Know Their Names

Of all days to begin a teaching career in 2007—my 54th birthday! I’d been preparing for this day for weeks: reading science textbooks, studying flow diagrams, planning detailed lessons, and setting up my new classroom. As the half-time science teacher, I’d share the room with the half-time math teacher. For days, I’d been stapling colorful text and pictures on the one bulletin board. Gerald wasn’t so keen on decorating.

 “Go ahead and put up whatever you like,” my new roommate said with a shrug. During the teacher workday before classes began, Gerald sat at his desk in the back of the room rifling through files from his deep desk drawer and tossing papers in the trash. In between sifting through paperwork, his chin would slide downward, and he’d drift off.

Meanwhile, I was at my desk in the front corner, furiously hanging file folders, inserting a black mesh organizer in the long shallow drawer, labeling everything with color-coded stickers, and artfully organizing office supplies. I tried to ignore Gerald’s occasional snort from the back of the room when he woke himself up.

“Where should we plug in the phone?” I asked during an opportune moment. There was a phone jack at each end of the room.

“Just keep it on your desk.” Gerald had been at the Margaret Hudson Program (MHP) for several years and exuded a calm, grandfatherly air. I got the sense he was well-loved by students and staff alike, so I attributed his nodding off to his age and the fact this was just one of dozens of “first day” rodeos in his long career. He’d come out of retirement from the large Tulsa Public Schools district nearby for this halftime stint, and he’d already hinted he planned to retire—again—at the end of the school year.

I tried to take advantage of my cohort’s vast experience and peppered him with questions. “How do you keep track of absences?” I asked. “How do you know when to back up and cover a concept again?” He was patient with my questions and answered as calmly as I imagined he did with his students—our students, now—pregnant and parenting teen girls. “What do you do if a student goes into labor?” Not all my questions had to do with classroom procedure, or with science, though that was the subject I was hired to teach.

The first day of class, on my birthday, I’m sure I chose my outfit carefully. I was nervous about how I’d be perceived as a middle-aged, first-year, inexperienced teacher by my teenage students and didn’t want to look old. I’d just started coloring my hair to disguise the gray ones sprouting in distressing numbers. I’d probably bought something new to wear. My slacks would’ve fit me well, even if they weren’t the latest style. Not too baggy, not too short. I suspect my blouse was red, a color that always cheers me. What sticks is my fixation on making a good first impression.

Holly, the Family and Consumer Science teacher from down the hall met me on the way to my classroom that morning. “Here,” she said. “Put this on.” She thrust a laminated paper pin with a tag attached that said, “Birthday Girl” in my direction.

“What is it?” I’m not sure what look I gave her, but I hope I looked cooperative. I’m a team player, obsessed with fitting in.

“It’s the birthday pin. Everyone wears it on their birthday.” Holly grinned and reached out to help me pin it on my blouse.

“Perfect!” Holly stood back to assess the overall effect and patted me on the arm. “You’ll be fine,” she said.

Oh my God! I might as well have had a scarlet “A” emblazoned on my chest. The birthday cake drawing in pastel pinks and yellows stood out like pulsing neon against my blouse.

“Thanks.” I didn’t protest; I am a team player, after all. Everyone wears the pin on her birthday. I was still basking in the glow of my good intentions, with a strong sense of purpose and perhaps a smidgeon of savior complex.

How could I possibly fail?

(From Know Their Names, memoir in progress. More to come.)

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