How did I get here? pt. 2

Well, as of August 15, 1990, I knew several things. I now truly knew what humidity was. I now knew that some people had preconceptions about those of us that drive red sports cars. AND, I knew that men did not teach reading in South Texas.

More realizations were coming. Believe me.

The first morning of new teacher orientation we were each assigned a mentor teacher. Mine was named Nancy. She had an acerbic tongue and a sarcastic wit. In other words, she was my kind of mentor! We hit it off pretty well.

During the first orientation meeting, we were given our room assignments, given the SOP manual and told to meet with our mentor.

I found Nancy, and when asked, informed her that I had been placed in room 401b. She gave me a blank stare, and uttered these fateful words. “401b? We don’t have a room 401. Wait a minute…. 401… that’s the supply closet!”

And yes… she was right. A supply room indeed. Not only that, it was still full of “supplies”. No windows. Dark. I asked when it would be ready and was told by the end of the day. This was also true. IF, you count a completely bare room with no furnishings and a six inch diameter 2 in deep pile of sawdust left in the middle of the room. But it could have been worse, at least they left me a vacuum.

After cleaning the room, I went on a scavenging mission that ended with one teacher’s desk with 3 legs (I duct taped a broom stick cut to the appropriate length for the fourth) and three 3′ by 5′ tables for the students. Nancy was also right that 401 was a shared classroom. A shared classroom, in this district at least, simply meant that there were two “classes” in the same physical room. In my case, it was to be a mixed grade shared room. I would be teaching the aforementioned math, science and social studies to a group of 5th graders in the morning, and a group of 6th graders in the afternoon.

The next day, during day two of orientation, I was given my homeroom roster. I would be working with 18 fifth graders.  I started looking a little bit closer at my roster and noticed two things. One, the average age of my fifth graders was 13. Now if you have children, are a teacher, or just can remember back that far, you might know the age for a child entering fifth grade should be 10. The second thing I noticed was that of my 18 students, 15 were boys. If you’ve ever been in an elementary classroom, you know what that means.

I have to admit that at this point, my anxiety level was starting to rise. I was experiencing more than a bit of trepidation. I tried to write it off as first year jitters and bravely journeyed on.

In the afternoon I found out that the lady who was to have been my partner and teach both sets of students reading and language arts had decided to bail. I guess she had been having a bit more trepidation than I had, or maybe she was just smarter. LOL

With school starting the next day, I didn’t know what was going to happen with this. I was having “day”mares about ending up teaching both classes. This was one of those cases where the reality of the situation was worse than the anticipation. With no teacher being available for the class, the next option was to place a permanent substitute in the classroom. Mrs. T had picked up one year of college along the way and so was now qualified to be a substitute. She had no teaching background and was brought in more as a classroom management tool than as any hope to provide an education.

Well, now we have arrived at the first day of school. My hopes of going to school in shorts was drastically laid to rest, as the dress code for males included a long sleeve shirt and tie. Yes, in August, 90%+ humidity, temperature over 100 F most days, we were in long sleeve shirts and ties. But hey, it could have been worse. Stated in the SOP manual, females were required to wear “appropriate undergarments”. I never was quite sure what happened that brought that requirement around, or who was responsible for making sure it was being followed.

When I arrived at my classroom, I noticed a post-it on my door from the principal asking me to report to his office. Yep, first day of school, kids hadn’t even arrived and I was all ready ending up in the principal’s office. I dutifully walked over and knocked on his door. Mr. H opened the door and asked me to come in and have a seat. In my experience, this usually isn’t a good thing. This really wasn’t an exception either. At least he cut right to the chase.

“Odin, did I mention that we were certifying you as an emergency bilingual teacher?”

After I picked my jaw off the ground I stuttered out, “But I don’t speak Spanish!”

Mr. H looked rather nonplussed and replied, “We know,  but being certified as an emergency bilingual teacher, you don’t need to. This gives us the ability to have a qualified teacher in the classroom for all students.”

Which sounds good in theory, but what good would it do to have a qualified teacher in a classroom speaking a language that was substantially different from the students?

He must have seen that deer in the headlights look flash across my face because he then hurriedly assured me that all my students had at least rudimentary English language skills, but spoke Spanish at home.

Well, feeling rather shell-shocked I wandered back to my classroom and met my first student. His name was R and I still remember him vividly all these years later.

R boldly strode up to me and stated, “Sir I need to share.”

Now of course, I was more than a little surprised, but students sharing with you is supposed to be a good thing, so naturally I was excited. R had a thick accent, indicative of being a native Spanish speaker, but he spoke clearly and with confidence. This was a great start!

With a smile on my face, I looked R dead in the face and replied, “That’s great R! What would you like to share? I want you to know that whatever you want to share, you can trust me!”

R looked at me like I had just spoken to him in a foreign language. He cocked his head a bit to the side and blurted, “No sir, a share. I need a share. You know, so I can sit down?”

And here was my introduction to the common phoneme switch of sh and ch that many native Spanish speakers have trouble with when learning the English language.

I wish I could say the rest of the year went up from there, but there were too many incidents to have made it a success.

I truly feel sorry for those students that had me as a first year teacher. They were unique and came with issues of their own, but during that first year, I surely didn’t do much to help. I was trying merely to survive.

I’ll never forget B. B was a cute little lady that channeled a demon. She had light hair and light eyes that I later found out is a heritage of the Spanish strain in the Mexican populace. Light hair and eyes also make you VERY popular in South Texas.

I had been informed by the administration that I needed to be teaching Sex Ed to my sixth grade students. Mixed class with boys and girls. Now, my sixth graders were also a couple of years older then the 11 that is the average for entering sixth graders. I’m convinced many of them were all ready sexually active. I was more than a little cautious when approaching this topic, and decided to take the safe scientific route. Lets just forget the sensory organs involved and go straight to the sperm, the egg, and the uterus. Had just finished discussing implantation when B raised her hand.

“Yes B, do you have a question?”

“Yes, I’m not having my period yet, so I can have sex and not worry about getting pregnant, right?”

I doubt I have to tell you that all the boys in the class were suddenly much more interested in the conversation. I did the only thing I could think of doing. I sent her to the counselor.

I could tell many more stories similar to this from that first year. I could tell how the principal in charge of completing my first evaluation didn’t show up, because she had went to another teacher that had “come down” from up north, and he had performed poorly, and “since you all look alike anyway” didn’t figure I would be any better. (Yes, that was actually said to my face.) I could tell stories of students lying to their parents to get out of trouble and the conflicts that ensued.  There probably is no end to the stories that came out of that first year.

But you know what? I’m still here. No, I am no longer in the classroom. I still don’t speak Spanish (though I have tried to learn). I now work with teachers and administrators, helping them gain the knowledge they need to successful. Of the teachers that moved down at the same time I did, there aren’t many left. I have reasons for remaining that are my own, and not related at all to education, but the valley has ended up being very good to me.

This is where I met the love of my life. This is where I married her. This is where our son was born.

I hope as you’ve read this you can see some of the humor in some of the situations, because that is how I look at them now. They’ve helped me become the man that I am. I bit more sarcastic then when I arrived, but not in a biting way I hope. Life is good, you just have to find that goodness. (And yes, now that you’ve gotten to the end, you now know why this is a soapbox piece.  .)

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