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From ‘Storyville’: Repaying karmic debt

By Jonathan Brown

This piece is written by Jonathan Brown, a poet in the MFA program at UNO. It is the third installment in WWNO and UNO’s collaborative “Storyville” project. To hear the broadcast, click here. Learn about Storyville’s conception from its Creative Director, Richard Goodman, here.

Jonathan Brown

Jonathan Brown

When I tell people I’m a high school teacher in New Orleans, they look at me like I’m a few inches taller than I was before. They look at me like I’m a saint, but if they heard how hard I laughed at things I shouldn’t, they wouldn’t assume I was so pious. This past week, one of students in AP Language and Composition said Drake was the type of rapper who wears a pad when his girlfriend gets her period so he can feel her pain. Inappropriate? Definitely, but it’s lighthearted compared to the vitriol I used to spit at my teachers.

My career path isn’t the selfless act of charity it’s often perceived as. I actually think I need my students more than they need me. Teaching is sort of a really loud, chaotic meditation. It demands you exist in the present moment, and it’s a never-ending lesson in compassion and detachment.

In order to be worth your salt, you have to have endless empathy for your students. You have to know, like really know, that the problems you have at home are completely irrelevant as soon as you enter the school building. Your students don’t care if you gained twenty pounds or your best friend just died. They don’t care if you just broke up with your girlfriend or lost faith in your art. They only care about one thing and as clichéd as it sounds — they only care if you care about them. It’s almost selfish how much you have to escape your own melodrama to become a decent teacher.

When I tell people I’m a high school teacher in New Orleans, sometimes I get responses as if I have just been diagnosed with a terminal illness and they are trying to console me.

They say things like, “that must be really tough. “ Or, “Wow, how much longer have you got?” — which could mean one of two things: how much longer until summer break, or how much longer will I stay in the profession.

Sometimes I feel like I’m paying off my own karmic debt. As a high school student I was aggressively apathetic at best. I was petulant. I’d get such a rise out of making my teachers purple with anger. When I was a senior in college, I came home for Christmas vacation and I ran into my 10th grade history teacher at a bar. After a flash of recognition she said, “Jonathan Brown, I remember you. You were so lazy and disrespectful.” I put my arm around her, pulled her close and said, “Ms. Fitzgerald, are you still divorced?”

I’m not sure if karmic debt is a zero sum game, as in every act of kindness cancels out one of malicious intent, but I think I have a long way to go before I settle up.

This piece is by Jonathan Brown. Please email comments to


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