The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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’Twas third grade, I think, and I was to make my dramatic debut as a cold germ before the general assembly of Pierrepont Elementary School. Chosen to portray my fellow germ was Walter Mortimer (mon frere, mon semblable), the two of us appropriately undersized and towheaded. To heighten the effect, we both had to wear look-alike costumes, flannel pj’s over our school clothes. Bill Staehle, as I recall, played Johnny, who through certain practices of clean living and incantations of good health would banish us cold germs forever. The instrument of this exorcism was one of those pre-aerosol, hand-pumped bug sprayers, supposedly cleansed of insecticide.
Whether due to stage fright, the warmth of the pj’s, or some forgotten residue of insecticide, whether for one of these things or for all of these things, when, at the play’s climax, Bill Staehle sprayed, I puked. Then Walter puked.
My next distinct memory is resting my head on a desk in Miss Gal’s office as I waited for my brother to take me home.
Eleven years ago, on the opening day of school in Brooklyn, New York, I crossed the hallowed line between student and teacher — and in front of 33 fidgeting fourth graders, assumed my first job as The Teacher.
Like your first love, your first class finds you fresh with an optimism and devotion that is a joy to behold. I was a Florence Nightingale of the blackboard — what visions of guiding and enriching! But as with any first love, the harsh realities of life eventually came crashing through.
A funny thing had happened to the public schools on my way through college. The sense of peaceful order and solemn silence I had appreciated as a child was as outdated in the schools now as the clothes we wore back then. Overcrowding, discipline problems, racial tensions and severe academic weakness replaced the structure and serenity (albeit boring) that I remembered (and expected) in school. Somebody had drastically changed the rules, and the children I taught lived in a different world than I had. It was hard to catch up.
Class 4-409 was the seventh lowest of nine fourth-grade classes. It was an integrated class with reading levels ranging from first grade to fourth. It would have been challenging enough to meet their academic needs in such an overcrowded and tense environment — but to meet their extreme emotional needs was impossible. Still they asked. And I tried.
Every class has a Gerard, and my first class had a dandy one. Gerard’s mother had tried to poison him as a baby, but was unsuccessful. With this loving background, it was easy to see why Gerard was such a menace to the class, and to himself. Gerard is the kid who pasted his hand during math, and when I sent him to the back sink to wash up, decided to wash his hair. Then he walked up the aisles flicking his wet hands over everyone’s test papers.
Another fun prank of Gerard’s was to engineer a scheme with his buddies, and for 45 minutes I worried anxiously where three of my students had gone. The school frowns upon teachers losing students and I had no idea where they were when the reading teacher asked to see them. Then I heard laughter from the wardrobe, opened the doors, and found Gerard and the other two boys hanging by their collars from a coat hook.
While these incidents seem amusing, they are not easy to teach through. One of a teacher’s hardest tasks is to be interesting, helpful and enriching to a variety of people without letting the problems or needs of a few dominate your time.
But how could I tell Daniel, who had sixteen (natural) brothers and sisters, that he needed to memorize his multiplication tables, when all he wanted was some personal attention? How could I ignore Elizabeth, who came to school blue in the winter because her mother, a prostitute, dressed her in a summer dress and sandals?
In my eight years of teaching, I have met children from heartbreaking circumstances who have greatly undermined the effectiveness of group education. To stick it out in the public schools means letting some precious souls slip away in an effort to help the many survive.
As a parent, I don’t want my child in any of the public schools I have taught in (from New York to Virginia), but as a public school teacher, I feel obliged to do my best in a sometimes insane system.
But still I go back, and all the Gerards along the way haven’t totally diluted the joys and rewards of working with children. I have had other jobs, but have never found the satisfaction in typing that I find in the eyes of an enthusiastic child.
Teaching may be the one job that allows you to get a half-empty bottle of cologne from a well-meaning but poor child at Christmas. It provides the opportunity of answering the unforgettable question, “How do you spell dummy-stuffer?” from the boy whose father worked with mannequins in a department store, and needed to fill in “Father’s Occupation” on a federal form. And it is the only place you’ll hear such exchanges as: “What did the Romans do to the early Christians?” “Throw them to the loins.” Or, “Where was the Great Wall of China built?” “In New York. . . .”
Best of all, it is the only place to be on a sunny June day, when instead of running out of the room to catch a bus home, a child stays late to give you a hug, and to thank your for being his best teacher.