The Students and the Headmistress

bookI 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???

ah geez…

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.

Whatever worked…

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.


The Karma Goddess

Karma. The Big K. KarmaI knew it was going to happen one day.  Eventually, Karma gets everyone.

My Karma showed up with a phone call one afternoon from our school district superintendent. It was a couple of weeks after Columbine.

It was completely unexpected when the superintendent called late on a Thursday afternoon.

You already know a lot of cops and you know how to work with different systems.  Say goodbye to your students tomorrow. New assignment on Monday. I want you to figure out what to do before a Columbine happens here.

uh huh.  

Monday morning I reported to my new boss, a tall, lanky, curly grey hair administrator with cowboy boots.  He was also ADD and Bi-Polar (and very open about it, so no confidentiality is being violated) which, in comparison, made me look like a quiet English teacher armed with little more than a red pen.

I’m not sure what I ever did to deserve him, but the SWAT teams always wanted to know if I was getting hazardous duty pay for working with him.

No hazardous duty pay in education, but I learned more from him than I ever could have imagined, so that was not my Karma gotcha.  It came a bit later, after we had one of the first Columbine simulations with over 600 police, teachers, administrators and students.

We didn’t even know what we didn’t know.

 I was handed the task of developing procedures and a training for staff at twelve high schools.  Topic: what to do in an active shooter situation and integrate it with the new First Responder Training for Police.

The first challenge was getting everyone in the same book and more or less on the same page.

As one of my law enforcement colleagues complained, Collaboration used to mean we got to do it our way.  

And now it’s an unnatural act between two non-consenting adults.  Let’s make this work.

Quick comebacks are the mainstay of high school teachers.

I had almost forgotten about Karma, and then it got me.

I had spent a career being the bane of staff presenters. I knew every game possible to avoid being at these meetings.  Or, if completely trapped, I could feign interest while being a thousand miles away, usually at some beach.  Or playing a game with another bored colleague. Anything to avoid listening to another presentation.

And now, I was the presenter.

All of which proves there is a Karma Goddess with a very wicked sense of humor.

I wrote; I re-wrote; I revised. I practiced until I had the timing down cold and could end the training within a minute of its allotted time.  There was humor interspersed to keep the anxiety level down, even though I had always been a poor to middling joke teller.  I had the poor young police officer co-presenting with me practicing until he thought I was truly mad.

I still remember the first Code Red Training, in front of a hundred or so colleagues. I had never presented to adult audiences; teenagers, yes; colleagues, oh no.

Within a minute or so, both the officer and I realized this was not going to a typical school presentation.  The teachers, classified personnel and even administrators were starving for the information and, at the same time, terrified to hear it.  You could have heard a pin drop in the room, except for the nervous laughter at our initial attempts at humor.  It was the most attentive audience I had ever witnessed.

We had expected that it would take over a year to get the one hour training and follow up drill into the twelve high schools in our district as it’s virtually impossible to schedule a staff training once the yearly calendar was set.  This time, the entire district was trained and had conducted drills in under six weeks.

That led to training 300 more schools citywide…and, heading down a new career path, I realized that sometimes Karma can also be a new best friend.








The New Teacher on the Block

All of us in the English Department loved our newest member, a young Irish-Mexican lad who was the age of most of our children and a natural teacher.  Patrick was short, with dark curly hair and ruddy complexion. He was funny, quick, enthusiastic and full of the devil. Given those attributes, Pat was immediately embraced by students and teachers. We adored him.

We adored him, that is, until one Friday afternoon, when he walked into the office.  The rest of us were all frantically grading papers, adding points and figuring out grades as our grade sheets were due the following Tuesday morning. 

We each had 150 students, give or take.  They each wrote a minimum of two essays per week in addition to the other assignments.  We had to read, comment on and grade each essay.  It was a time killer and made most of us re-think our chosen profession.

If we had it to do over again, we would have chosen a subject area with no essays, like math.  Of course, then we’d actually have to understand math which most of us didn’t, as any waitress watching us figure out the tip and what each of us owed can attest to.  That minor detail also made figuring out grades that much more challenging. 

