We, the unwilling, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much, with so little, for so long, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.
The continuing story of how I came to be a teacher.
Henry Elementary. Karla and I are assigned there. Nancy winds up at Gundlach, and it takes the bureaucrat a long time to accept that Greg isn’t coming back to be transferred to Sigel. I am given two days off and then I’m to report to Mrs. Georgette Mann, the principal at Henry.
Henry is a huge building. The building and its playground take up an entire city block. It is across the street from the Cocheran Gardens Housing Project and down the way from two lower-density housing projects. There’s a Catholic Church, well, a shrine that never seems to have any visitors, across another street, and you can see the TWA Dome from the parking lot.
I park on the street and look up at the building, which is beautiful, three stories tall with bell towers on each end. The building is a shallow U shape with a double staircase in the center, separating two small play yards, asphalt, with basketball hoops on opposite ends. There is no shade except between the double staircase, where a few Bradford pear trees are turning purple. I stare up at the building in the early morning sun, facing east, with the sun coming through the windows on the second or third floor—it’s hard to determine how they will count floors, since the basement is half-exposed. No students are here yet. I wonder how old the building is, how many students have passed through the doors, what changes this place has seen in its years. Lofty things. I march up the left side of the double staircase to find the door locked.
I go back down to the sidewalk and head up the right side. This side is open, and I walk through, catching the conglomeration of school smells—paste, floor wax, soap, bleach, cheap food, and poverty.
An older man sits behind a desk directly in front of me, looking sleepy. He’s dressed as a security guard, and a sign on the front of the desk reads, “I’m too blessed to be stressed or distressed.”
“Can you point me to the office?” I ask him.
“Good morning, young lady,” he says, pointing to my left, to the little piece of building that sticks out into the Bradford pears outside. “Nobody’s there, though, except Mrs. Johnson.”
I thank him and walk into the office. Mrs. Johnson must be the secretary. I see just the top of her head behind the four-foot tall partition that separates us. I hover near the desk until she looks up.
“I’m here to see Mrs. Mann,” I tell her. She points to the wall behind me. There’s an office chair. I sit.
Over the next half hour, I watch as another secretary shows, a few teachers check their mail and gossip with each other, and busses begin to arrive. I wonder where my classroom will be. I wonder if any of these teachers will befriend me. I wonder if Mrs. Mann will materialize.
She does. She’s a huge woman, over six feet, outweighing me by at least 150 pounds. Her hair is graying, there’s a gap between her front teeth, and she is dressed in a terribly unflattering pantsuit. I think about Joyce and her impeccable style and wonder what this woman has to offer. The secretary alerts her to my presence and Mrs. Mann approaches me. The mountain has come to Mohammed.
“Bridgett?” she sticks out her hand. I stand and shake it. “Let me give you a tour. I’m Georgette Mann.”
School has started for the day, and teachers are escorting students to classrooms. The main floor has first and second grade, a few special education rooms, offices, and, notably, no bathroom. Downstairs in the basement, kindergarten meets, the boiler room divides the building in half, and the library, gym, and cafeteria eke out a space next to pungent restrooms. By this time, Mrs. Mann is out of breath and we stop in at the library.
The librarian greets me warmly. “I’m Janice, and if there’s anything you need, you don’t hesitate.” Janice is in her forties, thin, nervous, and her eyes don’t focus on me at the same time. I hate that, I never know which eye I should be concentrating on. The library is small but neat, and, as opposed to several school libraries I’ve seen, looks well-used.
“We’re very proud of our library,” Mrs. Mann tells me. “Last year it was just a series of carts on each floor.”
While we’re there, Mrs. Mann fills me in on the statistics for Henry. It was rehabbed 2 years ago for a maximum capacity of 400 students. They have 650 enrolled currently. This means there’s no art room or music room, and the students have three different lunches. They have 4 special education classrooms, 2 of which are behavior disorder rooms, and the other two are—Mrs. Mann looks at Janice.
“Sort of a mixed bag,” Janice says for her.
“Lock your classroom door,” Mrs. Mann says with total seriousness.
Speaking of classroom, I realize I haven’t seen any empty rooms yet, and I ask her where I might be teaching.
