Monday, January 23, 2012

another excerpt for a new book: Teachers

Teachers I Have Known

As a kindergartner, I was invisible – or so it seemed to my five year old mind. That was fine with me; I was a free agent in the classroom, and if I hid on the stage, behind the curtains of our auditorium/kindergarten, I did not have to march; I had seen the Rose Parade, a real parade, and was embarrassed by our display.
Miss Kissman was my first grade teacher. I loved her; she taught us to read. Letter names, letter sounds, Dick and Jane. Miss Kissman had a huge book, a poster book that we learned to read as a chorus. I will never forget the day our teacher presented each of us with a book-size replica of the big book. I could read!
In my second and third grade classes of 40 students, I was invisible again and so I played hooky regularly. How did I manage to get away with watching football practice at Pasadena City College on a regular basis? Why did no one ask a second grade girl why she was playing in the hedge at the edge of the football field? Neither do I have any memory of being questioned about my phantom sore throats which I claimed were bad enough to keep me home.
In fourth grade I had a teacher who was also acting principal. I understood that that was why she was in and out of the classroom every day, and why I had to help in the office. My real teacher was Violet, the school secretary for whom I worked. I became an expert on the ditto machine, became adept at alphabetizing and filing, could find wayward kids who were wandering about campus, kept track of balls and jump ropes, collated and stapled. I loved my teacher, Violet, and accepted her sweaty complexion, smeared lipstick, and panic attacks. On my birthday, she gave me a fragranced card, and a tiny, ornamented flask of violet perfume. I kept the flask “forever.”
In contrast to my fourth grade teacher, my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Palmer, never missed a day of school. Our class evolved from anarchy to order and discipline – which we did not appreciate at first, but she smiled a lot and laughed out loud. We sang in her class, played recorders, did experiments, learned to draw. We had discussions! Fifth grade was real school. I told Violet that I did not want to miss class, and Violet agreed with a tight smile.
A sharp contrast to Mrs. Palmer, was my sixth grade teacher who never had any fun, and who habitually called us “kindergarten babies.” I did, however, learn my geography. For that, I am grateful.
Mr. Henry, my seventh grade teacher, did have fun, but I remember being restless and pining for the out-of-doors. I did a lot of Mr. Henry's board writing and a lot of clock-watching. However, I was redeemed when I was allowed to work in the cafeteria. For this, I was excused from class, and allowed to work alongside a team of hard working women of substance (in my opinion) who made mouth-watering lunches, and who were full of hoots, howls, and hugs. I earned my lunch and something to do that was great fun. To that Violet said, “Well, good for you.” That tight smile.
I did not think that Mr. Caruso, my eighth grade teacher, liked me, even though my father insisted that he did. He was grumpy - in my adolescent opinion, but he had great ideas for projects. I remember doing an illustrated U.S. Constitution, a cartoon illustration! But for the most part, I was once again invisible – along with my best friend, my bosom buddy, who also liked to read – and to draw floor plans. We decided to have a secret crush on the same boy.
Eighth grade also brought me face to face with bullying and mob rule; it was up close and personal – and formative: I decided to be friendly to an outcast girl; that's the way it began. (In my late teens, I became privy to her sad story and the reason that her peers instinctively shunned her. Terrible story – which I will not tell.) I was aware that people needed to be included in any group they chose or were forced to join. I tried to include Anne and received threatening notes from other girls. After several weeks of these disturbing notes, I was accosted by a gang of girls on the way home from school. They threatened to beat me up if I continued to “talk to that girl.” I was scared, then, mad, “madder and madder,” crazily mad, so mad that I scared them - and me. I raised my fists and yelled, calling them names that I didn't know I knew. They melted away and never threatened me again. As a matter of fact, they ignored me. More welcomed invisibility. But there is a punch line: I never told anyone, except maybe my sister. Now why was that? Why did I keep such a thing a secret? Why do kids do this? I wish I could remember.
I spent my high school years at Holy Names High School in Oakland. I remember telling my mother during the first week of school that all the girls were “so nice,” meaning that they were kind – which was in sharp contrast to what I experienced in eighth grade. The mark of my high school experience was inclusion, and that, I believe in retrospect, was what the nuns made happen. They were our “mothers” at this all girls school, and we were their “girls.” They were gentle, funny, enthusiastic teachers. I admired them, and (wonder of wonders) they admired me. They admired all of us. Sister Gerarda Marie taught me to love history. Mrs. Wright taught me to love math by insisting that it was just another way to think, “to use my good mind.” Sister Bernard Mary sold me on writing, re-writing and editing and proofreading. She sent me to a speech contest – which I won. Sister Herbert was an adult friend. (I had not had one since Violet.) Her girls adored her and emulated her: she was funny and forthright. All of our teachers persuaded us to a sense of mission, a sense that we had something to contribute, that each of us had a way to love that was uniquely our own.
College was quite helter-skelter experience where I was alone, but I preferred it that way. Inclusion was a thing of the past. I moved from school to school, class to class, grateful for invisibility since I could think better when I was alone. I was excited about learning – on my own with the security of structure and the competence of the teachers. George Cuomo, Mark Ratner, and Joe Medeiros are standouts. What made them so was their respect for students and their enthusiasm for their discipline. They were always stunningly prepared.
But the teachers that I admire most are the teachers with whom I have worked. Teachers are the hardest workers I know – maybe because there is no escaping the reality of hungry minds and restless hearts. They aspire every teaching day, even though they “get no satisfaction,” as the song says – or rarely so. Hats off to my friends and colleagues who have included me in their humor as a way to accept the realities of such an ambiguous profession with love.

1 comment:

  1. Fun to read about your early days in Pasadena. I was at the PCC field last year when I was in Pasadena for our 50th HS class reunion. We were the last graduating class from the PCC campus before they built a new high school. Anyway, it was fun to walk on that field where I was a song girl in 1959-60.

    I also appreciated your insights about teachers. We have two daughters, a grand daughter and a son-in-law who are committed teachers who care about their students. It really does make a difference.