See Sally…? Wait a minute! Why don’t I remember Sally?
Did Dick forget to feed Spot and Spot was forced to kill and eat Sally?
No… I had Dick and Jane books in Kiddy-garter and they did have Sally in them. And Spot never killed anyone. But with all the running she did, Sally did not do anything memorable. If my teacher, Miss Ketchum, had told the Spot eats Sally story, I’m sure I would’ve remembered Sally better and learned to read faster.
But I actually did learn to read faster because there was a Cat in the Hat, and a Yertle the Turtle, and because Horton the elephant heard a Who, and a Grinch stole Christmas. Yes, humor is what always did it for me in the classroom. Dr. Seuss taught me to read. Miss Mennenga taught me to read out loud. And in seventh grade, Mr. Hickman taught me to appreciate really really terrible jokes. And those are the people who twisted my arm… er, actually my brain… enough to make me be a teacher who taught by making things funny. There were kids who really loved me, and principals who really hated me. But I had students come back to me years later and say… “I don’t remember anything at all from my classes in junior high except when you read The Outsiders out loud and did all those voices, and played the Greek myth game where we had to kill the giants with magic arrows, and the stupid jokes you told.” High praise indeed!
I think that teaching kids to laugh in the classroom was a big part of teaching them how to use the language and how to think critically. You find what’s funny in what you learn, and you have accidentally examined it carefully… and probably etched it on the stone part of your brain more memorably than any other way you could do it. And once it’s etched in stone, you’re not getting that out again any time soon.
Humor makes you look at things from another point of view, if for no other reason, then simply because you are trying to make somebody laugh. For instance, do you wonder like I do why the Cat in the Hat is trying to pluck the wig off of Yelling Yolanda who is perched on the back of yellow yawning yak? I bet you can’t look at those two pictures positioned like that and not see what I am talking about. Of course, I am not betting money on it. I am simply talking Iowegian… a totally different post.
But the point is, humor and learning go hand in hand. It takes intelligence to get the joke. Joking makes you smarter. And that is why the class clowns in the past… the good and funny ones… not the stupid and clueless ones… were always my favorite students.
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.
I was a middle school English teacher. And part of that job is to build reading skills. But that is a challenging thing. Especially if you work for a poor rural school district with limited budgets and very little ability to buy computers and the necessary software. After all, being a reading teacher in the upper grade levels of public schools is HARD. Can you figure out a child’s reading level with teacher-made Cloze tests? Do you know how to tell a book’s reading level just by sampling the concept density, vocabulary load, and sentence lengths in the beginning, middle, and end of a book? Do you know where to find the readability information in the student’s History and Science textbooks? And did you know there is no formula anywhere to cover how you match up kids to books they will actually read and like without becoming a mind-reading trusted friend of every kid in your class?
Seriously. Even if you are a teacher certified to teach reading, they do not teach you these things below the doctorate level in teacher-training schools. I had to teach myself before I could effectively teach them.
The fact is, life-long readers are made by book-reading parents who read to their children a lot before they ever come to school. Those kids get to school and top the lists of readers no matter what reading or literacy test you give them. They benefit from a reading teacher they can talk to about books, but they don’t need them. They know how to teach themselves. And kids who don’t catch fire in their reading ability thanks to an enthusiastic and gifted kindergarten, first, or second-grade teacher are never going to learn to read for fun, or probably ever read anything not assigned by their boss with job-loss consequences ever again after leaving school. Some kids burdened with dyslexia, ADD, or even mental illness of some sort are never going to read at all… without intervention.
And high-stakes State tests that have been all the rage with Republican governments who want to prove teachers make too much money, don’t even measure reading skills and compare results to see how much kids have gained every single year. They don’t want to give teachers credit if they take it upon themselves to actually teach students to read better. That is not what capitalist economies want to measure. They prefer to see how well students conform to norms and standards… to make an obedient working class that doesn’t cost too much because they think for themselves.
But a good teacher teaches kids to read or read better. They do it in spite of the huge challenge. There are ways to do it.
Pictured in this post are four books that I have read aloud to my classes. And walked them through the stories with word banks, guided-reading worksheets, focused discussions about theme-setting-character and whatnot. I tricked them into caring about what happens to the main characters because you learn to care about them as people (meaning both the characters and the student readers who invest themselves in those characters.)
