Of the sorted array of capabilities and tricks demanded of me as an educator, I must confess that the vast majority are skills that I was never taught during my collegiate teaching program. Sure, we discussed philosophies on education, studied psychosocial development, and were required extensive course readings on integrating the various areas of academia, assessing literacy levels, and so on. But nowhere had I taken a course on How to deal with student quarrels, Designing and decorating bulletin boards, Staying afloat in the sea of estrogen in a building run predominantly by female colleagues, What to do if a student has gastrointestinal problems that frequently distract the classroom, How to respond when someone shatters a Snapple bottle on your shoulder screaming Go Back To Your Own Neighborhood, or even How do you manage proper care with classroom pets shared by more than 20 students?
To be quite honest, I think many people could pick up a college course book and figure out the basics of literacy analysis, assessing a student's comprehension of numbers and operations, or how to keep good records. I don't intend to belittle my profession--and it is a profession--but the technicalities of it are just that. However, the nuances of quality teaching--the traits that separate the chaff from the wheat, distinguishing good from excellent teaching, or average from rotten--those are the things I never saw on a syllabus. Probably because they cannot be taught.
My first year teaching in the Bronx was baptism by fire.
Wanamaker, Indiana, my hometown (though 20 minutes from Indianapolis--the 13th largest city in the nation, I liked to boast), consisted only of a few corn fields, numerous power lines (which ran directly over our house..the crackling kept me awake with nightmares of my future three-legged offspring), a tiny grocery and butcher, a library, and the Wanamaker Feed 'n' Seed. A few fields over from my house was a campground where, at nighttime, you could sometimes hear drums beating from the local KKK gathering (I say this not in jest or a spirit of embellishment--it literally terrified me). So stepping out of the subway into a neighborhood just over the Harlem River in the southernmost Bronx in New York City, I was immediately aware that I was no longer in Indiana. Not only was I in a foreign city. I was in a brand new culture.
And yes, this was what I had bought into. Inspired by a book I had read about the atrocities of life in the South Bronx--especially in the schools--I uprooted from my job as junior high choral director and set off for the school about which the book had been written. If the book was accurate in the slightest, I knew it would be quite a challenge. But I have always been a firm believer that every child is brimming with potential, and the best teachers need not stay in the safety net of accomplished schools.
My new principal had laughed at me at first when she read my resume. But after an hour, she said, "You sold me. Let's see if you can do this."
Finances were tight that first year. The Board of Education had lost my paperwork three times, and so it was nearly 2 months into teaching that I received my first paycheck (at which point my very meager savings had been a long time extinct.) As if decorating a classroom with alphabet charts, pocket charts, word frequency walls, and stocking it with supplies wasn't costly enough, I was also adjusting to the overall cost of living in New York City, a double whammy. Needless to say, I had to be quite resourceful in my classroom, as most of these kids could not afford to provide their own supplies.
A few random teaching guides had been left behind from the teacher preceding me, but the majority of them were extremely out-of-date and useless, and sat on a shelf dusted with mouse droppings. I consistently found myself relying on my creativity, as well as the vivid imagination of my students.
The one piece of technology to which we did have access was the TV-VCR unit in the school library. And by the end of the first month of developing my own curriculum from scratch, with no access to a Xerox machine other than the one at Kinko's, I decided weaving a video into the schedule might offer a nice change of pace (of course I would enhance it with engaging discussions and enrichment extensions.)
The only VHS cassette I could find of any educational merit that wasn't produced before 1970 was a science video, entitled "Mini-Beasts," a documentary that highlighted the contributions of even the smallest insects to our ecosystem, proving everything has value.
Perfect, I thought. We could even follow-up with a mini-lesson in character education on the uniqueness each student contributes in our own classroom community.
As the students arranged themselves before the tiny monitor, I settled down at a back table to take advantage of the opportunity to grade the spelling tests from earlier that day (students expect to have tests graded instantaneously, as though each teacher possesses an enchanted grading wand to wave over papers). Once the students stopped squirming at the sight of slugs, cockroaches, houseflies, and spiders (all creatures, they informed me, which could be found in their own bathtubs at home), they actually became invested in the film.
