I loved school from the very first day. When I ran to the car after that first day of first grade, all I could do was jump up and down on the seat and say oh boy! oh boy! oh boy! over and over. Buying school supplies at Skillerns was almost more fun than Christmas morning, and choosing new school clothes was like becoming a new person. The start of a new school year was a new beginning, full of things to be learned, new friends to be made, and fun events happening, and it would all bring me one step closer to my exciting future life as an adult. I loved every single moment at Henderson Elementary in Oak Cliff, and I loved all the teachers who taught me.
Junior high was a little more rough. The boys all seemed to change over the summer from sixth to seventh grade, and things were no longer as innocent and sweet as they had been. Greiner Jr. High was larger than elementary school, the girls were meaner, and everyone worried incessantly about how they looked. Boys voices changed, girls got figures, and everyone started pairing up into couples. All of this was a huge distraction from learning. The teachers were less nurturing and it was easy to get lost in the crowd. I loved it nevertheless. In addition to my regular classes I learned how to sew and cook, how to write articles for the school newspaper, and how to cheat in Latin class. I was even in a mariachi band and learned to play guitar from a man who spoke not one word of English.
High school was scary at first. Skyline High School was huge and I felt like the teachers barely knew who I was from class to class. The first two years were fun and busy, with commercial art classes and drill team practice, but by the time I got to my senior year I found the classes boring and the teachers stupid. One teacher chastised me over and over in front of the class because of the way I wrote the capital A in my first name. My history and science teachers were all coaches, and class consisted of coloring maps and answering questions from the textbook. With nothing and nobody to challenge me, I did as little work as possible that year to graduate and missed as many days as I could to survive the boredom. I graduated with honors. I was ready for that fun, exciting life as an adult.
And it was. Neither of my parents went to college, and there was no money to go anywhere far, so I enrolled in classes at the local community college, Mountain View. It was like the first day of first grade all over again. I took classes in art history, ancient history, and English literature that all overlapped and melded together. The things I was learning in history class were being expanded and explained more in depth in my art history and literature classes. Suddenly, the world and life started to make sense, and I was in a place where it was cool to be smart and make good grades. Teachers didn’t treat me like an idiot, and they wanted to hear what I had to say. My first semester of college was like coming home to myself.
Life and fate intervened, however, and at Christmas break I left and took a seven year detour to Switzerland. I got married and worked for a few years as an English secretary in a Swiss company that made turbine generators for nuclear power plants, then became a hausfrau and mother to two children. When the marriage failed and I returned to Texas, I went back to Mountain View College, got an Associate’s degree, and won a full scholarship to SMU to finish up my last two years. I was a single mom and a full-time student, but I would have stayed in college forever if I could have. My plan was to take a year off and support myself and my kids, then enter a Ph.D track program in Interdisciplinary Studies, Journalism, or English Literature.
The seed was probably planted that first day of school that I wanted to be a teacher. While I was at SMU I took one class in elementary education, but compared to my other classes it was boring and uninteresting. A few months after graduation, while I was working part-time in the English Department at Mountain View, I met someone who had just been accepted into the Alternative Certification program in Dallas ISD. There was a teacher shortage and they would actually pay to train you to teach and then place you in a classroom. I applied for a high school reading intervention position, but after they learned of my years living overseas and my personal experiences having to learn another language, I was talked into interviewing for an English as a Second Language position at the elementary level instead. I was accepted and decided to put off graduate school and do what I had always wanted to do–teach young children.
I would teach children whose first language wasn’t English, first generation children whose parents were new immigrants to the U.S. I had a few Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian students, but the majority of my students were Spanish speaking. I interviewed with a principal whose first question to me was: would you be scared to teach at a school that is surrounded by barbed wire? I wasn’t, and was hired to teach second grade at a school half a mile from the center of downtown Dallas.