It probably goes without saying that the rest of the school gave English teachers a wide berth during any grading season.

I have an announcement. Pat stood at the door at the office looking extremely proud and pleased with himself.

We all looked up from our papers and grade books.

I just turned in all my grades! I am done! I am finished! I am great!

We just glared at him and scowled.

Good job, Patrick. Now go away. 

It was the best begrudging praise for a first quarter teacher we could offer. He laughed at us, poor slobs, and took a victory lap around the office, poking fun at the stacks of essays yet to be read before breaking into a jig and laughing his way out of door and into a free weekend. We bunched up scrap paper and threw it at him.

Some of us have a slightly more wicked streak.  I got up, walked over to the computer and put fingers to keyboard.

Mr. G….

We have misplaced your grade sheets and need you to redo them. They are still due Tuesday morning.


The Vice Principal of Academics

It was a perfectly plausible note.  Our academics administrator was notorious for his disorganization, sieve-like memory and general incompetence.  A student aide delivered the memo to Patrick the following Monday morning.

By lunch on Monday, after a very long weekend of grading papers and figuring out grades, most of us were in the final throes of filling out the actual grade sheets while trying to grab a few bites before the bell rang for the next class. 

Mid-lunch, Pat burst into the office at lunch, flushed red with anger and waving our message in the air.

That…that..moron…Patrick started ranting about our inept VP of Academics.  The rest of us looked up. We couldn’t help smirking.

He stopped.  He looked around. He immediately knew who had really written the note.

I should have known!  I should have known! 

Pat turned around, slamming the door behind him as he exited the office.  We all looked at one another, wondering what in the world he could be doing. Seconds later, the door flew open.

How could I not have known!!

Pat grimaced in disbelief at his own gullibility.  There wasn’t a misspelled word or grammatical error in the entire memo!!!

Rainy Days

It’s raining.puddle

It’s been raining for two days. Large drops of water, not a light sprinkle, but real honest to goodness rain.

This is major news for Californians who have not seen rain in a number of years.

I seem to be spending a lot of time at one window or another, watching the rain fall as though I’ve never seen it before. I’m very tempted to run outside and jump in the middle of a puddle, but I’m still wrapped cozy in my robe and sipping at a large mug of steaming, rich morning coffee so puddle-jumping may be better left to children walking to school.

The cat, who typically sits impatiently at the door each morning waiting to make his escape, took one long look at the grey, the cold and the wet before turning tail and finding the nearest warm quilt on which to curl up and return to sleep.

In this new home, the cat and I can hear the rain on the roof and throughout the night, the rain serenaded our sleep. Nature’s lullaby. I’ve missed it terribly. 

It’s funny that as everything stops, the daily to-do put aside in order to listen to the rain fall, memories come flooding back. Last night brought an unexpected and bittersweet memory of a fierce midnight rain and wind storm from a few years past, of slipping into sleep while being held close, familiar arms wrapped strong around me, familiar breathing shallow on my neck — all so ordinary but that night, also feeling so safe and protected as the storm ranted and raged around us. There are times that I miss this even more than the sound of the rain.

I remembered the last drought from years and years ago.  When it broke with a deluge of rain, I was in class teaching sophomore English II students.  I looked at the kids, looked out the open door at the rain because there were no windows in the classroom, put down the textbook and walked outside into the torrential downpour.  The kids followed and there we were, thirty of us joyfully and uninhibitedly dancing to the music of the rain.

At the end of the school year, one of the students, a studious young African American woman, came by to thank me.  Your class terrified me because I never knew what was going to happen from one minute to the next. I’ve learned more from this class…

On that note, there is a puddle or two waiting just for me…

The Good Sister and the Judge

The next school year, come October, the Sisters were in agreement:  we would be arriving in our nun’s habits once again, except, sadly for Sister Mary Peggy who was now at a new school. The rest of us were all looking forward to a Second Annual Peaceful Halloween.

Then I received a summons from Superior Court.  I had to appear to testify against a small time con artist who had been working our campus and I had to be there at 11:30AM on October 31. 

A court summons was not going to get in the way of my Halloween calm.  I called the prosecuting attorney.

