O P I N I O N
On Tuesday, my school called a snow day. Most years, this is nothing remarkable. After all, we live in New England where snow is no anomaly.
But this school year has been unlike anything I’ve seen in my career, which has spanned two decades, and as we’ve all tried to navigate an uncharted terrain that includes its own educational nomenclature—terms like “hybrid learning” and “asynchronous models”—this quiet day at home gave me time to reflect on some of my other seminal and stranger experiences as an educator.
And this brought me back to Vegas.
It started at the beginning of summer in 1998. I had just finished a gig as a full-time substitute for a teacher on maternity leave, but I didn’t have a teaching job lined up for the fall.
So I decided it was good time to play Jack Kerouac and drive with my roommate Jay from Ashland, New Hampshire—where we were living on Lake Winona—to the Pacific Ocean and then turn around and drive home, seeing America along the way.
Before leaving, however, I set up an interview in Las Vegas with the Clark County School District—which was the fastest-growing district in the country at the time—so I packed a suit in the back of Jay’s pickup truck, and we left for the West Coast.
A month later, we made it back to New Hampshire, road-weary and broke, but alive, and I took work as a prep cook in Waterville Valley.
One afternoon, I found a message on the kitchen table, handwritten on the back of a phone bill, with a woman’s name and a number to call from Cheyenne High School in North Las Vegas.
So I called the woman, and she hired me on the spot over the telephone, informing me that orientation started a week. I had seven days to move from New Hampshire to Nevada, find a place to live and start my professional career.
I was 23 years old without a wife or children to consider and in a position to take a risk, so I took it.
When I arrived in Sin City—I can still remember the illumination on the desert horizon, like a synthetic sunrise, while driving into the Vegas lights from I-15 at night—I discovered that the high school where I would be teaching English had roughly the same number of students as Plymouth State, where I had completed my undergraduate degree six months earlier.
Aside from the prodigious student-population, I would also be teaching in a portable classroom located in the back of a massive stucco building, adjacent to the teachers’ smoking section outside, and my smallest class size was 35 students at the time.
In short, I soon realized that I had signed up for a trial by fire.
Throughout that school year, I had a resignation letter drafted and ready to be submitted on any given day. Many of my students’ families had moved from Los Angeles, and there were numerous gang ties to the school. Only two years before Tupac Shakur was assassinated down the street on the Las Vegas Strip, an event many of my students wrote about in their essays.
Throughout that school year, I had a student overdose in class, spilling like a liquid out of his desk chair and onto the classroom floor; another student walked up to the front of the room and threatened to take swing at me; and yet another young man, angry that I asked him to leave class after showing off his bag of weed, tossed a desk at me.
I remember taking attendance one day, calling a student’s name, and someone shouting from the back of the classroom, “He’s doing eight to ten years in prison.”
I crossed the student off my roster.
In one of my sophomore English classes, where I was only one of a handful of native-English speakers, a fight broke out—more desks were thrown—and the students involved were yelling at each other in Spanish. The only word I could make out was “maestro,” which I knew meant me.
Each classroom had a large red panic button by the door that summoned the police if pressed—a small solace.
But I gutted through the year, and by June, I had developed some real bonds with my students, so it was with some ambivalence that I accepted a teaching position that would return me to New Hampshire and the same high school where I teach today.
I will never, however, regret the decision to teach in Las Vegas. I grew a lot that year, personally and professionally, and learned things about myself and teaching that have proven invaluable in my career.
Of course, COVID-19 has also challenged me, especially the way I approach education. Again, I’ve had to gut it out. But moving forward, I hope that the challenges of this year also sow a similar growth.
These types of experiences have made me realize that even the “maestros” are always learning, too.
 It wasn’t that I knocked off her feet with my charm and pedagogical acumen. They needed warm bodies, preferably ones with teaching licenses that had reciprocity in Nevada.