Like a lot of first year teachers, I was awful. When classes were leveled in October, I was moved to kindergarten and two half-day classes of students who spoke and understood almost no English. Many of the students in one class were special needs and could smell my weakness from the moment they walked into the room. I didn’t have a clue about discipline and went home crying most nights. I caught every illness known to man from my students and had an assistant principal who made my life a living hell, threatening to write me up if I didn’t outline my color caterpillar and clean the crayon marks off the backs of the chairs. In addition, I had an old clunker of a car that kept breaking down on the way to school and got me in just as much trouble as the students. Saddest of all, my heart was broken when the very first student to show up for class on the first day of school, one of my original second grade students, was accidentally shot and killed by her cousin when they found a loaded gun under the bed. I still have the little notes she used to put in the makeshift paper plate mailbox outside my new kindergarten classroom, telling me how much she loved me and missed me.
Somehow I survived, and after the first few years I got used to the stress and oddball characters that seem to litter public education. Teaching was much, much harder work than I ever expected, and in those halcyon days of Whole Language, everything was expected to be “authentic” (i.e. handmade and not store bought) and thematic (i.e. interdisciplinary). I loved the creativity of those early years, and spent my evenings copying poems and illustrating them on large sheets of chart paper and finding songs and picture books to go along with our themes–which could be anything from rain forests to families to transportation.
Eventually I found my footing and my confidence as a teacher. Like most teachers, through much patience, trial and error, and help from veteran teachers, I got better at discipline. In the beginning, I loved the fun of teaching the youngest students, but eventually I wanted a new challenge and found my way to fifth grade. I loved the fifth graders’ independence and sense of humor, but had to adjust to some major attitude, lack of motivation, and wisdom beyond their years in areas I knew nothing about until my twenties. Some days it was like teaching teenagers, some days it was like being back in kindergarten. Some of the students actually were teenagers, having been held back several times in the past and entering fifth grade in August as thirteen year olds.
Every generation complains about the next generation coming up, about how they have no manners and no discipline, and I’m probably no different. My students today seem more brazen than those from 19 years ago, and they see no reason to behave just because an adult tells them to. As a society we have only ourselves to blame. Television is overflowing with personalities and images that teach our children that being rude is funny, that you can be rich and famous for doing absolutely nothing of value, and that the person who yells the loudest usually gets the biggest piece of the pie. My heroes are those children who stand strong and aren’t afraid to work hard in school, even when everyone else makes fun of them for doing so and tells them it isn’t cool to be smart. It’s so hard to be a kid these days.
I have always simplistically believed that education is the way out, that books and learning can solve all problems. I still believe that. After nineteen years, though, I’ve decided it’s time to go. I’m feeling worn down by politicians who think the only thing that matters in education is a test score, that schools should be run like businesses, and that it’s acceptable to cut music and art and cram more kids into a classroom to save money. I’m tired of the punishing amount of paperwork that is required of teachers, and I’m just plain tired of all the testing. It’s time to move on.
I hope there are former students out there who think fondly of their time in my class and parents who are grateful that I taught their children. I hope they can forgive me for those days when I might have snapped at them impatiently or didn’t listen to them when they needed me to. I hope I made learning fun and interesting, but I also hope I taught them that sometimes learning is nothing more than long hours of hard work.
Most of all, I hope I helped mold some of my students into a bunch of really cool adults, voraciously reading good books and traveling the fifty states, remembering the year they sang Take Me Home, Country Roads in the fifth grade PTA program because it was everyone’s favorite song (to my utter surprise, until I got tired of the kids wanting me to play it over and over all year long), and how they sat spellbound watching and listening to Martin Luther King, Jr’s I Have a Dream speech. I hope my students remember our Sing Song Sing-Along Fridays and that they will read There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom, Freak the Mighty, and Tales from The Odyssey to their own children one day. I won’t forget the children my students once were, and how they gave my own life so much meaning and love.
In the end, I have come full circle, starting and ending in elementary school. I realize now that school has probably always been my true home. I did find that fun, exciting life I always wanted, but like Dorothy, I never really had to leave home to find it. As a child, it was always there, in the books that opened up my world, in the kindness of teachers who pushed me, encouraged me, and never gave up on me, and in the schools that gave me a safe haven to return to each day. As an adult, those same elements remained, only I was the one in charge and and had the heavy responsibility of living up to my students’ expectations each and every day.
Fun and exciting? You better believe it was.