“Probably on the third floor. The music room—what is supposed to be the music room—has been cleared for your arrival. Marianne wasn’t too happy about that, but it’s all up to 911 Locust. You’ll like the room. It’s one of the corners, and it is carpeted. The room next door to you is empty as well. We’re expecting another teacher in a few days.”
She stands, and I follow her out. We pass the cafeteria, where giant carts are being wheeled into the school from a loading dock.
“We don’t cook anything here, we just warm things up. Everything comes from Vashon, where they do the cooking. First lunch is at 10:55. You’ll have second lunch.”
We start climbing a grand old staircase up to the third floor. She pants beside me, and I slow my pace. She says I'll be teaching first grade, and she'll pull students for me after she shows me my classroom. Maybe I'll have students tomorrow, she suggests. I feel like I've been without students of my own for so long, another day seems unfair. But I keep smiling and nodding with her. We pass the main floor and up to the second.
"This is older students, mostly," she waves it away with her hand. On to the third floor. It's quiet up here, the yellow pine floors so shiny they reflect like mirrors. A tall girl walks by and waves shyly at Mrs. Mann.
"You're coming from Simmons?"
"They're a systemic initiative school, yes?"
"We're not. We're desegregated--I suppose integrated. Unfortunately, it doesn't look it." In fact it doesn't. I haven't seen any white children yet at all. I nod, eager to please and learn.
"The city uses the census maps from 1990, and population shifts mean that we bus black students into a black school," she sighs. "We have a 1% white population and we don't get any help from the federal government. It would be better if we just didn't even try."
"I don't know. Have you ever been the only white kid in a school?"
I shake my head.
"I've never been the only black girl in a school. I can't even imagine." We walk down the huge hallway, turn right into a narrower passage. Four rooms on this hallway, and they are all empty. "That's Mr. Roy's room," she points. "He's outside with his boys. BD classroom. That's Title One--Angela Smith. Empty room, probably fourth grade, and yours."
The end of the hall, a closed door. She hands me a key and lets me do the honors of opening.
It's huge. Probably 16 or 18 foot ceilings. There are three ancient, real slate blackboards. Six huge windows, large enough to open all the way, stand in, and jump out (this will become a recurring nightmare of mine). No screens, but I don't see that yet. Three bulletin boards. New carpeting. A narrow cloakroom closet. No furniture.
She reads my mind. "We'll have Frank and Chuck bring up desks from each room the children vacate. A few tables and chairs? What do you want?"
"What's available? At Simmons, I had an AV cart, three metal lockers, and a teacher's chair."
"We have plenty," she laughs. "Go down behind the boiler room in the basement--Dick Newman can show you--tag whatever you like and Frank and Chuck will bring it up."
Four or five bookshelves, I tally in my head. Some round low tables, maybe a horseshoe if I can get my hands on one. A teacher's desk. This could work. I nod my head at Mrs. Mann, and she smiles her gap toothed grin.
"That's the plan, then. Spend the morning finding your furniture, and then this afternoon we'll round up a class for you. Tomorrow they can start in your room. Welcome to Henry." She says the last bit like it's a quotation. It is, and it's one I will hear as explanation for all manner of injustices and bewildering facts the rest of the year. She leaves me there in my corner room. I can see the shrine across the street. I can see my car parallel parked, right below me. Out another window is the TWA Dome and downtown St. Louis.
Up here in the corner, there's no sound. I open a window and a hum of city comes through, but no children's voices. The empty classroom next door, the tiny BD room and locked Title One office are a buffer between me and the throbbing of this building. I lock my purse in my closet, lock the door to my room, and wander out onto the third floor. I find myself feeling like maybe this is where I will belong. I will teach these children. First grade. The year you learn to read, the year you learn to do school. It's a pivotal year that can set your academic career in motion.
I wonder who my students will be. I wonder who the other first grade teachers are. Will they be glad I've arrived? Surely, if they're as overcrowded as Mrs. Mann implied. I wonder who my fourth grade neighbor will be. Where are the other first grade classrooms? Hard to share curriculum and ideas if they're too far away.
I look out the east windows in the main hallway, the sun rising up over the housing project where most of my children will spend their nights. I wonder about life there. The windowsill is polished. Everything up here is so clean, it surprises me after Simmons' dusty upper rooms. I wonder if those missing 100 kids are here at Henry with me. I wonder what it would take to fix the administration snafu downtown.
Mostly I just wonder what the heck I'm going to teach tomorrow.