Thursday, December 18, 2014

Teaching -- Memories
 
Memories are an indication of a life well or ill spent.  Give your heart and soul to what you do and you will be rewarded.  Appreciative school children give back.
 
One morning just before lunch recess I found a twenty dollar bill lying next to a leg of one of the student desks.  One boy had not yet left.  He saw me pick up the bill.
 
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
 
“I’ll take it down to the office.  Maybe the person it belongs to will report losing it.”
 
The next day I asked the school secretary about the twenty dollar bill.
 
“Two boys came by this morning and got it.”  I asked their names.  One was the boy that had seen me pick up the bill.  The other, somebody I didn’t know, claimed to be the student that had lost the money.  The principal suspended them.  I said nothing about the incident to my student upon his return.  His parents had no doubt punished him.  He had been suspended.  Why pile on?
 
Several months later I asked for a couple of volunteers to score and time keep a girls B-team basketball game on one of the outdoor courts.  Because I was the coach of the A-team, which would be playing in the gym, I could not do it.  Nobody offered to help.  At the last minute my student that had been dishonest volunteered.  He did the job well.  I was touched. 
 
One incoming eighth grade group of students had the reputation of being difficult.  The girls, especially, were uncooperative.  Forewarned, many of the teachers chose to be stern disciplinarians.  “Here are the rules.  Woe unto you if you break one!”  I went the other way.  I was open to them.  I tried to recognize and respect their needs.  At the end of the year members of two of my classes contributed money to buy me a pair of jeans, a shirt, and nifty shoes.  I remember particularly one incident.  On consecutive days a girl notorious for not telling the truth lingered to talk to me after the end of class.  The final day she stayed too long and asked me to write a note to excuse her impending tardiness.  I wrote something like “Sarah left here at 10:46.”  She told me that the note wouldn’t do.  She’d get in trouble.  I told her that I couldn’t lie; I hadn’t detained her; she had decided to be late.
 
“What should I do?” she asked.
 
“Tell the truth.  Mr. B---- is one of the fairest teachers on the faculty.  Tell him.”
 
Mr. B---- spoke to me that afternoon.  He was surprised and pleased.  I was pleased also that she had told the truth and pleased that he now viewed her differently.
 
One year fairly late in my teaching career I was teaching two GATE (gifted and talented education) classes.  One was an English class, the other an American history class.  Students eligible to take such classes had to have scored 130 or above on a school-administered intelligence test.  School policy (or maybe the policy of the principal at that time) did not allow any student to take two GATE classes taught by the same teacher.  A mother of a very bright student insisted that her daughter be placed in both of my GATE classes.  The principal refused.  Not the least intimidated, the mother sat conspicuously outside his closed office door.  Time passed.  The principal relented.  The mother had been one of my prize students the second year I taught at the school.  (See my “teaching” post “Getting Better,” Sept, 2, 2014)  I was extremely flattered.
 
Half way through my teaching career I had a student handicapped by cerebral palsy.  He and I would spend lunch recess time “shooting baskets” in my room.  I would hurl a taped, wadded sheet or two of used ditto paper at my desk waste basket from the far reaches of the room.  He would shoot the “ball” five or six feet away.  We had competitive games, replete with hyperbolic, sports announcer-type commentary.    Four or five years later one of his older brothers came into my room during my preparation period.  He handed me a soft, stuffed, reddish-colored, cloth-covered “ball.”  Saying nothing to me, he left.  I realized that my lunch recess friend had died and that his brother had carried out a dying wish.
 
Fairly early during my career one of the boys in my class had been acting out too much.  I spoke with him privately.  He was very unhappy.  His parents were hollering at him constantly.  He was giving them considerable grief. 
 
“What is it they want?” I asked.
 
“A lot.  They want me to do this.  They want me to do that.  They’re so unfair.”
 
I told him rather forcefully that they had the right to expect certain things from him.  I suspected that he believed they didn’t love him.  I said, ”Do what they ask.  See how they react.”
 
A week later he was happy.  “Things are much better,” he told me.  He stayed that way most of the rest of the year.
 
Little things.  A girl, a C student, wrote in my yearbook: “You made me want to learn.”  A much picked-on seventh grade boy that I had tried to protect during the second year I had taught at the school appeared maybe twenty years later in my classroom during our school’s annual May open house. He was there with relatives.  A cousin of his -- or maybe his nephew – was one of my students.  He wanted to say hello.  Years after I retired, a sales clerk in a department store in Eugene, Oregon, looked at my wife’s credit card.  She remarked that she had had an English teacher once named Titus.
 