I have used these books to make students laugh, as when Mr. Sir is shooting at yellow-spotted lizards in Holes. And I have made them cry, as when the family learns how Tom was killed in the Battle of Shiloh in the book Across Five Aprils. And I have horrified them when it is revealed what happens to old people and defective babies in The Giver. You can literally make students love good books if you are willing to share them hard enough.
I have never tried to get students to read books literally naked as my Paffooney might be suggesting. I don’t think the school boards I have worked for would’ve liked that very much. But it is a triumph of teaching when you can get them to figuratively immerse themselves in books to that degree.
But teaching reading is something all schools need to be doing. And I have to tell you, they are not doing nearly enough anywhere in Texas. And maybe not in the rest of the United States either.. Now that I can teach no more… I am left despairing. But not because of lack of belief in kids and good books.
This book of mine is in a free-book promotion this weekend.
A lot of my artwork has to do with students and teachers, and of course, the schools they attend. I wonder where this obsession came from?
There’s a lot of science fiction elements in school. After all, we are preparing students for the future.
It is hard to tell just by looking whether this school is in the past or in the future. The secret is, this illustrates a science fiction novel I haven’t written yet. It is on another planet three thousand years in the future.
This picture of one of my last high school ESL classes is not realistic. Students are far more cartoonish than they are pictured here.
Of course, school is not about the teachers. It is about the students.
These two are Blueberry Bates and Mike Murphy.
They are fictional people.
But they are based on three different seventh grade couples I taught in Texas.
One set actually grew up and married each other.
You know how you can tell that this school is from science fiction? The student in the picture is actually a robot who looks human.
Teachers are not supposed to fall in love with students. Of course, when the school district tells you that, at the beginning of the year, they are talking mostly about high school students, and they are talking exclusively about romantic love. I have never had a real problem with that rule. Romantically, little half-brained and totally immature middle school students are downright icky. Especially the walking, talking, and sometimes farting middle school boys.
But schools, even though they can’t really say it, and some administrators don’t believe they want it to be so, they want teachers to have “teacher love” for students. That means, in a vaguely defined way in administrative brains compatible with the real meaning of “fully funded,”that they want teachers to become surrogate mothers and fathers to students, the kind of love you have for an orphan you have adopted because you can plainly see they need someone… anyone… to love them and care for them… no matter how ugly they might be on the outside.
“To be a good teacher, you gotta learn to love ugly,” Head Principal Watkins said to us all for the two years he managed to love our faculty. And he meant it. I was not the only teacher I heard him tell, “You are a wonderful teacher because you care about kids.” And he meant it. Not like most principals.
But when you see a picture of David, the way he was back then, you can see he was not ugly. Just his situation was ugly.
He was one of six kids that lived with his single mother in the housing project for low-income families. His mother had, at the time the principal called me into his office, been cited by authorities twice for neglect of her children.
“Mike, I know you have mentored and helped several kids outside of school. And we have a boy coming into your seventh grade class that we would like for you to help out however you can. We know you went through the whole social-services and foster-parent training from San Antonio. And David Gutierrez could really use a bit of a boost from you,” the Head Principal told me behind closed doors.
Boy, was that ever an understatement. I was spending considerable time hanging out with the pretty blond reading teacher. The first time I cooked for her, fried hamburgers and instant mashed potatoes, David had a plate already at the tiny table in my little apartment. And, skinny little thing that he was, he ate three quarters of all the food I had badly cooked. Annabel didn’t mind. And not because the burgers were burnt and the potatoes were runny… I am still not a great cook. She would become David’s second mom for those next three years. She gave him as much if not more “teacher love” than I did.
He was not a good student in any of his classes. But he was an adequate reader, and he actually improved noticeably in the time he was hanging out with us.
But he gave us a turn during that first fall when he got sick. He had the seventh grade History teacher first period every morning. And one day in October he reported to class all listless and red-eyed, And Mrs. Finch was a sharp and capable teacher, knowing what drug problems looked like, and what they didn’t look like. She sent him to the nurse. It was a fever of one-hundred-and-three degrees. The parent was called, but the parent didn’t answer. So, immediately after school Annabel and I took him directly from the nurse’s office to the doctor. And after it was determined he had a bad sinus infection, we took him to my place and put him in the spare bedroom (all apartments on North Stewart Street were two-bedroom, but there was only one of me.) Annabel stayed with him while I filled the prescription for antibiotics. We got him dosed and rested at least before his mother returned from her cleaning job in Laredo, sixty miles south. We told her everything that happened. And she took him home. His two older sisters took over nursing duty.
