My proudest achievement of my thirty-one year years as a public school teacher was the fact that I survived my whole first year. That doesn’t sound like much to you unless you are a teacher. But it sounds even more amazing if you knew what South Texas junior high schools were like in 1981. I mean, my school, Frank Newman Junior High had practically been destroyed the year before I started teaching there by the seventh graders I would be teaching as eighth graders.
You see some of my favorites in the painting I did during my third year as a teacher. From front to back they are Dottie, Teresa, Ruben, Fabian, and Javier. Of course, in these essays about being a teacher, I usually don’t use real names to protect the privacy of my former students, both the innocent and the guilty. So, I leave it to you to decide whether, even though I love these kids, those aren’t probably their real names. Unless… they are.
But not all Texas eighth graders are loveable people. In fact, they are hard on first-year rookie teachers. Especially the ones with a Midwestern faith that they can step in and change the world with their idealistically pure and golden teaching methods. Those teachers they will try to eat alive.
I followed the seventh grade English teacher in the same classroom with the same kids. They made her scream daily, had classroom fist fights weekly, exploded firecrackers under her chair twice during the year, and made her run away to the San Antonio airport and leave teaching behind forever. As ninth graders, they made their English I teacher leave teaching forever even though she was a three-year veteran. And believe me, they tried to do the same to me.
I foiled them constantly by being an on-your-feet-all-day teacher rather than a sit-behind-the-desk-and-yell teacher like my predecessor. After I had a chance to sit during planning period, I always had to clean thumbtacks, tape, and smeared chocolate bars off the seat of my little wooden teacher chair. Paper airplanes were the least gross things that flew through the air. Boogers, spit-wads, spit-wet pieces of chalk, and brown things you had to hope were chewed chocolate flew constantly whenever you had your back turned to them. And if there was only one kid behind you and you turned on him and asked pointedly, “Who threw that?” The kid, of course, saw nothing, has no idea, you can torture him, and he still won’t know anything because you are a lousy teacher and didn’t make him learn anything.
And lessons were mostly about talking over the malevolent tongue-wigglers. They didn’t listen. Not even to each other. One kid would be talking about monster trucks that shoot fire out of their exhaust pipes while the kid next to him was talking at the same time about whether Flipper is properly called a dolphin or a porpoise, or like his older brother says, “a giant penis-fish.” And the girls behind them are actually hearing each other, but only because they are speculating which boy in the classroom has the cutest butt.
I broke up three fights by myself that year, one of which I got slugged in the back of the head by the aggressor during, teaching me to always get between them facing the aggressor and never being wrong about who the aggressor is.
They don’t let you do much teaching at all your first year. They force you to practice discipline by keeping them all seated at the same time with their books open in front of them. “I don’t do literature,” Ernie Lozano told me. Well, to be accurate, none of them actually did literature that year. But they taught me to survive long enough to learn how to actually teach them something.
On the last day of school that year we gave them all extended time on the playground, using the outdoor basketball court to keep them occupied for long enough for a terrible school year to finally run its course. They didn’t set the school on fire that year. They didn’t break into the office that year and steal all the cash. We did well enough at keeping them under control that year that I got rehired and our principal got promoted to high school principal. I had a decision to make that year. Would I keep teaching? Or find another job? Sixty percent of all first-year teachers in Texas in 1982 quit teaching. I only earned $11,000 that year. Did I really want to continue down that dark path for another school year?
Ruben walked up to stand beside me and watch the bigger eighth graders foul each other on the basketball court. “You know, Mr. Beyer, you were my favorite teacher this year.”
“Thank you, Ruben. I needed to hear that.” I bit my lip to keep from crying.
That was when I made the decision. I stuck it out in that same school and district for the next 23 years. I became the head of the Cotulla Middle School English Department. I moved to the Dallas area for family reasons in 2004, but I would teach for eight more years in two more districts and in three more schools. But all of that is Ruben’s fault. Because that was the most important thing anyone ever said to me as a teacher. And I did hear it more than once. But he was the first.