The continuing saga of how I came to be a teacher.
"Choice has always been a privilege of those who could afford to pay for it."
Wow, what a day. Dr. Justin introduced me to the staff and then let me loose on Mrs. Strong’s fourth grade. I’m to observe her for a few days, and help out, and then he, along with Mrs. Strong and Mr. Tipton, will decide which students will be in my class. It’s hard to sit there and not let it all get to you, though. Mrs. Strong is from Appalachia, like, the real mountain woman thing. She has moved here to St. Louis to live with her sister and her brother-in-law. I didn’t ask her why. She taught, at least she claims to have taught, in a modern version of the one-room school house. She was one of 3 teachers in a school that taught K-5. I can’t imagine. Actually, I can imagine that. I just can’t imagine why she’d pack up and move to such a rough job.
The kids walk all over her. The girls are all way too knowledgeable about their own sexuality, and they use this for shock value. It works on Mrs. Strong—I haven’t learned her first name yet—who wore a black dress with a high collar and long sleeves today. It had to be 90 degrees on the third floor, easily. Her hair is gray and brown and the glasses are on a cord around her neck. She’s an anachronism here. The boys are rough and tumble types, and I think I could have fun with them. I hope I don’t get Gerald Moses, but other than that, I could have a classroom full of boys and have a great time. Gerald is older than the rest and is openly belligerent. I would have a hard time working with him. The others, though, I bet I could do great stuff with.
I show up on Thursday to the rumor that I will be moved. Nancy, Karla, Greg, and I are all slated to be moved. Dr. Justin calls us into his office and confirms the rumor.
“Why were we hired here, then?” Karla asks. She’s been here since day one and has a room full of kindergartners.
“Like I told you all, we’re missing 100 students.”
I find this to be such a disturbing way to explain that. There aren’t 100 milk carton photographs with the words “Missing from Simmons School” below them. These children are scattered at different schools. We—the district, that is—just can’t keep track.
So I don’t unpack my things or hang posters. Who knows where, or when, I’ll go. Dr. Justin does tell us that Nancy and I, the latest hired, won’t be receiving any students before the move. I am envisioning a few days crocheting in the teachers’ lounge, but he doesn’t allow that to crystallize in my brain for very long.
“So, Nancy, I’d like you to spend the next week or so with Mr. Tipton, and Bridgett, you’ll be with Mrs. Strong.”
Why is it that we’re Bridgett and Nancy but they’re Mr. Tipton and Mrs. Strong?
Over the next week, I learn a lot more about Mrs. Strong—Anne Strong—then I really needed to know. She sleeps on her sister’s living room floor after the brother-in-law is done with the TV. She is recently divorced after 30 years of marriage to Harry Strong. They have two grown children, Pete and James, who live in Ohio.
“But I can’t move in with Pete because his wife don’t like me,” she says, and I stifle the urge to correct her grammar. “And James is between marriages too.” I can hardly put her in that category. I am interested, in a purely academic way, why Harry Strong left her, but I don’t ask. She doesn’t volunteer. I’m assuming there was infidelity.
“So Vera and William told me I could stay with them until I got it together again. But I can’t keep working here. It’ll be the death of me.” The rest of this conversation, which is repeated at least 4 times a day, and sometimes in earshot of students, I tune out. It goes like this: these children have no manners. They have no upbringing. They need a good switching. I have half a mind to switch them myself.
Nancy and I, on the parking lot the next Tuesday, commiserate. Mr. Tipton is a high strung young man with a chip on his shoulder who doesn’t like the way Nancy wears her hair. We both yearn to move to our new schools, wherever they might be. On the other hand, I would have had 14 fourth graders, assuming the missing children were never found, and I could have changed the world with 14 fourth graders.
Simmons is more than a hillbilly ex-wife and a hundred missing kids. There’s a special education class that has three boys with microcephaly. I had no idea it was that common. The first grade teachers look like people I could be friends with, if I weren’t about to leave, sometime soon. Their classes hold hands as they walk down the hall. So sweet compared to Mrs. Strong’s wild class. The music teacher, Ms. Camilla Washington, has written a song about Simmons School, which she sings over the intercom every morning. It starts, “We are happy/here at Simmons/Simmons Elementary School!”
Joyce, the golden-haired, nailed, and shod instructional coordinator, is very competent and will one day make a fine principal. She and I sort textbooks for the entire second week of my employment at Simmons. She seems to have gracefully entered and become part of the bureaucracy. She no longer questions anything or gets frustrated. When I point out that sorting textbooks and stacking them outside classroom doors isn’t really what I’d planned for my first year of teaching, she agrees with a comment about overpaid manual laborers. She turns out to be Catholic, attending St. Alphonsus Church every week. The ex-pastor there officiated at my parents’ wedding. Granted, a loose connection, but we’re separated by age, race, and obviously fashion sense (I’m in stretch pants and pullover shirts with comfortable shoes every day), so any connection is a comfort. We can talk with each other. I find myself regretting that I won’t be able to work for her. That is, if I ever move.
We’re told, Nancy, Karla, Greg, and I, that we will be moving by October 1. That’s still two weeks away, and there isn’t much more for us to do. Mr. Tipton doesn’t want Nancy anymore. She doesn’t want him either. Greg split up his 3rd graders and is obviously burned out on cafeteria duty, and Karla, the ex-kindergarten teacher, is also in mourning for what she almost had. Mrs. Strong and I didn’t hit it off, so I went from storeroom duty to playground to substitute 2nd grade teacher in one week. Dr. Justin tells us to look at it as valuable experience, but as we leave that Friday for our homes far away from Simmons, Greg comments that it doesn’t feel like experience but like doom.
On the morning I’m supposed to find out where I’m headed, I hide in my almost-classroom. After the second grade teacher came back from a mysterious illness, I was assigned Benny, a fourth grader whose mother has been hiding him in the house for a year, and the year before that he was “homeschooled” in Tennessee. He can’t read. He doesn’t know his numbers. I know enough from my textbooks and professors that this is a crucial point in his life. He’s ten years old, and if he doesn’t get it together this year, he probably won’t. This at least gives my time at Simmons some purpose, some meaning.
Nancy has had to sit in a second grade classroom with a large pasty man who audibly snores when he drifts off at his desk. Karla, suddenly alone and in limbo, took over cafeteria duty. It is obvious that the little clique of friends she had started to make, with the first grade and kindergarten teachers, has moved on. Greg filled in for a janitor one day, and then didn’t come back. Just walked away. I don’t blame him.
So I sit in my classroom, which I cleaned by hand in the two days I clung to the hope that it would truly be mine, and I watch the sun break out over downtown St. Louis. The weather has turned and it’s fall now. I write.
Benny will probably never learn to read. He’ll go back to Mrs. Strong’s room and she won’t teach him a damned thing. He’ll drop out before high school. Why did they hire someone like Anne Strong, who obviously doesn’t belong in city schools? Are they truly so desperate? I suppose they are. Where am I headed, anyway? I hear rumors that Gundlach needs teachers, and that it’s one of the roughest around. Nancy says she hears that subs don’t even go to Gundlach. Why—
I’m interrupted in my thoughts by Mrs. Washington’s distorted voice on the PA greeting us all this lovely morning and breaking into song. I hear small voices down the hall joining her: “We are happy, here at Simmons, Simmons Elementary School!”