Tuesday, March 01, 2016

A Job I Love

         It was not a stellar beginning. I never intended to be a teacher.
Mumps had put me in the college clinic the last two weeks of my senior year. I was quarantined and took my final exams in bed, completing my bachelor degree with majors in history and English and absolutely no idea of what I wanted to do the following year. 
One afternoon a good friend showed up at the door to the clinic with an application to the Peace Corps, which I had requested, but also a Teacher Corps application. I had never heard of the Teacher Corps. This federal program offered a master’s degree in education, he said, in exchange for spending two years teaching, taking classes at Marshall University, and doing community service in the hills of West Virginia. It sounded like a hoot to me, and a good way to spend my time while I searched for a vocation. So I filled out the application and sent it in. I wonder if I have ever licked a more consequential postage stamp in my life.
So a few weeks later I drove my brand new Opel Kadette to Huntington, West Virginia as a freshly minted National Teacher Corps Intern. After a summer of graduate classes and NTC training and orientation, I was placed in a small school on the banks of the Kanawha River where the mines had played out and the residents were mostly poor. I found myself drawn to the most desperate children: "Mike" whose closest brother had just been killed in an accident. "Leon" whose academic struggles required some after-school tutoring. His Mom would serve me supper in exchange for an hour of tutoring. "Paul" who lived in a one-room unpainted shack with a yard full of stove wood and rusting cars, and a magnificent fifty mile million-dollar view across the mountains. And tough "Jake", who turned out to have the same uncertainties and needs as the little guys, and he became a real leader in the boy’s club I organized in the community.  That was after I broke my resolution not to use corporal punishment and used the "Black Dragon" paddle on Jake's backside.
The second year the Teacher Corps expanded to a more remote site and I volunteered to join that group. Soon I was team teaching in a mountain school with only 56 children. My primary responsibilities were those six sixth-graders, but I also taught social studies to almost a dozen fifth-graders, and handled the physical education for the whole school. The cows grazing just outside the classroom windows could be a distraction. At lunch I could eat in the school cafeteria or I could take a dirt trail from the playground to the general store down the hill and buy a wedge hoop cheese and some crackers. When it rained hard the creeks were too deep at the fords for the bus to run and only half the students could make it to school. Once again I did some tutoring, this time for a homebound little girl who was battling leukemia.
I discovered over the course of those two years that I love working with children, had a talent for teaching, and that it was indeed a good way to pass the time until I could find my true calling. 
So when a principal, Judson Frost, called me up to offer a job in Rome, Georgia, I jumped at the chance and arrived at McHenry Elementary with a new degree, a new apartment, a new bride, and two-thirds of a classroom filled with 25 students depending almost entirely on Terrell Shaw for their fifth grade education. The other third of the classroom had been partitioned off for the reading teacher, who must have been frequently frustrated by the  interruptions from my noisy classroom by the total lack of sound insulation. Nor was there any other kind of insulation: we sweltered in August and, even though there was ice on the windows in January, because ours was first on the steam heat system, and to warm the last classroom ours had to continue to swelter.
When Pepperell Junior High took our assistant principal and our seventh and eighth grades, Mr. Frost called me into the office and offered me the post of assistant. I was surprised. I said I'd never considered getting into administration and asked what the job would entail."Well," he replied, "you receive a supplement of $400 for the year." That sounded good to me. Then he got to the nitty gritty. "You'll need to watch the late bus every day." Not a great duty. "And if you don't mind, I'd appreciate it if you could lead the prayer at PTO meetings." Well, I'm a Methodist preacher's kid. I could handle that. And $400 is $400. I accepted.
          I soon learned that Judson had neglected to tell me a few things:
• that every time the principal leaves the campus a child breaks a bone, or a parent gets upset with a teacher, or some unprecedented matter of discipline erupts.
• that the principal often leaves campus for meetings.
• that the principal takes a one week leave of absence each spring.
• and, most neglectfully, that he would die suddenly during the fourth year.

I spent six years teaching at McHenry, four of those as the teaching assistant principal. Add one year teaching sixth grade at Pepperell and eleven years roaming from school to school as a teacher of the gifted, and I had nineteen years in a profession that was not yet my calling. I liked teaching. At McHenry I had led a county wide study of teachers’ suggestions for improving the system. I was chosen as the school's Teacher of the Year. As a gifted teacher I had helped plan Sea Day at Floyd College, Quiz Bowl at Berry College, study trips to Savannah, Anniston, Huntsville, the World’s Fair, and Washington D.C. As a teacher of the gifted I was one of the first in our county to use computers regularly. 
With a background in writing and new-found skills with computers, I decided to try my hand at desktop publishing. My wife and I founded a local interest magazine and soon decided that we needed to give it full time, so I finally left teaching after nineteen years for my “real” calling. I spent eleven years with my struggling business, enjoying parts of it, but finally realizing that I missed the daily contact with children, hearing their laughs at the antics of the Foolish Frog (part of my storytelling repertoire), seeing pre-teen eyes light up at smelling a crushed wild ginger leaf, hearing the wows when I hold up a Lion’s Paw shell at the climactic moment in Robb White’s wonderful book, watching parents’ cameras flash at the end-of-year honors program.
So in 1999, at the age of 53, I made a profound decision. I decided my calling is to teach. I was fortunate to be hired to teach fourth grade at Armuchee Elementary. What a grand fourteen years I had knowing I was where I wanted to be. At 60 I had so many projects going that were I able to retire right away, I wouldn’t. I wanted to see them through. I enjoyed teaching. But in 2013, after agonizing indecision, I took the plunge and retired. And at my retirement party I was approached about the part-time job that has become my dream retirement occupation -- storyteller/naturalist at Arrowhead Environmental Education Center.
Whatever success I have had comes from my sincere love of students, my enthusiastic approach to living and learning, and probably a little from the incorrigible show-out in me.
As a teacher, every August a crisp new agenda book awaited 180 new entries. A couple of dozen freshly scrubbed nine-year-olds passed by the eight-by-ten glossies of their predecessor stars hanging on the wall outside our classroom. Bright-eyed, ready for a new start, these were my new stars. I loved them already. I relished the opportunity to tell them the stories of our wonderful country and help them explore the wonders of our beautiful world. And I was determined to be true to them, to be the outstanding teacher I aspired to be. I was determined to help them discover the star within themselves and to help them make it shine. I was truly blessed for more than a total of three decades to have a job that I loved.
In the third year of this new chapter I pinch myself occasionally. Am I dreaming? I haven't graded a set of papers in three years. I have no bus duty or cafeteria duty. No parent conferences. No standardized tests. They pay me, not much but they pay me, to lead young children through gorgeous woods and fields and by wetlands and lakes and streams and tell the stories of our glorious Ridge and Valley flora and fauna. I'm a lucky man.