by Terry Hargrove
A guy I know once said: “People who teach can’t do anything else.” So I hit him with a chair.
OK, I didn’t hit him with a chair. It was The Dad, after all. Still. I was plenty steamed by his statement. But upon reflection, I realized it wasn’t an insult. I’m a teacher because I really can’t imagine doing anything else with my life. I enjoyed my time as a reporter, but I could see that newspapers were dying, and in defiance of one of The Dad’s favorite sayings, they were taking it with them. And so, after 15 fun and fulfilling months as a reporter and columnist at the Pictorial Gazette (1889-2008, RIP), I returned to the classroom. That is, I tried to return, but most classrooms in this state didn’t want me.
I applied to over 50 different school systems in Connecticut and went to 23 interviews. My problem? With over 20 years of experience, I was an expensive hire, and I didn’t look very good on paper. I went to Middle Tennessee State University, because it was the only school I could afford. I once heard a local principal say that when she had an opening at her school, the Ivy League graduates’ resumes went to the top of the stack. Sure, picking your staff based on the education their parents could afford to give them made perfect sense. I didn’t say that, because I desperately wanted to teach at her school, but I thought it really loud! Besides, I scored a 196 on my English II PRAXIS test, and the folks at ETS said that was a pretty good score, so good that they wanted to know how I cheated.
I didn’t cheat. I just have an uncanny memory for words and stories, and 25 years of classroom experience to work with, so for me the test wasn’t that hard. Finally, I was given a position as a long-term substitute seventh grade Language Arts teacher at a middle school in Waterbury. Now, as a new arrival to the Nutmeg State, I don’t know a lot about the geography and history of Connecticut, but when I told a few of my acquaintances that I was going to teach in Waterbury, their reactions ranged from utter shock to profound dismay.
“Waterbury? Did you say Waterbury?” asked Mike the sandwich guy from Subway.
“Yes,” I replied. “It is a long drive, almost 60 miles, but it’ll be great to be back in the classroom again.”
“Have you ever been in a Waterbury classroom?” he asked. “I’ve heard the kids there can be quite a challenge. I mean, what with your accent and all.”
“Hey, my southern accent is not a disability, no matter what those folks in Hartford think,” I retorted. “Y’all just gimme my ham, damn sandwich. Here‘s 7 dollars, cash money. You better be glad these here chairs is bolted to the floor.”
And so, on March 21, 2007, I stood before my young charges with the assistant principal beside me. I knew I was back where I belonged. True, my students were very urban, very hip, and very different from me, but they knew the rules, and kids are kids, right? I hadn’t been that happy for over two years.
I stayed happy for three minutes. Then the assistant principal left, and Chaos, husband of ancient Night, took over. Kids are still kids, but the rules have died, and I didn’t see the obituary. There have always been a few unspoken traditions that every classroom has. Simple things such as when the teacher asks a student to sit, he expects that student will sit. Or when a teacher asks the class to stop screaming, he expects that a few of them will. He doesn’t expect students he doesn’t teach to simply wander into his room without permission, nor does he expect his students to leave whenever they felt like it. But these expectations are all smoke and mirrors, and my Waterbury students had learned that if they wanted to ignore me and everything I suggested, there was nothing I could do about it. When I asked two girls to stop singing, it caused the entire class to break into some nightmarish Middle School Musical. When I asked another student to stop screaming, it became a contest between him and his peers to see who could scream loudest at the fat southern guy.
“Man, what’d you come here from Texas for?” asked one of them.
“I’m not from Texas,” I corrected him. “I’m from Tennessee.”
“Do you drive from Texas every day?” he asked. “That’s a long drive.”
“He don’t drive, he got a plane,” added another. “Hey, Fat Tex, can I fly your plane?”
“I don’t…I’m not…”
“Fat Tex got a plane, don’t play that game, don’t give me no lip, or you go down in flames…”
“Ummm…you need some work on your rhythm,” I suggested.
“You need to shut your fat Texas mouth,” was the reply.
And so it went on a good morning. On a bad morning, the profanity buzzed around my head like locusts. Now, I’ve led a man’s life. I was in the Navy, and my father, The Dad, had seven kids, so he knew all about cursing, but I’d never heard the F-bomb thrown about so casually or so often. And that was in the Teacher’s Lounge. The students were even worse. I was cursed in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Albanian. I discovered that Eastern European cursing sounds rather clunky when compared to the flowing ferocity of my Dominican and Puerto Rican students. But even if Albanian lacks the harmonious sounds of Spanish, when uttered correctly, there is no doubting its passion.
I made seven phone calls to parents the first week. Four of the numbers had been disconnected, I left two messages that were never returned, and had a short conversation with an elderly gentleman from Uzbekistan, I think. Clearly, I was on my own, and I had to see it through to the end of the school year. Twelve weeks. That was 84 days, or 420 class periods, or 18,900 minutes.
Every morning I sat with my fellow teachers, waiting for our planning period to end. I have heard that soldiers in the Great War, just before another futile charge against enemy machine guns, would take an intense interest in the most mundane things, such as a cloud or a patch of grass. It was much the same with us.
“Oh, look,” said one. “Here is a stain. A coffee stain, I think. Look at how it flowed then dried.”
“This table must be uneven,” said another. “It must lean to the north. I wonder if the ocean pulled it this way?”
Their voices were so low, I had to strain to hear them. Naturally, I had to add something to this subdued conversation.
“Brother John Bates,” I said. “Is that not the morning which breaks yonder?”
They stared at the stain, then at me, so I continued.
“’We see yonder the beginning of the day. But I think we shall never see the end of it.’ That‘s a little Shakespeare. Henry V. It just seems appropriate to me now.”
“We aren’t going to see the end of the day?” stuttered a guidance counselor. “Are they going to kill us?”
“He’s just being dramatic,” said another language arts teacher. “Like we need more drama. Are you that dramatic in Texas?”
“I’m going to bring my level and fix this table,” said our science teacher. “But if the ocean is pulling the coffee that way, I don’t know how I’ll fix that.”
And then the bell rang. We sat in stunned silence for several seconds, and admired the stain before we rose, stiff and resigned, and made our way to our classrooms. I could hear them coming, a great tsunami of profanity and disregard, and in the midst of the cacophony, I heard someone say something about the fat guy from Texas.
We had less than three weeks left before the school year ended. That was fourteen days, or 70 class periods, or 3150 precious minutes of our lives. I think we all wanted desperately to be somewhere, anywhere else. But as we stumbled toward the noise, I knew that we had no other option. My co-workers were just like me. We really can’t do anything else.