Any way to change this?


Any way to make it later in the day?


I explained that it was Halloween and I was committed to being a nun.

He groaned and then, after some reflection, said, Well, half the courtroom will no doubt be in costume.  Just get here on time.

Will do.

Fortunately, I was scheduled during my prep and lunch so I quickly left after class, drove to the courthouse, parked and very piously entered the courtroom. The Judge, a frail elderly man, smiled and nodded at me.

The prosecutor turned, smiled, and immediately called me to the witness stand.  I must have been a sight, in full habit, taking an oath that I would tell the truth.

The prosecutor then addressed the court.  She is not really a nun.  This is the Halloween custom of her English Department at the high school in question and she has to return to class right after testifying. 

The Judge nodded, half listening but more concerned that I was comfortable and had water if I needed it. He then very gently explained to me that there was no jury, and that he, the Judge, would be rendering the verdict.

The first round of questions, from the prosecuting attorney, was straight forward and I answered them confidently with crisp sentences.  I could say I sounded just like an English teacher but I probably sounded more like a nun.

Then, it was the defendant’s turn and his attorney came at me full force. I continued to answer directly as he increased both the volume and intensity of the questions.

He tried his best to be intimidating, but I taught teenagers. This was a walk in the park.

The Judge evidently disagreed with my assessment. He looked at the defense attorney and scowled.  He finally leaned forward, pointed his finger at the attorney and began to sternly lecture him.

You are not to treat the witness this way. You are to treat her with respect she deserves. Do you understand?  I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in my courtroom.

He hadn’t heard a word of the prosecuting attorney’s explanation regarding my costume.

He looked at me.  In a much softer voice, he asked Now, are you alright?  Do you need water? Don’t let him rattle you. You’re doing just fine.  

He leaned over, smiled and reassuringly patted my hand.

The prosecuting attorney just leaned back in his chair and grinned.

I finished the answers to the few remaining questions, smiled a thank you to the Judge and scurried out of the courtroom with black robe and veil flying. I rushed to make the elevator down the hall and get back in time for my next class.

A middle-aged man with straight black hair slicked back and dressed in a well-cut dark suit held the elevator door open for me. He smiled broadly. As he exited at the next floor, I realized he had red hands and a long red tail with a pointed arrow.  No doubt an attorney.  

Later that day, the prosecuting attorney called to let me know that the defendant was found guilty, which he was, so it all ended as it should have.

He also wanted to know where he could purchase nuns habits for future witnesses.

The Fear

One year, the Assistant Principal assigned me five freshman classes. I don’t understand freshmen; I don’t like freshmen. You need to be a mom with freshmen; I was done raising kids. I immediately charged into her office and asked her what in the world she was thinking.

She looked at me. But, I love freshmen. She looked confused. She thought she had given me a dream schedule.

Then you teach them. I think freshmen should be denied oxygen. (except, of course, for my grandchildren, but I don’t have to see them in a classroom on a daily basis.)

She looked horrified. You can’t mean that.

Oh, but I did.

She immediately switched my schedule and never assigned me another freshman class or even put any freshman classes in the vicinity of my classroom.  She was very protective of those runny nosed kids.

Instead,  I got my beloved at-risk kids, saving at least one other teacher from a fate worse than death, and a couple of college prep English II classes which can also be a lot of fun.  The challenge was to make certain the sophomores had grown up past the freshman stage of life.

I’d open the year with Robert Frost’s The Fear.  A poem. The kids groaned. 

Welcome to English II, my little lovelies.

I acted out the three pages of poetry in my best dramatic style, which admittedly left a lot to be desired. The poem, bless Frost’s heart, was set in Frost’s beloved rural New England and filled with sexual desire, an illicit love affair, betrayal, rejection — the shadow side of man that Frost was so skilled at examining.  The kids didn’t have a clue.

It was also the opening poem in the district approved textbook for English II, so it was pretty obvious that the people who recommended the text and the Board of Trustees that approved said book hadn’t read the poem or, if they had read it, didn’t understand the poem any more than my students.

Regardless, The Fear was among the best opening of school lessons I used.

