Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?"  ~ Ernest Hemingway

On the first day I became an "official high school teacher," I walked into MY new, never-before-occupied art room.  The school was 1-year old, and I was just an infant.  My room had every thing an art teacher could want... lots and lots of space, brand-new storage baskets enough for each of my students, acres of spotless bulletin boards to display my students' future masterpieces, two large stainless steel sinks set into an expansive wooden-topped work-station, and lots of large wooden tables that would seat 4 students apiece, lined with enough high wooden stools to hold 36 students.  Nirvana!

After the beginning-of-school meetings and preparations, the first day of actual school arrived.  At the end of that day, after seeing my 222 students, I went home and cried.  I was just 21 years old, and I was exhausted...  How could I do this?  Who did I think I was?  That was just the first day.............  There were about 183 more days to go... 

But I came back the next day... the rent for my 2-room furnished apartment was due that week, all $125. I HAD to stick it out! Panhandling was not an option! Day by day, though, it got better and better, and finally threre was a rhythm to it all.  Later I found that the more years I taught, the faster that soothing hum would start.  

Between classes teachers were required to stand outside of their classroom doors, checking each student's apparel as they walked by... Boys MUST have their shirts tucked into their slacks and MUST have a belt on.  NO jeans!  Girls' skirts must NOT be too short!  NO holding hands in the hallway!  Teachers must break that up immediately!  There seemed to a be law for teachers, too... no bathroom breaks until your conference period or during lunch, whichever came first...  HUH?

Conference period was interesting...  I remember one more than all the rest. Students were not supposed to pass notes in class.  They did, though, and had done since caveman times, I bet!  I thought that the ethical thing to do when you caught one was to throw them in the wastebasket...  Well, that became my policy after I read one of them... about ME!  Sheesh!

In the faculty lounge where we "conferenced," one of the teachers had intercepted a note floating around in her class, and it was a dilly!  I know because the teacher passed it around to all of us in the faculty room to read.  A sophmore girl had written to a friend about sex.  The note said for her friend not to worry...  "as long as you only do it for 15 minutes, you won't get pregnant."  (You're wondering how I could remember this exact quote, aren't you?  Are you KIDDING me?????  Who would forget that?)  We all laughed hysterically, but then I began to think hard.  If that girl believed that, then that must be something that other kids believed, and that meant that my job would be secure for the rest of my life, didn't it?  Whew! I mean, think of all the kids that were going to be born in the future!

But things, besides learning to draw, happened to some of my kids that year.  One girl wore a huge, dirty white sweater every single day to class.  She was shy and didn't talk much. Other kids came up to me complaining that they didn't want to sit by her because she smelled. One day she didn't come to my class. I was told by the nurse that during gym class the P.E. teachers had stripped her down to give her a bath in the girls' shower room. They found that she was at least 7 months pregnant.  Of course, today those teachers would be in prison.  But it was done with the blessing of the adminstration, and for the girl's sake, it might even have been the best thing.  The next day the truant officer went to her home, and there was no running water in the little shack where she lived.  There's more, but you'd probably rather not know the rest...

I wasn't teaching near the "Little House on the Prairie!"  It was a large city... the biggest in the state, and things happened.  And I was sooo young, and I hadn't seen that much of the "world," even though I'd been brought up in California and Connecticut and went regularly to NYC to go the museums and meet my Dad for lunch at "Danny's Hideaway" around the corner from his office.  Things happened...
and I cried nearly every single night I got home from school.  You see, I really didn't know that such bad things were happening to kids like Bob in that lovely city where I taught.    

Bob was an unhappy kid in my class, kind of defensive, quick to get angry.  But he seemed to like art.  He asked me if he could come see me after school one day, and I said, "Sure." Bob had a black eye and some red sploches on his face that morning when he came to class. But there were no "Child Protective Services" back then. There were no guidance counselors back then, either, that I can remember. School was for learning and that's all I knew.

He came in and told me that his father had beat him last night.  His eyes were so full of hurt and so sad, though, that I could barely look at him. I said some inane thing like, "Well, your Dad loves you, and he just wants what's best for you."  I'd heard that in a movie once, and it'd seemed to help the actress who was playing the part of a young high school student in that Hollywood drama.

"I HATE HIM!" Bob yelled.  "I HATE HIM! I HATE HIM! I HATE HIM!"  He began to kick my desk every time he yelled, and those dents stayed in my desk for the next 11 years of my career at that school. I didn't know what to do.  I didn't have the life experience to say anything that would help.  "If he hits me tonight, I'M GOING TO HIT HIM!  I AM!" and he ran out of the room.

He was back in class the next day, but refused to work on his project.  He just sat there, waiting for the bell to ring.

Time passed, and Bob was irritable and surly, and I didn't know what to do or who to see about it.  There wasn't anyone to help.  The Vice Principal in those days was there to punish kids.  He had a paddle to prove it.  Well, we ALL had paddles, and we were to use them... but that story is for another day...

Then he came into my room after school one day and said in a perectly flat voice, "I'm going to the state reformatory in a week.  It's about a hundred miles from here."

"Bob, what happened?"

"Me and my friend rolled a drunk."

"What does that mean?  Did you hurt him?"

"HA!  He was laying there, drunk, and we stole all his money.  We got caught, that's all."

"Oh, Bob!"

Then he left, and I didn't see him for 10 months.


 That next year, my second year of teaching, I had at least some experience to lean on.  My classes were full, and I'd gotten to know the amazing art teacher in the next room who helped guide me through this maze called teaching.

Towards the end of 3rd quarter another student entered my chocked-full class. It was Bob.  But it wasn't Bob, at least it wasn't the Bob who had left my class the  year before.  It was his eyes... his dead, sneering eyes that I looked at.  It wasn't Bob, anymore.  He asked if he could see me after school, and I'd said, "Yes, of course!"  What had happened to him in "reform school?  This was NO Hollywood movie!  This was real!  He'd been my student, and I hadn't helped him a bit... no one had.

"They put me in solitary confinement on bread and water for six months!  SIX MONTHS!  They thought they could break me, but they couldn't!  THEY COULDN'T!"

That's all I can remember about Bob.  He never came back to see me ever again, and I just don't know what became of him.  I think I probably do know, though... and it isn't good.   

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