I never really learned to hold my liquor until I taught high school. Don’t get your panties in a bunch. I never drank during school; happy hour started at 3:30. We had the best kind of bar around the corner, the sort where the bartender always knew your usual.
I never wanted to be a teacher. I applied for a part time subbing job. When they learned that I majored in biology, they offered me a provisional position teaching Earth Science. Fool that I was: I took it. I started teaching in October; by that time my prospective students had run through three other teachers including a retired marine. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
The previous teacher left no lesson plans when she bailed out. That first day I randomly pulled an exercise out of the book. Then I tried to learn the ropes, their names, and the location of my FIVE different classrooms. During my third class a 250 lb 15 year-old got in my face and told me that, “Some teachers round here like to get hurt.” Thankfully another teacher (who happened to outweigh him) was in the room. I wanted to wet my pants until I realized that no one writes bathroom passes for teachers.
I latched onto another Earth Science teacher and made her my mentor. She showed me her method, but encouraged me to develop my own style and techniques. She is the one who introduced me to happy hour.
I had 168 students in six classes (you do the math). 30 of my students had parole officers. Fifty percent of my female students either were pregnant or got pregnant during the year. One girl (age 14) was pregnant twice (I would love to have found her 18 year-old boyfriend in a dark alley with the blunt end of a baseball bat.). Seven of my girls delivered babies during the year. They were scandalized when they learned that I had none of my own, “Ms. W,” they whined, “When are YOU gonna have YOUR babies?” I was only 22, but they were worried it was too late.
Students were endlessly fascinated by my personal life. They knew me as Ms. W, and I only ever signed my initials. Three of my students made it their personal mission to discover my first name. During a lab or other busy classroom exercise these boys would shout out random names beginning with L, trying to catch me off guard with the correct name. They never managed to guess it. My age was another source of intrigue that I played very close to the chest; after all, I was only two years older than my oldest student.
To play up my age I dressed sharply, but standing all day is not conducive to wearing dress shoes. My girls would plead, “Ms. W, not tennis shoes with a suit.” It never bothered me until they accused me of wearing Bobos. I was kickin NBs and brooked no disrespect for my sneaks. Did I mention that I learned a lot of new slang? Jenks = thing, alternatively: Janks. My students collapsed in hysterics when I accused two girls of being triflin. Back in the day Triflin meant ‘lazy’ or ‘time waster’. Apparently its meaning had morphed into dirty, like dirrrty, like having sex on your period dirty (at least that’s how one freshman girl whispered the meaning to me). I was never hip, but my misuse of triflin, cemented my total lack of coolness.
Earth Science is a ninth grade class, but my students ranged from 14 to 20 years-old. Many students were taking this graduation requirement for the second, third and even fourth time (some knew the material better than I did). It was estimated that the average literacy of my students was around sixth grade, math skills lagged FAR below. I didn’t find this useful bit of information out until half way through the year.
During a weather unit they were learning to convert temperature in Fahrenheit to Celsius (FYI: Celsius = 5/9 x (Fahrenheit — 32)). I worked the math out on the board to blank and unimpressed faces. None of my students knew how to multiply fractions. It took two days for the students to grasp the basics. My department chair observed me during one of these days. He chuckled and asked me why I didn’t just show them how to do it on the calculator. I don’t know what shocked me more, their lack of math skills or his suggestion that they were better off learning how to punch numbers.
My so-called-office was a desk in a former classroom taken over by the English Department. 15 teachers used the room two periods a day to plan lessons, use computers, and the copy machine. The English Department was staffed primarily by middle aged affluent white women who could teach because they married doctors and lawyers. As a non-traditional staff member I was exempt from departmental politics and soon became privy to all the good gossip. I knew who was going to be ‘let go’; who conflicted with the principal, and who was having an affair with whom. The student’s theories about their teacher’s romances varied wildly from reality. All my students thought that Ms. X and Mr. Y were having a torrid love affair. While in fact, Ms. X was married to a man twice her age and Mr. Y was gay. Student’s misperceptions worked to my advantage so I never debunked them, especially their impression that I knew what I was doing.
I quickly learned that teenagers are irrational little shits who don’t think twice about the repercussions of their actions; and that a teacher’s duties stretch well beyond education. One day I caught one of my girls helping another student put in contacts. It turned out that ‘Amy’ did not wear contacts and ‘Sarah’s’ mother was a fan of colored contact lenses. Sarah would steal her mother’s used lenses and then sell them to her classmates. Not only that, but she sometimes re-sold ones that students tried but didn’t like the color. My mind spun with the implications as I tried to explain to the girls that sharing contact lenses might not be the best idea. They stared at me vacantly until I asked them if they would share a used condom. This seemed to get my point across.
One of my regular students went missing one day. She never missed a class. I learned that she was being harassed and threatened by one of my boys. He had written her an explicit note that would’ve made Ron Jeremy blush. The next day he accosted her in the hallway, pushed her up against a locker, and announced to a group of his friends that he was going to rape her. I filed a formal report but nothing seemed to happen. The boy was member of JROTC and I also complained to his superior officer—this finally got some action. Apparently even junior branches of the military take sexual harassment VERY seriously. The officer expelled the boy from JROTC and helped get him reassigned to a different class after his suspension. I’ll always be grateful to that officer for helping me protect a fragile, 15 year-old, girl.