But when the school contacted the doctor, it was explained that the infection was severe mainly because David was malnourished and dangerously anemic. Of course, that was evidence of neglect and had to be reported.
In order to avoid having to give up custody to the State his mother moved him to Laredo, closer to her work. Both of the older sisters, Bunny and Bea had advised their Mom to give him to Annabel and me. But, of course, we were not married and in no position to become his actual parents.
So, David spent two months in Laredo, calling me every night from a pay phone. His grades in school tanked. He was miserable and lonely.
The problem was worked out in David’s family. His older brother sent money every month to his two older sisters. And Bunny had a job and kept the apartment in Cotulla for herself. So, as a compromise, since Bea was already living there with Bunny to attend high school, David came back to live with them, along with his younger sister. They returned to the school where all their friends were.
Through the rest of David’s seventh grade until the end of high school he was like a son to me. He was constantly at my place, playing computer games, watching VHS movies, and charming my girlfriend. (Annabel had the apartment next door for three of the next four years.) I played games with him. I fought with him about getting his homework done. I basically did the Dad-thing for him, something no other man had ever been bothered to do. In later years he would work as a substitute teacher for me. He would introduce me to new girlfriends. And the last time I saw him, in Uncle Moe’s Mexican Restaurant, he introduced his pregnant wife to me and my wife.
In Hebrew, the name David means, “Beloved.” Hence, that’s the only part of his name in this essay that is real.
I have never been an attention-seeker. In the Elysian Fields of modern society, I have never really been the honeybee. I have always been the flower. I had a reputation in high school for being the quiet nerd who ends up surprising you immensely in speech class, at the science fair, or at the art show. I was the one they all turned to when everybody in the conversation had already had their chance to strut and pontificate and say dumb things, and they were finally ready to get the solution to the problem being discussed, or the best suggestion on where to begin to find it.
When I became the teacher of the class instead of the student, I had to make major changes. I had to go from being patient, quiet, and shy to being the fearless presenter, forceful, sharp as an imparter of knowledge, and able to be easily understood, even by the kids whom you couldn’t legally call stupid, but were less than smart, and not in a pleasant Forrest Gump sort of way.
Shyness is only ever overcome by determination and practice. The standard advice given is to picture your audience naked so that you are not intimidated by them. But if your audience is seventh graders, you have to be extra careful about that. They are metaphorically naked all the time, ready at a moment’s notice to explode out of any metaphorical clothing they have learned to wear to cover the things that they wish to keep to themselves about themselves. And while you want them to open up and talk to you, you don’t want the emotional nakedness of having them sobbing in front of the entire class, or throwing things at you in the throes of a mega-tantrum over their love-life and the resulting soap operas of betrayal and revenge. And you definitely don’t want any literal nakedness in your classroom. (Please put your sweat pants back on, Keesha. Those shorts are not within the limits of the dress code.) Calling attention to yourself and what you have to say, because you are being paid to do so, is a critical, yet tricky thing to do. You want them looking at you, and actually thinking about what you are saying (preferably without imagining you naked, which they will do at any sort of unintentional slip or accidental prompting.) The ones who ignore you are a problem that has to be remedied individually and can eat up the majority of your teaching time.
I trained myself to be fairly good at commanding the attention of the room.
But now that I am retired, things have changed. I can still command attention in the room, which I proved to myself by being a successful substitute teacher last year. But I no longer have a captive audience that I can speak to five days a week in a classroom. Now my audience is whoever happens to see this blog and is intrigued enough by the title and pictures to read my words.
Now that I am retired and only speaking to the world at large through writing, I am ignored more than ever before. Being ignored is, perhaps, the only thing I do anymore. It is the new definition of Mickey. Mickey means, “He who must be ignored. Not partially, but wholly… and with malice.”
I put my blog posts on Facebook and Twitter where I know for a fact that there are people who know me and would read them and like them if they knew that they were there. But the malevolent algorithms on those social media sites guarantee that none of my dozens of cousins, old school friends, and former students will see them. Only the single ladies from Kazakhstan and members of the Butchers Union of Cleveland see my posts. Why is this? I do not know. Facebook and Twitter ignore me when I ask.
