Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Straight Face

“My little sister ate my homework.”

The worst problem I had when I was student teaching was keeping a straight face. I had defaulted to majoring in English in college and figured I wanted to teach. Junior high, I thought, was a lot like combat duty. You get all the thrill of a fidget in overdrive, raging hormones, defiance, a couchful of insecurities for each person involved, budding senses of humor and a crack of dawning civilization. They can be more adult than most people you know in one minute and sharing variations on the theme of rude noises the next. Combat duty, I thought. I’ll teach the little rascals some English. I had no idea they were going to be so funny.

I did my student teaching in a small town in southern Illinois. The State of Illinois is long enough that the northern part has little in common with the middle part and the middle part is fairly divorced from the southern part. When I lived there in the river bottom land, it was still a pretty good place for people hiding from authorities to hide until the heat was over. It’s woodsy with lakes and extensive limestone structures including caves. It’s more like The South than people think although my trips just across the river to Paducah, Kentucky convinced me that no horse money had made it across the river to southern Illinois. Paducah’s finely manicured lawns were a stark contrast the mining and farming towns at the bottom of Illinois.
Tea Tarot
(c) Copyright 2011 Marcia McCord

I was compulsive about trying to bring new, concrete experiences to young people to widen their horizons anyway. I wanted to give them something they didn’t already have. The urge is a Queen of Pentacles thing in me more than the Hierophant. I never felt I was the keeper of all knowledge spooning it out to acolytes in the small doses they could handle. I wanted to give them the whole wide world, to show them the wonder of this life. Maybe it was subversive in a way, but I wanted them to love this life and their world so that they didn’t have to cling to religion as their only respite but could choose it with joy as a supplement to their beautiful world. I wanted to teach them how to hope and how to make hopes real, that they could with their own choosing make their lives better.

There were a lot of people who went into teaching with ideals like this. I was the tail-end of the hippie generation and bought goodness and peace hook, line and sinker. I had seen what kind of transformation opportunity and positive thinking could bring to people, how fairness, justice and encouragement were fundamental. I still think those things but my own Queen of Pentacles realizes these things move ever so slowly, ever too slowly.

I had tried to show kids interesting stuff all my life including leading biology field studies for the little kids on my block when I first started college. What they learned wasn’t so much about the diversity of nature in the woods of south central Missouri then. They learned that if their gerbils escaped to hide in the sofa, they could call upon me to reach my hand into the foamy depths and risk getting bitten by the indignant little squees, all to save the neighbor kids from punishment when their parents got home. Gerbils have sharp little teeth. Teaching is a learning experience too. We all lived happily ever after that day, but I approached all future gerbil emergencies with caution.

Mrs. N was the regular English teacher at the junior high in the small town in southern Illinois. She was a sturdy, self-assured and practical woman who had hoped to expand little minds into public speaking at some point. She smoked the thinnest possible little cigars, saying she had to get all her smoking done in one preparation period, so a concentrated experience was required. I soon learned that getting the 7th and 8th graders to speak was not the problem; it was getting them to say something repeatable that was the challenge.

I had picked junior high for the challenge, thinking also that I had half a chance of being as tall or taller than the kids. I was right about the challenge, wrong about the height thing. It wasn’t that I needed to tower over them. I just wanted to see the kids in the back of the classroom. Quickly I learned that meant standing all day long and I adjusted my meager wardrobe to include the thickest-soled foam scuffs I could find in as many colors as I could find. They looked stupid, but at the end of the day my feet had not turned into something like pizza, cheesy, hot, bubbly, and seared.

But no one told me they were spit-your-drink-out-your-nose funny.

“Where’s your homework?” The condemned child looked forlorn and shuffled his feet. Apparently there was a story here. He answered.

“Your little sister?” Tears brimmed in my eyes which might have been mistaken for allergies in pollen-rich river bottom land. I did my best to keep the Queen of Pentacles’ calm but fact-based face as I looked at him.

“Can you bring your little sister in tomorrow as evidence?”

My student looked confused. Apparently no one had demanded proof before of the homework-eating toddler. I thought an experiment might be a good idea. After all, if she ate his homework, she might eat something else. The kids could write about it. It could be a lesson in how everyday life provides plenty of fodder for exposition and thoughtful reflection.

“Bring her in tomorrow along with your redone homework, but try to keep the homework away from her this time.”

The child blinked and nodded, still unsure of his ability to produce the human paper recycler. I moved on to the lesson of the day.

Mrs. N was right. Whatever you had during the one-hour of preparation period, you needed enough of it to last you the whole day. Instead of tiny cigars, I usually had to go to the teachers’ lounge and laugh until I cried.

The assistant principal frowned on this. We weren’t supposed to be having this much fun. We were supposed to be terrified of school administration and pass that terror along to the children. He had a line-‘em-up-and-shoot-‘em policy with the students. He was known to select one student teacher a year and pick on them until they broke. He picked me that year. He broadcast my classes live over the speakers in the principal’s office, hoping to get me fired before my student teaching stint was up because I couldn’t line anyone up, let alone shoot them. He didn’t get me fired but I think the office got a good laugh out of it. I know I did.

The last laugh happened later when I graduated, applied for jobs and got a job offer to teach at a small Catholic school 45 miles from my house. The school was in the process of closing but they advertised the job as a “foot in the door” for someone who wanted teaching experience. It was all subjects for kids in 7th and 8th grades with a student population in those grades of fewer than 10. The pay almost but not quite covered the gasoline to drive back and forth to the school.

At the same time I had been offered a position as a legal secretary at an established law office less than a mile from my house at nearly twice the pay. I caved, true to my Queen of Pentacles theme, and went for the bucks. Once again, I had been hired for my grammar, the product not of my college education but of the patient nuns at a Catholic grade school years ago.

And I never looked back, except to laugh. I never met that kid’s little sister.

Best wishes!

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