I am embarrassed to recall the day I made one of my boys cry. This kid was really hyper. I was sick of him by Thanksgiving (yes, sometimes teachers DO hate their students). I called his mother and she assured me that they were aware of his problems. She asked me to please give her a call if he acted out in class again. Two weeks before Christmas he and his pal pulled a chair out from under a girl. During lunch I called both their parents. The mother of the boy in question was irate when I told her what happened. She told me that he was warned that if she got one more phone call he would miss the family holiday trip. I had him again in my fifth period class. He was being more disruptive than usual, mocking a student with speech impediment. I told him to settle down. He told me I couldn’t make him. In a fit of anger I looked him straight in the eye, and in front of the entire class, told him that I called his mother during lunch. My fleeting moment of triumph gave way to horror when he began sobbing. He begged me to call his mom back and tell her I was wrong. I sent him out into the hall to collect himself and felt horrible until the next time he acted like a jerk in class.
Not all of my students were fragile; some were hardened caricatures of inner city high school students. They were unimpressed with what I had to teach them and they had better things to do with their time. When I caught one student cheating he explained to me that he couldn’t study because he worked two part time jobs to support his baby. He was only telling the truth about one thing: he had a baby. I wasn’t sad to see him go when the local police found out that his ‘two jobs’ were dealing dope and that he never paid a dime to his baby’s mamma.
One of my boys only came to class on Wednesdays because that’s when his parole officer would come to check up on him. Popular with the ladies, he was always disruptive in class. He was so ‘over’ being in high school I made a deal with him. I would not hassle him about his truancy if he would not be disruptive when he came to class. When I made this unorthodox proposal he looked at me like I had two heads, “A’ight” was all he said. After that he came to class every Wednesday. I would watch him quietly sit in the back waiting for the clock to tick away his life.
One ninth grader who was sweet as pie when he wanted to be, but as soon as I tried to control his bad behavior he turned into a nightmare. He was used to being able to stare down all his adversaries — I had seen him do this to an English teacher. He widened his eyes, cocked his chin off to one side, and said (I am not making this up) “You wanna try and make me?” I tried to stand my ground the day he got in my face. He was inches from me and menacingly cracking his knuckles behind his back (again, not making this up). I turned on my heel, walked over to the door, and repeatedly pressed the panic button until security came and took him away. I always worried I would run into him outside of school — he was the only student that really scared me.
I found my eldest student in the principal’s office one day. He was busted earlier in the year for drinking in school. I asked him if he was drinking again; he smiled weakly at me and said no. I found out that he had a psychotic break at school. It involved a delusion that his English teacher was a different teacher who had failed him. He was in the principal’s office because he threatened her. He was always painstakingly nice to me; one of my few students who regularly did his homework. He had the nicest handwriting. I never saw him again.
My class room was a daily fashion show, but mostly for the girls. That spring skirt lengths went up faster than the temperature. I sent one girl out of class for showing up in what was little more than a bra and a rubber band. Then I heard a rumor that the vice principal would not provide alternative clothes for the girls sent to his office, but offer them the run of his office where they could microwave popcorn and watch TV. After I found that out, I tried to ignore the protruding thongs, see through shirts, and daisy dukes. I could never figure out why the dumpiest girls seemed to like to wear the skimpiest clothes.
The dress code issue came to a head one spring afternoon over a tennis shoe. One of my girls actually did work two part time jobs. She worked to keep herself in high fashion clothes. When she finally saved up enough money for a new pair of sneakers she was pleased as punch with herself (as she should have been). She spent my entire third period taking off her prized shoes and passing them around the class. It was annoying, but surprisingly, not very distracting. I ignored it, but cautioned her that her other teachers might not be so circumspect. During seventh period a student came running in my room and stammered that Ms. S was crying and her class was out of control. I made sure my students were behaving and went to her room. The classroom was a zoo. Students were shouting, things were being thrown around, and Ms. S was indeed weeping in the hallway. I called security and went back to my classroom. One of my students went with me and hurriedly told me the whole story: My new shoe girl was passing around one of her shoes during an English. Ms. S repeatedly asked her to stop. She did not. At the end of her rope: Ms. S snatched up the shoe and tossed it out a fourth story window. I kid you not. Ms. S was instantly mortified by her rash defenestration. The girl was indignant, her friends were indignant, her mother was indignant. But the student body indignation quickly waned and Ms. S was left with a strange sort of street credibility. “Don’t piss her off.” I overheard one of my student’s say, “She’ll throw your shit out the window.”
I didn’t need detox once the school year ended; happy hour lost some of its appeal. When I stopped teaching, I lost my taste for Well Greased Dwarfs, Naked Italian Surfers, and Screaming Banana Banshees. These days my former students are old enough to join me at the bar. Maybe it’s time for them to buy me a drink instead of driving me to one.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED