Thirty-three years ago, in August of 1986, I was a new teacher. Yes, I had a $14,600 contract…still living at home, still driving Mom’s old brown Pinto (with a gold racing stripe), still excited to start the first day of school. I went to school a few days before the first in-service to ready my room. There was my teacher desk–large, solid, stately. Scattered about the room were the thirty student desks, the rigid straight-back chairs, unyieldingly attached to the desks. The first thing I did was arrange the desks into orderly rows using the lines on the tile floor as my guide. Perfect, an orderly room, an orderly class. My next task was to move the ragged textbooks from the closet to the window sill. They were big old tattered-edged texts, each with a register of names and dates on the inside cover, a testament to a history of learning in this very classroom. I made a note to gather the grocery bags from the garage at home, so the kids could cover them. Those books were to be cherished. I took a moment to throw open the windows because the room was getting soupy. I wedged myself into a student desk to glance through the book’s table of contents. Oh shit! There were Adventures in English Literature that I hadn’t yet taken or even heard of. All right. Stay calm. OK, there’s Chaucer. I can teach The Canterbury Tales; I’ve read The Canterbury Tales, of course not all of them. Maybe I’ll teach my bright, young literary scholars some Sir Thomas Malory. Yes, they’ll love the Knights of the Round Table, and there’s a movie; I can rent that from Blockbuster. Good. I’m good. Wait. Who’s Thomas Hoccleve? Fulke Greville? I can’t teach a guy named Fulke; I’d definitely slip up and call that guy, F#%^k. Again, rapidly fanning my face with splayed hands, I thought…stay calm. The teacher desk! Surely, the retired teacher left some files. No no no no. Clearly, it had been time for her to retire. Next task– into the trash with these files. A fresh start. Oh. Frustrated, panicked, I thought about my college classes. Had they prepared me to teach? Had student teaching prepared me to teach? Again, no no no no no. I wondered if high school juniors and seniors would be interested in Horace Mann or Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains. I was clearly on my own; no cooperating teacher to sweep in and save me. Day by day. I’ll just take it day by day. I’ll take the teacher text home (where the Fulke is that?), and I’ll prepare the first few days’ lessons. Right now, finish the room. It must be 90° in this room! I covered the bulletin board with some wrapping paper and stapled a poster to it. I wrote “Miss Smith” on the blackboard in perfect cursive. I taped up some torn and faded posters I found in the closet. Good enough! I had to get home and read 1,576 years of British literature. And, I should probably have some vocabulary exercises, and grammar worksheets. I’ll have to teach a research unit to the seniors. There are some novels in the closet. What were those titles? Brave New World? I never read that. I have to read that! A Separate Peace? Of Mice and Men? Where was Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues? I spent hours reading, discussing, and writing about that for my now worthless feminist lit class. I thought I was so cool. Why was this room so hot? Why didn’t I take the “Books You’ll Need to Know if You’re Going to Teach High School English” class. Oh yea. That class wasn’t offered. I decided to stop at the mall bookstore and buy Cliff’s Notes.
I got home and went right to work. The Anglo-Saxon period and Beowulf. First, the kids should read the introduction to the age and complete reading comprehension questions. The ladies in the office gave me a pile of that carbon paper where you take the tissue out from between regular paper and the gummy purple carbon paper, carefully insert it into the typewriter, and create a master copy to run through the ditto machine, so each student can catch a little buzz huffing the reading assignment. No, not that last part, but, no not that last part. I gently rolled the paper into my fancy electronic typewriter. I couldn’t make mistakes on carbon paper or I’d have to start again. Fortunately, my fancy typewriter had a feature where I could type a line and it wouldn’t actually strike the paper until I hit the ENTER key. I meticulously pecked out my questions line by line. Day one activity…done! The second day, I can go over the answers. I’ve got this! The textbook has questions at the end of Beowulf and even some essay prompts. Oh crap! Must I teach these kids how to write an essay?