My books, though liked by everybody who has actually read and responded to them, are lost in a vast ocean of self-published books, most of which are not very good and give a black eye to self-published authors in general. I recently got another call from I-Universe/Penguin Books publishers about Catch a Falling Star, the one book I still have with them. They are concerned that my book, which is on their Editor’s Choice list, is not performing as well as their marketing people think it should. But to promote it, I would have to pay four hundred dollars towards the marketing campaign, even though they are already subsidizing it by fifty percent. They tell me they believe in my book. But apparently not enough to pay for 100% of the promotion.
I have decided to invest in a review service that will cost me about twenty dollars a month. But my confidence is not high. The last time I paid somebody to review a book, they reviewed a book with the same title as mine from a different author. That service still owes me money.
But the only reason it is a problem that I am being thoroughly ignored these days is that an author needs to be read to fulfill his purpose in life. Maybe pictures of pretty girls in this post will help. But, even if they don’t, well, I had their attention once upon a time. And since my purpose as a teacher is already fulfilled, perhaps that will be enough for one lifetime.
I don’t wish to forget anything… ever. But increasingly I can no longer call things to mind as swiftly as I could when I was younger. I constantly now find myself unable to recall names of old movie stars I loved as a boy, dates of Civil War battles that I studied at length in the ’90s, the names of former school teachers that I had when I was a boy, and those I worked with as a colleague in the 1980’s. I fear reaching the point my father is now at, not being able to remember my own children.
Last night I had a nightmare about being a substitute teacher. I remember in the dream finishing a first-period class that was not the teacher I was covering for, because the sub-coordinator does that during the teacher’s planning period, using you in classrooms where no sub showed up. And I left that classroom feeling good about the class, but suddenly not able to remember where the classroom was that I was supposed to be teaching in next. I remember going into the office, one unlike any school office I have ever been in. The secretary behind the front desk recognized me by name. Then she asked me why I forgot to sign in that morning. I couldn’t remember. She asked me who I was subbing for. I had forgotten. I didn’t know her name or recognize her face either, something that never happens in a school you work at even for a single day. Secretaries actually run schools telling both teachers and principals what to do and where to go. The secretary was beginning to get irritated with me. I told her I must be having a bad spell. And then I woke up in a sweat.
That dream will probably never come true. I will probably never walk into a classroom as the teacher again, even as a sub, thanks to this horrid pandemic.
But I am having anxiety about forgetting in a very telling way.
I must confess that every illustration for this post was chosen because I saw the picture in my media gallery for this site and realized I did not remember posting these or even making the one at the start of this essay which is two different drawings put together with photoshop.
But I do have one small ace up my sleeve for dealing with serious forgetfulness. I have seven years worth of posts to look back on. That should help me remember a thing or two about… wait, what was this post about?
Rule #2 : Raise your hand to talk or leave your seat!
That rule was one of the two classroom rules broken most often in my classroom. The other was Rule #3 : Be respectful to everyone. Fortunately #2 was a rule that could be enforced without immediate detention, or a trip to the principal, or a call to the parents… Or being buried in the sand up to your neck so ants could eat your head. (And I almost never had to use that last option on #3 either.)
Kids in a classroom, especially the middle school ones between 12 and 15, are never going to be completely quiet in the classroom for the entire 45 to 55 minutes. And, truthfully, you don’t want them to be.
You see, no kid I ever taught learned only by sitting and listening. And I found that kids who actually learned from the talking teacher were rare, weird birds indeed.
If a question needs to be answered for a kid to learn something, the answer must never come from the teacher’s mouth. If the teacher says the answer, no matter what source it came from, it has only passed through the teacher’s brain. And no kid in the classroom got even a glimmering ghost of a learning sparkle going off in their own personal brain where the learning must take place.
As an example;
Fabian Castellano comes waddling in the classroom door at the beginning of 2nd Period 7th Grade English.
“Hey, Mr. B, are aliens real?” he shouts before even sitting down, let alone raising his hand.”
“What’s Rule #2, Fab?” A puzzled look briefly crosses his pudgy face. Then he grins and throws up one fat little arm.
“My cousin Rodrigo from Laredo said a flying saucer landed in his back yard, and a little green guy hopped out and said, “Hi, Roddy! I am called the Great Gazoo. And I have orders to make you king of the world for three days so you can learn important lessons about how your world really works.” And then he said… something I forget…” and then Fabian takes a deep breath. “So, are aliens real?”