“Oh?  Where was that?"
 
“You wouldn’t know the place."
 
“Where?”
 
California.”
 
“What city?  My husband was an English teacher.”
 
“That couldn’t be.”
 
“What city?”
 
Orinda.”
 
“My husband was your teacher.  Why is it that you remember him?”
 
“He’d have waste paper shooting contests.  He played games with us.”
 
(Late during my career I had two principals that insisted that “time on task” was everything.  Not a minute of class time should be wasted.  My contention was that a little bit of play at the end of a period when necessary work had been completed raised student morale, which, in turn, heightened motivation to learn)
 
And one very serious thing. 
 
I coached boys and girls afterschool sports teams for a number of years.  I eventually limited my coaching to girls, mostly eighth grade, basketball.  Near the beginning of that stretch of time I had difficulty putting together a team.  Most of the athletic girls that year, displeased with their physical education teacher/coach in the seventh grade, decided not to play any afterschool sport.  I knew of three girls who did want to play basketball.  They were not socially connected with the boycotting group.  They were skilled players.  (All three would receive basketball scholarships from division one colleges)  There was also a fourth girl – I will call her Harriet – who was new to the school.  Early in the fall the three girls had befriended her.  She was athletic but not basketball skilled.  These four attended my first practice.  I told them after the practice that they would have to recruit other girls to play, that I would need at least three additional players.  Otherwise, I would coach the seventh grade team.  Three additional girls came to the next practice.  One was fairly athletic, the friend that accompanied her was not, and the third girl, lacking skills, just wanted to play sports.  We had a team.
 
The schools in our league played a short schedule of games – no more than ten.  The season ended with a championship tournament.  We won the tournament.  In the next-to-last game of the tournament Harriet chased after a ball that was going out-of-bounds.  She fell into the wooden bleachers and injured her leg.  That evening I visited her parents.  Her father, an FBI swat team leader, was irate that the host school had allowed the bleachers to be so close to the court.  I listened to him vent; eventually, his temper eased.  Several weeks passed.  The girls wanted to play more games.  Why not? I thought. I added two seventh grade players to our team and scheduled six games against teams outside our league area.  We won five of them.  Afterward, we were invited to play in a tournament hosted by a private school.  We won our first two tournament games.  The next morning a terrible event happened.
 
One of the three skilled girls, Debbie, whom I had as a student, told me that just before the school day had started a car had stopped at the curb in front of the school and an adult in the car had told Harriet to get in.  Debbie was afraid that something bad had happened to Harriet’s father.  About twenty minutes later I received a call from the school secretary.  Harriet’s father had died of a heart attack.  Harriet wanted to talk to me and would call the office during my preparation period.  I hung up the phone.  Debbie and a friend of hers were watching me intently.  I looked at them and nodded.  They burst into tears.  I gave them hall passes to go to the girls bathroom.
 
Harriet called.  She needed to talk.  She had always been afraid that her father might be killed in the line of duty.  She had witnessed at a previous school how a girl had been affected by her father’s unexpected death.  Harriet had noticed an immediate strangeness in how the girl affected and her friends related.  She didn’t want that to happen to her.  Her friends would surely treat her differently.  She did not want to be pitied; she did not want to be viewed as a victim.  Later that day I talked to several of her teammates.  I could see strain in their anticipation of how they would need to comport themselves.  That night we played in the championship game – without Harriet -- and lost.
 
The next day I arranged to take all of the players to Harriet’s house.  They joined her in her bedroom while I talked with her mother and aunt.  Harriet’s mother told me later in the year that this act had helped Harriet considerably.  I am certain that her teammates -- giving their loyalty, solace, and strength – gained as well.
 
I am thankful I chose not to work in a different profession.  Teaching brought out the best in me.  Although I made mistakes, I benefited people.  I was rewarded for it.  I am one of thousands of retired teachers able to say that.  I fear that today’s teachers twenty years later will not be able to.  Corporate leaders and complicit politicians seek to establish conformity in how and what public school children are taught.  “Efficiency,” they maintain, “enables high achievement.”  (Never mind that all the testing they require and the new curricular material they mandate reap substantial profit)  Eliminate the “bad” teachers and hire young teachers who will “get with the program,” they maintain, and the problem of American public education is solved.  I do not agree.