Back in the 1980’s I was given the gift of teaching the Chapter I program students in English. This was done because Mrs. Soulwhipple was not only a veteran English teacher, but also the superintendent’s wife. She was the one gifted with all the star kids, the A & B students, the ones that would be identified as the proper kids to put into our nascent Gifted and Talented Program. That meant that I would get all the kids that were C, D, & F in most of their classes, the losers, the Special Edwards, the learning disabled, the hyper rocketeers of classroom comedy, and the trouble makers. And I was given this gift because, not only was I not a principal’s or superintendent’s wife, but I actually learned how to do it and became good at it. How did I do that, you might ask? I cheated. I snooped into the Gifted and Talented teacher training, learned how to differentiate instruction for the super-nerd brain, and then used the stolen information to write curriculum and design activities for all my little deadheads (and they didn’t even know who the Grateful Dead were, so that’s obviously not what I meant). I treated the little buggers like they were all GT students. Voila! If you tell a kid they are talented, smart, and worthy of accelerated instruction… the little fools believe it, and that is what they become.
Even the goofy teacher is capable of believing the opposite of what is obvious and starts treating them like super-nerds because he actually believes it. I soon had kids that couldn’t read, but were proud of their abstract problem-solving skills. I had kids that could enhance the learning of others with their drawing skills, their singing ability, and their sense of what is right and what is wrong. I had them doing things that made them not only better students for me, but in all their classes. And I did not keep the methods to my madness a secret, either. I got so good at coercing other teachers to try new ideas and methods that I got roped into presenting some of the in-service training that all Texas teachers are required by law to do. And unlike so many other boring sessions we all sat through, I presented things I was doing in the actual classroom that other teachers could also use with success. The other teachers tried my activities and sometimes made them work better than I did.
Yes, I know this all sounds like bragging. And I guess it probably is. But it worked. My kids kept getting better on the standardized tests and the State tests that Texas education loves so much. And Mrs. Soulwhipple was still the superintendent’s wife, but she did not stay a teacher forever. She eventually went to a new school district with her husband. And guess who they started thinking of when the question of who would be the next teacher for the nerd classes was considered. That’s right, little ol’ Reluctant Rabbit… that goofy man who drew pictures on the board and made kids read like a reading-fiend… me.
So, a new era began in Cotulla. In addition to still getting to teach all the deadheads (because they weren’t going to trust those precious children to anyone else, naturally), I began teaching at least one edition of Mr. B’s famous Nerd Class every school year. We actually assigned long novels and great pieces of literature for the kids to read and discuss and study in depth. Novels like To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt were read. We began talking about “big ideas”, “connections to the wider world”, and how “things always change”. We began taking on ideas like making our world better and how to help our community. Kids began to think they were learning things that were important. We did special units on Exploring Our Solar System, The World of Mark Twain, Finding the Titanic, and The Tragedy of Native American History. And we spent as much as a third of the year on each. I am myself cursed with a high IQ and a very disturbing amount of intelligence. I am the deepest living stockpile of useless facts and trivia that most of my students would ever meet in their lifetimes. And even I was challenged by some of the learning we took on. That’s the kind of thing that makes a teaching career fun. It kept me teaching and meeting new students and new challenges long after my health issues made it a little less than sensible to keep going. And if I manage to tell you a few Nerd Class stories in the near future, then at least you stand a chance of knowing a little bit about what-the-heck I am talking about. So be prepared for the worst. I am retired now, and have plenty of time for long-winded stories about being a teacher.