Monday, March 12, 2012

Antonio and Me

As a high school teacher, I’m on the move nearly every minute of the day. From teaching classes to planning lessons to grading papers to meeting with colleagues to conferencing with students, it’s a whirlwind of activity. And that’s not even counting the after-school club. Or the paperwork. Or the lunchroom duty.

With so much to do, the first week of March comes as a shock to the system for New Jersey high school teachers. For it is during this week that we must stop everything for three mornings in order to proctor the state’s standardized test – a three-day math and language arts exam that 11th-graders must pass in order to graduate. Standardized tests have become, well, standard in America, with each state’s exam going by a different name yet fulfilling the same objective.

When proctoring this exam, it’s not permissible to grade papers or plan lessons. Teachers are expected to keep their eyes on the students, and to make sure the juniors are writing in the correct sections of their answer books. For the two teachers who are paired together in each room, this amounts to some nine hours of slowly strolling up and down aisles. By the end of Day Three, you become intimately familiar with the layout and design of your assigned classroom.

This year, I found myself paired with Martin, a friend and colleague who teaches math. As we began Day One, we glanced around the room while students tapped away on calculators and penciled in bubbles. It soon dawned on us that this room, which is used for Spanish classes the rest of the year, was not just a classroom. It was much more than that. In fact, you could call this room the educational equivalent of a shrine to one man. That man: Antonio Banderas, movie star.

In front of me, I quickly spotted seven photos of Antonio – all of them dutifully printed out to fill up student poster projects on the Andalucia territory of Spain, of which Antonio is a famous native. To my left, another Antonio filled up a giant poster to promote reading. “Antonio Banderas apoya a las bibliotecas de America,” the poster read, as Antonio gingerly fingered a copy of Don Quixote, his forced smile revealing a bit of discomfort with the Cervantes text. Eight Antonios, I figured, was enough. But then, when I glanced behind me, I saw Antonio smiling from the cover of AARP magazine, just beside the chalkboard. I glanced at the magazine cover’s subhead: “Antonio Banderas: The actor and his wife, Melanie Griffith, open up about family, fidelity, and addiction.”

Martin and I quickly realized we were trapped in a world of Antonios, guiding us through all phases of life, from regional geography to reading to recovery. Martin, who still remembers his high-school Spanish, scribbled a quick note in Spanish to the classroom’s regular teacher: “How many Antonios do you need in one room?” he wrote. The next day, she had written back a response: “There are never enough Antonios!”

Oh, I would beg to differ. But imprisoned as we were under the gaze of Antonio’s sultry eyes, Martin and I looked closer and noticed the different Antonio personas: Some pictures featured the polished, hair-slicked-back Hollywood Antonio; others featured the gel-infused curls of a looser, more European Antonio; and still another featured a long-haired, shirtless, blue-blazer Antonio that seemed to have inspired Russell Brand’s entire career.

By Day Three, Martin was driven to the point of haiku:

Antonio B
His eyes … Everywhere in here
It’s kinda creepy

As for me, my more serious nature led not to poetry, but to a mental self-inventory. It was time to compare my own life to that of Antonio’s. I am 10 years younger than the man, but both of our careers have gone on long enough that a comparison seemed valid. So, Antonio, here goes.

If there’s one thing that’s clear to me about my career so far, it’s that I’ve had my hand in a little bit of everything. I’ve taught high school, taught college, written for newspapers, written for magazines, blogged, raised a couple of kids, stayed active in the churches I’ve attended, and led some community service work. It’s hard to pinpoint one thing that would form the lead to my own obituary quite yet. Whatever legacy I’ve got to leave seems kind of varied and all over the place.

But is that really a problem at age 41? Or does it simply make me more like my good friend Antonio? After all, what is Antonio Banderas’ signature movie role so far? Is it Philadelphia or Evita? The Mask of Zorro or The Legend of Zorro? Spy Kids or Spy Kids 2? Shrek 2, Shrek the Third or Shrek Forever After? Puss in Boots or The Skin I Live In? It’s kind of hard to tell.

Whichever Antonio film you like best, it’s clear that the man does not yet have a clear, calling-card role. And that means a couple of things: First of all, the man is versatile: From Tom Hanks to Madonna to Pedro Almodovar to ogres and donkeys, he mixes it up with just about everyone. And secondly, his shining hour may still be ahead of him. We might not have seen the best of Antonio yet – no matter how many posters he graces in a high school classroom.

So although you will never see nine photos of me in a school classroom – I say that with enough certainty to bubble it in with a No. 2 pencil – you might see me, like Antonio, establishing my legacy in the years ahead. And someday, when I’m visiting Andalucia with my wife to celebrate a Teacher of the Year award, I’ll turn on the TV and see Antonio accepting his long-awaited Oscar.

“How far we’ve both come,” I’ll whisper. Antonio will look up at the TV and nod knowingly. There will only be one of him in the room. And I’ll find such power in the moment that I’ll turn to haiku. Somewhere, Martin will be smiling.