In-service opening day came too quickly. I wasn’t even through the Middle Ages. I arrived early to run my copies. I found the archaic forlorn ditto machine in the faculty room. It was held together with erasers torn from the tops of pencils. I reverently placed my master into the clip of the cylinder. I put paper in the feeder tray, pumped the rubber toner button. I checked everything before snapping the toggle switch. Ready? No no no no no. We need more erasers! The sound was the most alarming part of the experience: thudump, thudump, thudump, and swoosh, swoosh, swoosh, then phlet, phlet, phlet. I flipped the toggle, but I was too late. I had a clump of wet, purple-smeared, illegible, stinky “worksheets.” Worst of all…my master was ruined. What would I do? My career was over. Goodbye $14,600. No time to agonize, the opening day meeting was about to begin. I passed on the donuts and coffee because I was sure I was going to vomit. I arrived in the auditorium and sat in the first empty seat. As it happened, I was sitting next to the new math teacher, Maria. Great, surely, she can commiserate with me. But, she seemed so confident, so at ease. Well, of course, stinking math people; they don’t have to read anything. But, I needed a friend. I told her about my ditto experience, and she told me that there was a machine in the library (a thermo-something) and the librarian could take a regular typed sheet, place it in the carbon paper, run it through the machine, and create a master. Great! She said that she had done that with her class rules and syllabus. Shit! I needed class rules and a syllabus. In-service was a blur (of course, I later came to realize that all in-services are a blur). I had to stand and be recognized as a new teacher. The principal gave me a pin with an eagle on it. I would have preferred a state-of-the-art Xerox machine or a stupid set of stupid class rules.
Day one with the kids also came too quickly. I arrived early and visited the library to have the librarian use the thermo-something to make a master of my Anglo-Saxon intro and Class Rules. The syllabus didn’t make it to school that day. Flawless endeavor. Shout out to the best high school librarian of all time, Mr. Kowalski (my Special K)! All I had to do was conquer the AB Dick Model 217 Spirit Duplicator Ditto Machine held together with erasers and probably some gum and Scotch tape, and my career would be off to a magnificent start. I was wearing a dress, slip, pantyhose, and heels. It had to be a million degrees in the hallway. I opened the door to the faculty room, and a tremendous cloud of smoke rolled out. Everyone was friendly, asking me if I was ready; I lied saying I was all set, fearlessly adding, “just need to make some copies.” I think I heard someone snicker, and maybe even gasp. I felt all eyes were on me as I gingerly placed my thermo-somethinged master on the cylinder. Before I hit the toggle, I turned and said, “Somebody’s gotta help me. I can’t lose this thermo-somethinged master. If I do, I’m going home and never coming back.” Laughter. Cigarettes snubbed out. Coffee mugs set on the table. Chairs scraped back. Oh, please don’t leave me! But, no, it was an all-out move to help the new girl. Everything changed. Everyone had my back. I was still nervous as hell, scared, exhausted, and ridiculously overwhelmed, but I wasn’t on my own.
I survived that year, 31 after that, and hopefully will enjoy a few more to come. In 1986, I spent each night preparing the next day’s lessons. I never took a personal day or sick day because sub plans were impossible. I signed out a TV and VCR on the days that I just couldn’t do it. I borrowed activities from other English teachers. I assigned reading days for the kids, so I too could read the material. I made it. I made lasting friendships with colleagues. I was maid of honor in Maria’s wedding that following summer! Today, my students’ parents come to open house and remind me that I was their teacher when I was “Miss Smith.” They tell stories that I vaguely recall. None of them say I was awful or that they didn’t learn nothin’.
I still get nervous as hell, scared, exhausted, and ridiculously overwhelmed before I start a new school year. I continue to go to school early to ready my room. My students still sit in desks arranged in rows (an orderly room, an orderly class). I still distribute textbooks and have kids cover them. I still have students answer comprehension questions on paper. I still create activities the night before I need them. In-service, well, yea…still blurrrrrr. Somethings have changed and stayed the same. Special K retired, but I still rely on the librarian. The building’s now air-conditioned, but I’m still hot because now I’m freaking 54 years old. I show DVD movies through the projector onto the white board. I sometimes refer to Spark Notes for lit discussions. I give kids time to read in class, so I can get my work done. I create my activities on the computer, send them to the copier, and magically have a class set. There’s no smoking in the faculty room, but plenty of coffee and camaraderie.
Certainly, the obstacles in teaching are different now than they were in 1986. Challenges range from the simple, silly bean bag chairs alternative seating, to the annoying clandestine cell phones, to the frustrating over-testing and obsession with numbers, to the outright terrifying armed intruder drills. One thing about teaching remains, your best resources are your colleagues. I’ve been fortunate to work with people who are passionate and compassionate, knowledgeable, empathetic, and generous. My advice to young and old(er) teachers, “Appreciate and rely on teachers. We are Fulkeing awesome!”
Love you, Lori