“Are you talking about your cousin, Roddy Lopez? The one they call Liar Lopez?”
“Yeah, that’s him.”
“And has he ever told you a lie before?”
“Like when he told me that if I stuck jelly beans in my ears, the 6th Grade girls would all tell me I’m sweet and they want to kiss me? Yeah.”
“And does he ever watch a cartoon called The Flintstones? Where there’s a little green alien named Gazoo who makes wishes come true?”
“So, is anything Roddy tells you proof that aliens are real?”
“No, probably not.”
So, here you see the lesson in logical reasoning going on in the student’s head, not the teacher’s head. This is what is known as the Socratic Method.
So, Rule #2 is not really about keeping classrooms quiet and discussions orderly. It is entirely about enforcing the teacher’s will upon the classroom, suggesting strongly to the students that the teacher is totally in charge of behavior in the classroom, a thing that is not even remotely true, unless the teacher gets them to believe it by endlessly repeating the rule.
But you do have to talk to kids as a teacher. How else would I know anything about the infamous Liar Lopez and his love of cartoons? How else am I going to teach anything at all to a chubby vato loco like Fabian?
You gotta make the evil little hyperactive monkey heads raise those hands!
When I was a rookie teacher in the Spring of 1982, I had to take two busloads of eighth graders nearly a hundred miles to see the State Capitol in Austin for their annual 8th Grade Field Trip.
If you don’t see the potential for disaster in that, well, you are in for a tougher life going forward than the one I am about to complain about.
Anyway, it was an extra-warm sunny Texas day and we had an endless-hours journey in an un-air-conditioned bus with sixty kids and four teachers per bus. And I was the new teacher filled with sizzling rage from enduring eight months and fourteen days worth of get-the-new-teacher tricks by fourteen-and-fifteen-and-sixteen-year-old kids (I didn’t have to rage at the eighteen-year-olds on the field trip because the same things that kept them in the eighth grade until they were eligible for Medicare were the things that disqualified them from going on the field trip). And because the principal was convinced that you could prevent death by throwing things on a bus by having a teacher sitting near the perpetrator, or the potential target, the teachers had to spread out and sit with the kids. Of course, our bus had 59 perpetrators and one potential target (Tomasso, the kid nobody could stand). And the coaches got to sit by the vatos locos most likely to fling metal and hard food. I, of course, got Tomasso.
So, I sat for five hours on the way up to Austin practicing trying to kill apple-core tossers with my best teacher’s stink-eye while ducking gum wads, wrapper balls, and half-eaten Rice-Krispies Treats. And I was also listening to Tomasso’s endless weird questions and comments about penguins that made him the popular target. I got extra practice recognizing bad words in Spanish and resisting the urge to call them “pendejos” in return.
And we got to Austin tired, sweaty, and hungry because it took extra time in both San Antonio and San Marcos traffic, and we missed our lunch connection in a parking lot in central Austin. The kids were mostly not hungry. They were full of chips and hot Cheetos and other salty, unhealthy snack food. Instead of hunger, they were dying of thirst. And while the History teacher in charge of the trip and the coaches were consulting maps and trying to reach the lunch connection with a walkie talkie, I spotted a herd of students going over a wall into a nearby parking garage. I followed to see them walking over the hoods of parked cars to get to a fire hose that they were using as a watering hole.
We were, of course, unable to single out any individuals for punishment. They were dying of thirst, and it was a three-hundred-degree-in-the-sunshine parking lot where we were waiting.
We got to the Capitol and walked around, bored by the tour guide, and found the one entertaining fact about the Texas Capitol Building. Governor Hogg once had two daughters named Ima and Ura. Their pictures hang in an upstairs display case. Kids laughed and called them “pendejos”. Even the white kids.
Then, the way home took an additional seven hours. All of the coaches fell asleep on the way home, and I was the only teacher awake and standing between unpopular nerds and death by de-pantsing. I was told that somewhere in the middle of the writhing masses of eighth grade arms and legs and ultra-loud voices, a shy kid the teachers all liked lost his virginity to one of the more sexually aggressive girls while the other kids close enough to see in the general darkness watched. Was it true? When he got asked in the classroom, he just grinned.
