I wouldn’t have been inspired to write this piece.
What was the writing process like?
I like to think in terms of a structure and a topic. I knew that the topic was, like, “Dumb Things People Say to Teachers” but that by itself is more enraging than funny. I sorted through a couple of different possible structures (a Q & A, a playlet) and settled on what I call, “If [BLANK] Did [BLANK]” as a place to start. I’d written another piece with that structure for McSweeney’s and remembered that it was a good outlet for extreme sarcasm, so I thought it might work.
When I’m writing a humor list, I really have no idea if I’m going to be able to generate enough entries on that list to make the piece work until I start writing. The first line I wrote for this piece was the one about a doctor not liking a patient’s colon. When I saw that on my computer screen, I knew I had something – it was absurd, which is always fun, but the absurdity made a point: that is a ridiculous thing to say to a doctor, and also a ridiculous thing to say to a teacher. I decided that the idea was worth pursuing and I jotted down as many lines as I could for about a half-hour. I think I came up with 20.
Later, I came back to work on that rough draft and revised it, taking out a few that were too similar, and then mostly finessing the other professions mentioned for maximum pay-off. I knew I wanted to use a sanitation worker, for example, but I couldn’t quite decide where that should go until I hit upon the image of a child blocking a garbage truck, and that delighted me. Also, for the last entry, I had typed, “Now I’m Hot for Accountant,” which is funny-ish but not quite funny enough. (It also made me think of Ben from Parks & Recreation who was an accountant, and, as played by Adam Scott, was pretty Hot, so…). I was quite puzzled by why that joke wouldn’t land for a bit, and then I remembered Teddy Wayne’s advice to go for hyperbole and/or hard consonant sounds. This made me realize what was missing, and lo, we now have “Quality Control Manager for the Western Division,” a title that is ridiculously long and full of hard consonants.
All in all? I probably spent about 90 minutes on it, in three stages. After the two stages I mentioned above (each about a half-hour), I spent an additional, separate half-hour reading it aloud to make sure the word choice was as good as I could get it. Then I submitted it, making sure to follow the correct submission procedure. And then I walked away from the laptop. Honestly, the best thing about being a teacher/writer is that after I submit something, I always have papers to grade so I can’t waft around fretting about my submission.
Was there anything about readers’ reactions that surprised you?
I’m really surprised, but delighted, absolutely delighted, that is has reached so many people and made them happy! I’ve been writing humor for about four years now, and I’ve realized that there’s absolutely no way to tell what will prove popular or not. I thought this one would go over well with a relatively small set of teacher/readers of the site, but it seems to have hit a much more massive chord, and I’m so glad. Honestly, teaching is such a difficult job -- and I say that as someone who has found myself in the most delightful type of teaching: extremely enthusiastic students in a low-stress situation -- and people can be such shits to teachers, so if this has made a few teachers laugh, I’m really glad.
The two other take-aways I have about the reaction are to be very sorry that these ridiculous things are said often enough that so many teachers recognize them. Come on, America! We can do better than this! The second is that I’m really glad that no one has written to tell me that I’m a terrible teacher and that they feel sorry for my students. That’s definitely happened in the past, and I’ve always been really skeeved out that there’s an assumption that a person can’t be funny and, you know, good at teaching. That’s such a weird cultural stereotype about teachers, and if this piece does anything towards breaking it, I’m thrilled. I’m working on a funny book about teaching, and this entire experience makes me more hopeful about finding a publisher for it.
Oh, and I’ll add one more thing: I wrote a piece for McSweeney’s a few years about Teachers’ Lounges, really a love letter to those particular spaces which we don’t have at a university level, and which I miss. Someone emailed me to say that they had taped up If People Talked… to a cupboard door in their teachers’ lounge, and that truly made me as happy as can be!