I have the privilege of being a public school teacher. Or maybe I should use the word “cursed”. It is no easy thing to be a teacher in the modern world. Regressive State governments like Texas mandate that teachers do more with less. We have to have bigger classes. We have to show higher gains on State tests. We have to do more for special populations based on race, disability, language-learner status, and socio-economic status. Of course, we give money to private schools to be “fair” to all, so a majority of the well-funded and advantaged students are removed from the public school system, even though studies show that their presence in classes benefits everyone. When the majority of students are low-income in a single classroom, even the gifted minority perform less well. When higher-income students are at least fifty per-cent of the class, then even the low-income and learning disabled make higher gains than the minority gifted in the first example class. So, there’s my triple-downer bummer for this post. You might think that I would agree with Republicans in this State that the lower classes are not worth investing in. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The fact is, my fondest memories from thirty-one years as a public school teacher come from the downtrodden masses, the poor, the oddballs, the disadvantaged, and even the truly weird.
Okay, so here’s the funny and heart-warming part. I have a Hispanic English Language Learner right now who looks at the beard I have grown and calls me, “my friend Jesus”. I have to constantly remind him that, “If I were the son of God, my son, then I would be using lightning bolts for discipline a little more often.” He grins at me and answers, “Yes, my Jesus.” He’s a sneaky sort, more dedicated to games and messages on his i-phone than learning. He is more into working with the girls in small groups so that he can come out appearing much smarter without putting out very much actual work.
I remember one particularly challenged boy who didn’t talk in class at all. He could make sounds, however. Constantly during classes with this student in them, there would be numerous “meows” and birdcalls. Grunts and groans and whistles would fill the air. Most of the noises came from him. The ones that didn’t, came from those who imitated him. It reached a point that I was having to teach a classroom full of Harpo Marxes . When asked about it, he claimed he had a sore throat all the time and just couldn’t talk. Many of his teachers thought he was merely sabotaging class so he wouldn’t have to do any work. But just like when you put a harp in front of Harpo, this boy had hidden talents, and just was not being engaged on his own level. He was really quite bright if you could learn to communicate with him in Harpo Marxian.
I had another student who read all the existing Harry Potter books forward and backwards, and inside out. He even looked like the actor who played Harry in the movies, glasses and all. He was treated like a radioactive being by his classmates, and although he was charming and funny and had a natural talent for manga-style drawings of people, nobody seemed to treat him like a friend. (The paffooney picture I drew for this post was inspired by him.) He was a jovial loner. I was able to tap into his natural abilities for the Odyssey of the Mind creativity contests we participated in during the early 2000’s. I helped him find nerd friends who also knew all the words to the Spongebob Squarepants theme.
I have a Chinese girl in class who shared the Spongebob boy’s fascination with manga-style art. She’s a different bird all together. She gets my jokes and thinks I am funny. But she never laughs. She never even cracks a smile. She is so careful and complete in every assignment that it is very nearly painful to watch. Grades are serious matters to her. If her grade drops from 100 to 98, she wants to audit the teacher’s grade book to find out why. She does everything in class in beautifully crafted Chinese writing, and then translates it all word-for-word into English.
I owe my teaching career to kids like these. When I started my career in 1981 for $11,000 per year, I was employed by a school that had total disciplinary meltdown the year before. I had to deal with hostility, impossible behavior-modification tasks, fire crackers in the classroom, student fights, bullying, and a language/cultural gap wider than the Grand Canyon. That first year, I was planning to resign at the end of the year and try to figure out what else I could do with my life when a small Hispanic boy with a Scottish family name came up beside me on the playground one March day and said, “Mr. Beyer, I hope you know you are my favorite teacher. You are the reason I liked school this year.”
I didn’t let him see that there were tears in my eyes. I told him something about him being my favorite student. And I gave up thoughts about giving up. I lived the next thirty years of my career for him.