“Anyone interested in teaching elementary school should come to a meeting tonight.” 1969 Santa Cruz, California
This simple announcement interrupts a college English Literature class, and begins to answer an essential question I have been avoiding. What do I want to be?
A speck of light at the base of my brain sputters into a steady glow.
I see waves of children, bright and pure, hungry for knowledge. I hear parents cheer as their kids hurdle obstacles and toss graduation caps in the air. I want to be a teacher.
I knew I would not be fabulously wealthy, but I couldn’t have known then what being a teacher would require of me. A teacher has to be willing to be disarmed.
Early in my career, a mother came to enroll her eight-year-old in my class. She needed to explain a few things first:
“Changing schools is part of starting a new life for our family. There’s been a divorce and a new marriage.”
“A new house in a new neighborhood.”
“Also, Rob’s been confused lately about whether he’s a boy or a girl.”
“His therapist feels he is leaning toward the masculine, and wants us to change his name from Robin to Robert.”
OK, then. Robert it will be.
Before school the next morning, laughter erupts from a group of my third graders outside the boys’ restroom. Geared up to rescue the sensitive newcomer, I’m startled instead to see him creep toward me, clad in leopard skin flannel pajamas.
“Make them stop laughing!” he demands.
I whisk him around a corner for a private talk.
“Why are you wearing your pajamas, Robert?”
“I just like the way it feels to be a leopard.”
“Does your mother know you wore your pajamas to school?”
“Yes, but she said I can change clothes if I want to. I’ve got them here in my bag. I’m going to chase the kids and bite them if they keep laughing at me!”
“Robert, you have to expect kids to laugh when a beast with a boy’s head shows up at school. They get excited and silly when they see someone in a costume.”
“Why don’t they just mind their own business?’
And where was your mother this morning?
“Well, you’re hard to ignore. Your wild pajamas are grabbing everyone’s attention.”
“They are jealous. I turn into a real leopard when I wear these.”
“You’ll have to be dressed like a boy to come into my classroom. I need everyone’s attention on me.”
I hold the crowd at bay while he does what he has to do. He emerges a compromise: half boy (blue jeans) and half wild animal (fuzzy leopard shirt.)
I station Robert by my desk with some work he can do on his own, so I can move around the classroom. He scowls, but I insist. The other kids need attention, too.
After a while, heartbroken sobbing and angry fist-pounding upsets our happy hum. Robert throws up his hands and announces:
“It’s not easy, you know!” Pound, sob, blubber.
“Going to a psychiatrist once a week!” Pummel, weep, wail.
“At thirty dollars an hour!” Fountain turns to puddle.
Today’s Teacher’s Helper walks Robert down the hall to the nurse’s room, and the rest of us have a heartfelt discussion about ways we can try to make a new friend feel better when he or she is upset.
After escorting the class to lunch, I retreat to my solid oak desk. A single lime green square from my own stickie pad catches my eye. A short message in childish writing says a lot about what my new student is going to be:
“Robin has a cold
if i cough i need help
At the end of the day, it is often a teacher who has learned something new. It is these constant surprise turnabouts, and not the prospect of being fabulously wealthy, that keep most of us on the job.