It was the first chance I'd had sit back and simply enjoy watching my students. I savored the moment.
As the narrator encouraged the viewers to think before killing an insect, Brandon yelped in a screechy soprano, "Mr. Hawks, LOOK! It's a real live mini-beast!"
"I know, Brandon. It's a fascinating video. You'll see many others as the video..."
"NO!!!" He interrupted emphatically. "On the SCREEN. A real live mini-beast!"
The class cheered.
Lo and behold, on the face of the monitor, a cockroach the size of a dwarf pigeon was creeping its way across the screen. Instinctively, I rolled up a spelling test, and darted for the TV before the critter could scurry away.
In a mortified unison, my students intervened, "NO, YOU CAN'T SQUISH IT!!!"
I recoiled in the irony of the situation. How could I take the life of this valuable mini-beast? But how could I let him merely dance around the library? If we revered all cockroaches as sacred beasts, the school would surely be infested within a month.
"All mini-beasts serve a special purpose in the world," Brandon petitioned. The video had obviously been well-received, and now I was being forced to put into practice what I had advocated.
"Can we please keep her?" Not only was this roach now a mini-beast, but it had been deemed a female. I would be cruel to deny the little gal pity.
And that is how we came to have a pet cockroach during my first year of teaching second grade in New York City.
Naturally, we were democratic about naming our little pet. In third place was "Rita the Roach." First runner-up was "Chica" (our school was seventy-five percent Hispanic.) But the name that won the final vote, I am proud to say (evidence that students don the tastes and qualities of their teachers) was Beyonce.
Beyonce's home was a large plastic tub which sat in the back of the room under the letter B on the word wall. She soon had a popsicle stick jungle gym, as well as a Styrofoam swimming pool. Though most of my students resided modestly in housing projects, they were determined that Beyonce would live luxuriously.
For the three weeks Beyonce graced us with her vibrance, the children observed her every single day. They greeted her before hanging their backpacks at arrival, and blew kisses as we shut off the lights at dismissal. We regularly freshened her water, and daily gave her new paper shreds and Starburst candy.
When she was suddenly struck "ill" by a sugar coma, I was torn as to how to break the news.
"Why has Beyonce been sleeping for so long?"
"Do cockroaches hibernate, Mr. Hawks?"
The death conversation is so delicate and tender with children, and I wasn't quite prepared to engage in that discourse. I asked my colleagues, who coldly replied, "You're the one who agreed to a pet cockroach...that call is entirely yours..."
After Beyonce had been asleep for a week, we met on the reading rug for a community circle.
Children are beautiful, and resilient, and I wouldn't trade my job for anything in the world. After a few shared stories of loved ones they had lost, Tyrell suggested that we have a funeral for our beloved Beyonce. Diamond wanted to sing Amazing Grace, and Richard would prepare the eulogy.
I was shocked to find my eyes welling up as I stood over a Benadryl box wrapped in construction paper scraps, while Diamond sang the words, "...that saved a wretch like me..." My students have always been my mentors, reminding me of what more adults should strive to be.
Drawing upon the few words he could confidently spell, Richard moved to the front of the room and unfolded his notes.
"Beyonce, you were the best pet I ever had. The only one. I like the way you drink water. And you have legs."
And then we proceeded to the school yard to bury her.
That afternoon, we sat on the reading rug, and I passed out a strip of construction paper to each student. Each piece of paper had the name of someone in our classroom. The students were instructed to write down the things they appreciated about the person whose name they had received.
As we read the papers, we stapled them in a chain that would hang above our door, reminding us that we are each valuable, and there are things we can learn from even the most seemingly insignificant creatures.
LeDaysia approached me a few minutes before dismissal.
"Mr. Hawks, may I borrow the stapler?"
"Sure, LeDaysia...what do you need it for?"
Out of her pocket she pulled a piece of scrap paper that she had cut into a long rectangle.
"You forgot to make a chain link for yourself, Mr. Hawks. And I wanted you to know why you are important..."