After plowing through the time and setting, we got into the nitty gritty.

What do these lines mean? 

You mean you couldn’t understand his caring.
Oh, but you see he hadn’t had enough – 

She stretched up tall to overlook the (lantern) light
That hung in both hands hot against her skirt. 

The kids squirmed, looked at each other and looked at the clock, hoping against hope for an early bell.  I waited.

Come on, you know full well what Frost is talking about.

I finally put the textbook down.  Time for Opening Lecture 101.

Listen up. You want to be treated as adults, right?  You’re 15 and 16 years old.  Adult enough.  And we are going to be studying all kinds of literature this year. Adult literature about adult topics. We are going to cover love, sex, infidelity, commitment, jealousy, rage, hate, war, birth, death, grief — all the things that make the world the place we live.  I expect you to treat these subjects as adults. Got it?

As I turned around to the chalkboard, trying not to smile, I was well aware of the kids looking at each other and looking down once again at their textbook.

A young man in the back called out an answer, She’s horny and there’s no one there except her husband, but she doesn’t want him. She wants her lover who she thinks is looking for her and still wants to screw her.

Excellent. Let’s continue with the rest of the poem and see if she gets her wish.

The tenor of the room changed in that instant as the kids sat up straight and looked at one another.  I watched their sophomoric minds processing their classmate’s answer, my response and then concluding that English II might not be all that bad of a class after all.  But, more important, they all wanted to know how the poem ended.

It’s amazing what the promise of a little sex will do.

The Good Sisters

One of our colleagues and close friends rushed into the English Office early one October morning.

It’s going to be Halloween!  Mimi announced.

The rest of us groaned. 

Halloween on a high school campus falls somewhere between Carrie and Zombie Apocalypse II.  It is typically a lost teaching day and is spent keeping marginal control of 150 to 200 students dressed in every conceivable costume and are much more interested in each other than the assignment at hand.

I have an idea!  That was not news to us. Mimi always had a new idea.  We’re sisters.  We can all come dressed as nuns.

We looked at her. We looked at each other.  We grinned. A plan was in the works. 

On Halloween, we arrived, one by one, and looking very nun-like.  With floor-length black habits, 1940s black shoes, white wimples, black veils, rulers in hand, and reading glasses perched on the end of our noses, we were ready. Sister Mary Peggy, Sister Mary Sabra, Sister Mary Janet…well, you get the picture.

nuns (1)

Our principal, a very devout Roman Catholic, was among the first to get wind of our costumes.  He rushed down to the English Office, scowling. 

Not funny. 

It’s Halloween.  We’ll be good sisters. 

He rolled his eyes.  He had heard that before, usually in regards to our attentiveness during predictably long staff meetings where we attempted to keep ourselves awake by group-writing limericks, an increasingly trashy romance novel or correcting student essays. 

Today, however, as we had no other clothes and there was no way he was going to get 12 substitute teachers at the last minute, he was stuck with us.

The warning bell rang for first period.

I walked into my English II class of 35 sophomore students, all dressed in various Halloween garb and ready to hijack the prepared lesson. The kids looked at me, looked at each other and then just looked stunned. They didn’t know how to react, with some trying to hide their laughter, some just plain surprised.

Good morning children.  I stood facing them, stone-faced, the ruler tucked halfway up the habit sleeve and the reading glasses sliding down my nose.

Good morning, ah, um. 

Sister, I corrected them in a firm tone.  The costume had now taken over and I was totally in character. 

Just because it’s Halloween, you still need to stand when addressing me.

And then, just like magic, the tone of the room changed and I was teaching 35 darling teen angels, calling each by their given name…Gabriel not Gabe, Kathryn not Kathy and so forth.  Even more amazing, they sat up straight, hands folded on their desks and stood when politely answering my questions with “Sister, the answer is...”

At lunch, black habits and long veils could be seen flying across campus as the good sisters flocked to the office to exchange stories.  The stories were all the same: courteous students, orderly classrooms, lessons completed even with Halloween.

Halloween had become a dream, not a nightmare.

We looked at one another, looked at our habits, grinned and instantly decided to come dressed as nuns for the rest of our teaching careers.