The Good Sisters

just me, coloring outside the lines

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 ApocalypseII.  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…

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The Bocce and the Ball

About a month or so Bocceback, I was invited to join a couples Bocce Ball team.

It’s what I love, in addition to the lake, the quiet and the views, about this community.  Being half of a couple is not a detriment to much of anything.

Still, I hesitated.  I had never played the game and, even in my salad days, athletics were never a strong suit.

Then I learned the name of the team: Debocceries…and that they had landed in last place last season, and probably the seasons before that.  No one could actually remember and didn’t really care.

Could work.

I agreed to attend a wine ‘n cheese strategy meeting prior to the season opening.  Introductions all around, a glass or two or three of wine, lively converstion and then the strategy from our captain.

I’ll be handing out calendars as soon as I get them.  I’m not making reminder calls.  You are on your own.  Just show up when we’re scheduled.

More wine. More stories.

Yep, this could work.

The first match — three games — came a few weeks later. My next door neighbor was playing on the adjoining court and sauntered over to both greet and reprimand me before our games began.

You’re drinking water?  It’s illegal.  You need a drink.  Or two. And what are you doing on their team and not ours?  

You didn’t ask me. 

You should have known.  There aren’t that many Italians around.

I’m not Italian. You are.  I’m Spanish.

Latin.  Close enough.

With that, the games began. My partner went first while I watched.

Then I picked up one of the two rather hefty balls, walked up to the line, eyed the little white target ball that we were supposed to get as close to as possible and rolled the ball down the green.  Both of the darn balls just snuggled right up to the target Pallino, looked back at me and winked.

Hot damn.

In one of the first times in Deboccery memory — remembering, of course, the consumption of wine, beer and other assorted libations — we won the match.

Our captain declared me a ringer. I wasn’t so sure; beginner’s luck and all.

Last night, we played our second match against a much younger team. It was 50 degrees — an unexpected cold snap — and we were all freezing.

Once I warmed up a bit, my cute little bocce balls just seemed to weave their way through all the others to get as close as possible to the Pallino.

They were probably freezing and just seeking warmth from huddling with one another. Nonetheless, they added to our score.

My youthful opponent, a young man with flowing blonde hair, kept looking at me and demanding, How do you do that? That’s impossible to do. Tell me how you do that.

I finally relented. 

Practice from years of throwing erasers at students.

He believed me. Never batted an eye.

English teacher?

Yep.

We English teachers must have some reputation.

Although it makes for a good story, I’ve never thrown anything at a student, tempting though it may have been. I opted more for the long, silent mom-glare, which meant that within seconds, everyone in the class was staring at the offender, who became very attentive, very quickly.

Better than coating the room in a cloud of chalk dust.

 

 

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 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.

(signed),

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!!!

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 English Teacher

English teachers get a bad rap.  

When I meet someone for the first time, they usually cringe upon learning I had been an English teacher.  This especially happens with men on first dates. 

The general public consensus, with a few exceptions, seems to place English teachers in the first cousin category to the caricature of librarians…that we are rigid, have dull grey hair pulled back into severe buns, dress in frumpy clothes, carry red pens and rulers, re-read Jane Eyre every year and wear glasses.

Theteach glasses part may be true, a casualty of reading far too many essays every week.

I know a few — very few — English teachers who actually do re-read Moby Dick and Jane every summer break. I have no idea why. 

But the rest is simply not true.  Ask any principal.  It’s typically the English Department that gives administrators the most headaches, second only to coaches but they’re a breed apart from classroom teachers and don’t count.

Of course, English teachers are also the most innovative, the most creative and the most endearing of all teachers. That last descriptor was provided by English teachers.

I’ll share an example that was repeated over and over and over again.

I used to train schools all over the nation in emergency responses to a man made or natural crisis, often to an active shooter.  In that case, I always had a local police chief or subordinate there to answer questions and nod his head approvingly, which I knew he would do because (a) he had approved the training, (b) he was scripted and (c) he knew I’d do him great bodily harm with my red pen if he went off script.

Typically, a district would pull as many teachers, classified personnel and administrators as possible into a gym or theater. There could be fifty or a couple thousand in the audience. The superintendent would then cross his or her fingers, say a prayer and, relinquishing all control, turn things over to us for an hour.

It was critical to break up the rather intense training with humor in order to bring down the anxiety, so we had funny tidbits seeded throughout the presentation.

The final component was on evacuation and pat downs, a touchy subject for teachers worrying about kids being patted down.  If necessary, law enforcement does pat down everyone being evacuated in order to ensure that the evacuation area is secure and weapon-free.

I’d tell the true story of our first active shooter simulation, when 600 students, teachers, classified and administration were evacuated and everyone got patted down. 

The kids were all interviewed as part of the assessment. They all reported that the pat down was simply not an issue; the officers were all professional and courteous.

We did, however, receive numerous complaints from female teachers who thought the pat down could have been much more thorough…

(pause for nervous laughter and side glances of did she really say what I think she just said?)

…primarily from the English Department.

At which point, the entire room would break into wild laughter and applause, knowing full well that it was the absolute truth. We could always count on at least a couple female English teachers jumping up and doing a little oh yeah, baby, come and pat me down!! dance.

I rest my case.