I remember a lot of “Oops!” School Stories happening on field trips. I went on more than twenty of the big trips like that one, and I only remember a handful that went smoothly. But this one stands out in my memory because it was the first. And first experiences set the standard the rest are judged by. And I tell you this because, this time of year, if things were still like they used to be, and there was no pandemic, field trips to hell like that one would be going on for first-year teachers.
It has been my intention for a while now to tell funny stories on Friday. Specifically, funny stories about being a teacher and dealing with kids, the thing I know best in life. But, with the things that have happened, the pandemic, the screwball gangster President and his Friday follies, ill health, and other things pressing on my mind, I have failed rather badly.
So, bear with me (pun intended) as I give it another try with a story about Hope and Beauty.
Going back to the last millennium, in the year 1996, I had one solitary class of sixth grade English while teaching mostly seventh graders in a school building that was being renovated while we were learning within it. Often to the sound of electric drills and hammering. (A new wing was being added as our junior high school of grades 7 and 8 was being magically transformed by a school grant, and the addition of 6th graders, to become a middle school.
Esperanza and Bonita were the leaders of that sixth grade class. Fourteen kids, 7 girls and 7 boys. Esperanza and Bonita were the leaders because they were the two biggest 6th graders in the whole school. Not biggest by weight, the fattest boy in 6th grade was also in that class. The most mature. Bonita was hoping to go out for boys’ football in seventh grade, because she had been told that girls had won the right in court to play football if they wished. And she loved to tackle boys. The midgets in that 6th grade class were all terrified of her. One of the midgets spent his 6th-grade days pining in the back row to sit next to her but was too afraid to ever tell her that.
Esperanza and Bonita were best friends, and they were also the two best students in my class. They sat side by side in the front row. They would answer every single question in class if I let them. Of course, I didn’t let them. I got as much of a laugh out of other students’ wrong answers as they did. They were merciless about every goof Sammy Sanchez made, but Sammy had a good sense of humor about it, and I swear, he made some mistakes on purpose just because he loved to hear Esperanza laughing. She was probably the prettiest girl in 6th grade and had an equally pretty laugh. (That is not, of course, Sammy’s real name. I protect students’ real names in my writing. But the double S’s in his name were paired with the word “Stupid” in real life.) I was fond of both girls. And most of the time they were fond of me too.
“You’re my favorite teacher,” Esperanza once told me. “It’s because we can really talk about stuff in your class. Not just book stuff. But real-life stuff.”
Most of the “stuff” she meant was in journal writing that they did at the beginning of class. That is where I learned that she was a virgin. And it was where I advised her that it was entirely up to her when she gave it up and to whom. I told her no boy had the right to pressure her into doing anything she didn’t want to do. I gave similar advice to the boy in question privately after school, and he was actually a bit relieved to get the advice. I know that I was overstepping boundaries to give such advice. But they both believed that nobody else would ever be told about it. I was the only one who read that journal entry, and they knew that. And I have never told it until now, a fact about which you still don’t know the real names to go with it.
That class wanted badly to have a “class party” after Spring Break when the year was winding down. I only agreed if they would turn it into a learning experience. So, Esperanza and Bonita took charge. They planned and executed the lesson; “How to make and appreciate different kinds of Mexican Food”. The two of them taught it. Bonita was in charge of discipline. Esperanza taught us about all the ingredients in her aunt’s prize-winning sopapillas. Sammy gave us a memorable and even remotely possible run-down on how Doritos were probably made. And Max, the white kid, shared his Grandma’s recipe for German chocolate cake. You can’t get better Mexican food than that. And a certain mournful midget got to sit next to Bonita while they ate cake.
Both girls were in my class for two more years after that. I had the honor of being their teacher in both the seventh and the eighth grade.
As an eighth grader, Bonita broke my heart with a story she wrote about forgiving her stepfather for beating her in the third grade. It was a beautiful story. But I was torn. Teachers, by law, have to report child abuse. But Bonita pointed out that the man no longer lived with her, and besides, the assignment was to write a fiction story. (I never told anybody but my wife about my being sexually assaulted at the age of ten at that point in my life, but it was the reason I could clearly see what was true and what was fiction.) That story made more than just me cry.
And in the end, Bonita never got a chance to play boys’ football in middle school… or high school either. The boys eventually got bigger, and she didn’t. But that was a good thing too. Bonita at linebacker… the boys would never have survived it.
I will end by letting you in on a secret. In Spanish, Esperanza means “Hope,” and Bonita means “Little Pretty One,” or even “Beauty.”