I had moved from teaching high school English to a couple of non-teaching assignments before landing, after Columbine, in Safety.
I loved it. I was working with the administrators and the local police, including my two new BFF’s, two very large officers — one African-American; one Hawaiian — who were quite imposing, incredibly funny and coached middle school and high school sports in their free time.
Then, six weeks into the first semester, I got a call: We need you to teach two periods of English.
Were they kidding? I hadn’t been in a classroom in years.
I called my Sister Peggy at the school in question and asked about the two classes.
Oh my God, she sputtered, those are all the reject kids from every other English II class and have had one sub after another. They’re out of control and have even thrown desks at the regular teachers who’ve gone in there. Is it too early for you to retire???
The next Monday, I showed up in the administration building to say hello to the principal, who was new and already unhappy with me because a few of her decisions had been overruled due to safety considerations.
She told me she had no idea what work the kids had done (ah, not much), but that they followed standards (except when she was called down to reprimand them). I asked if that included desk throwing before heading to the classroom.
She avoided me after that.
The bell rang, the kids slowly meandered in and the mutual stare-down began.
Yes, I am a real teacher and, yes, I’m here til the end of the year and, no, I won’t put up with anything. Don’t try it.
They looked at each other, no doubt taking bets on how long it would take before I, too, disappeared.
We had gotten through the first couple of days, still feeling our way, when the doorway suddenly darkened. There were my two BFF’s, smiling broadly, and holding a grande Starbucks.
They could barely conceal their grins as they walked in like they owned the place.
Well rehearsed, the officers read the kids the riot act.
Give her any trouble: you deal with us.
I sipped on my latte.
It was hard not to laugh. By the time the two had left, the kids were positive the officers were SWAT, their teacher was SWAT and probably packing heat, and that there was no hope of the students regaining control.
By second semester, we were settled into the academic routine, the kids were doing very well and preparing to read A Separate Peace — a novel set in a 1940’s eastern prep school about the loss of innocence.
My students were from a lower socio-economic neighborhood, 40% on free or reduced meals, primarily minority and many immigrants or first generation Americans.
Prep school? Boarding school? They hadn’t a clue.
I took time to explain the concept. I asked if they wanted to role play prep school for a day. They did.
The following Wednesday, my students showed up dressed in black pants or skirts, crisp white shirts neatly tucked into waistbands, black ties and looking very sharp. They all stood when I walked into the room, saying in unison Good afternoon, Ms. H, and then quietly sitting down when I nodded my greeting.
They sat up straight, raised their hands, stood to ask or answer questions. I had asked some colleagues to visit during the two classes. The kids promptly stood up, saying Good afternoon, Mr. or Ms. —.
Then, someone grabbed the principal, who was showing the campus to a new vice principal, and directed them to my room without sharing what we were doing. The two walked into a class of uniformed students who, without prompting, stood in unison saying Good afternoon, Ms. G., before being told to resume sitting.
Both administrators looked shocked.
I asked in anyone had a question for our “headmistress” — one student did. He stood, politely asked his question, said Thank you after she answered and then quietly sat back down.
The principal looked at me and started backing into the whiteboard. She had no idea what to make of it — an entire class of of former desk-throwing, out of control, defiant students now in sitting bolt upright in black and white uniforms, eyes front, hands properly folded on their desks, no wiggling, no talking, on task and perfectly well-behaved.
I just smiled and quietly said, If there’s nothing more, we do have our lesson to complete.
They left, and when they were well out of earshot, the students and I broke into laughter.
I could be as big a pain as my kids.