Gateway to the Good

Why Teaching Is the Noblest Profession of Them All

Right about now, in the most innocuous and drab corners of the Harvard campus, you find yourself under siege. The signs are subtle.

You're on the way to English 70, full of coffee and spinakopita, brooding happily over this morning's Dickinson lyric ("Is my life, too, a loaded gun?"), when an old expos friend, the one with the navel ring and who wrote all his essays about Hunter S. Thompson, rushes past in an Armani suit, barely nodding as he passes out of sight into some building you've never noticed before. Your familiar drab red sidewalks and dreary staircases are suddenly pounded by Bali shoes, crunching your Doc Martens, pointing their way to Wall Street, engaged in a spring ritual called Recruiting.

You, for one, are unsure what Recruiting is. It involves Consultants, but you do not know what a Consultant does; you asked once and did not understand.

Your dining hall is spotted one day with business suits eating waffle fries, and your favorite tutor is offering a fourteen-part course in how to be a tasty Recruit. Your neighbors already have apartments in Manhattan and 401ks. You do not know what 401k means.

This confusion turns to ridicule ("the haute bourgeoisie, right out of Foucault"), then to panic--after they turned down your Rhodes application, you've had visions of moving back with your parents, mowing the lawn, reading your thesis in a rocking chair at an old-age home. You have flashbacks to Freshman Week, when everyone else knew exactly what they were doing, and you know that yet again, you are clearly missing something.


Be glad. Recruiting is one of the strongest, most insidious forces in American culture, as powerful as the draft and, maybe, as tragic. Huge numbers of American's best and brightest shuffle off each year, not to public schools or government service, but to Wall Street, State Street, and law school for one reason and one reason alone: lack of anything else to do.

It's true. When you're confused about the future, the only people there to help guide you just got off the shuttle from Manhattan. Like the proverbial shysters at the rich widow's house, they are here to ease your pain. At Harvard and at many other top schools across America, it's hard to chart any other course. But for the country and for the consultants themselves, it's a miserable business.

Ask them yourself. At last fall's Yale Game, I bumped into a dozen consultants from my graduating class at John Harvard's Brewhouse, and each one was shockingly blunt. Their jobs? "Selling out." Their reasons for staying? "Don't know what else to do." Do they at least like what they're doing? Nope. Parts of it interested them, but on the whole, every one of them hated the hundred hours a week they spent toiling for the market. That's why they're paid so well--to ignore their own happiness.

Don't ask the recruiters, even the ones who graduated two or three years ago. They're headhunters, not guidance counselors.

The best solution is to teach.

There are other options: running around America on a Greyhound pass, going off to Washington to fight the good fight, waiting tables in New York as you audition for your big break--but when you're 22 and full of a Harvard education, teaching in the right place can be the best job there is.

I am in my second year of teaching English at Nativity Preparatory School in Roxbury, and I can't imagine a better life. All the teachers here are under 27, all educated at Harvard, Dartmouth, Williams, Amherst and the like, and everyone is interesting and fun. None of us is trained as a teacher; we wing it, and get our inner-city kids into New England's best high schools. The job is intellectually challenging--I still get to talk about literature every day, but now I get to plug it into real life. For these kids, Jane Pittman is their grandmother, and The Outsiders happens across the street.

Organization like Teach for America tend to stress how "fulfilling" teaching can be, and it is--but it's more complicated and more concrete than that.

In this essay, I will try to prove why teaching is the best job for a young Harvard graduate.

* You are not giving up your career. I'll confess my own snobbery about teaching. Like most Harvard students, I consider teaching the noblest profession, and honestly, some days I still consider myself somewhat above it. Six hour days spent diagramming sentences with boring ten-year-olds--this is what I wrote a thesis for?