It was a few days before the kids would come – 7th and 8th graders. I left my job as a high school Spanish teacher and would now be teaching English to middle schoolers. It was a way to get out of a podunk town in Nebraska and into a big city in Iowa (Council Bluffs).
I’d moved to Omaha six months before. The Nebraska farmhouse was a lonely place to be a the ages of 22 and 23. Now 24, I was ready for a smaller apartment as long as it meant more opportunities to meet people my own age. The most eligible bachelor in Podunk Town had been twice as old. The day he knocked on my back door was the day I decided to move to Omaha.
“Would you want to go out and get a steak sometime?” he asked.
I looked at his balding head, his beer belly, and his shiny belt buckle and thought to myself, No, no I would not.
Ah, to be 23 and so judge-y. But I digress.
At the new school I met the English deparment head (her husband coached h.s. football and taught h.s. history) and she said, “Give me your class rosters, and I’ll tell you who all the bad kids are.”
If I would’ve been brand new to teaching, I might’ve said yes, because you know, clueless. But I’d had two years with high school students. I’d made many mistakes, but I’d learned a lot about kids.
- If a girl won’t go up to the blackboard, it might be because she’s pregnant and trying to hide it.
- If you hang up one long balloon and two round balloons together as the papier mache dries on them (for piñatas), the boys might notice some similarities to their anatomy.
- If the typing teacher gives you the stink eye, it’s only because you insisted on having a real classroom your second year (behind the typing room) and not the freezing cold band room to teach in.
- If you tell the home ec teacher you live in a studio apartment, she is going to use you as an example in her class about living situations.
- If you put a teacher’s son in time-out in the hallway, she will glare at you for the rest of your days in Podunk Town.
I said no thank you. To the head of the English department. She never forgot it.
Here’s why I did. I think every kid should get a fresh start. Just because he/she was bad in 7th grade doesn’t mean he/she will be bad in 8th, unless of course, you assume that he/she will be. I had no such assumptions. I found out on the first day who the problems were going to be.
Chatty Renee and chatty Marilyn in my 8 Middle class. That meant they were the average ability kids.
Wade in my 7 High class. He couldn’t spell to save his life, but his dad had told him, “Don’t worry, your secretary will fix your spelling.” He was gifted but also obnoxious.
Bruce in my 8 Low class. He couldn’t control his farts after lunch. He did chin-ups on my book case.
I had 19 boys and 4 girls in the 8 Low class. They’d spent their first eight school years believing they were stupid. They misbehaved because they were told that that was who they were. I tried to save them from themselves. I might have saved a few of them. All I know is that they were my favorite kids by the time the year ended. They improved the most and were excited to write down the stories of their lives in their autobiographies. It was the most any of them had ever written (they said so).
Chris told me at the end of the year that, because of me, he’d read his first book, cover to cover (The Outsiders). He made it into a joke, saying it would have to be on my conscience for the rest of my life.
I’m sure the English Department head would’ve told me how big of a screw-up he was.