After my parents stopped squealing into the phone, my father asked, “How do you spell the name of the town? I want to find it on the map.”
I spelled it for them slowly — S-K-A-N-E-A-T-E-L-E-S — because it’s a tricky name you can’t do phonetically. I had snagged a teaching job, and I knew how lucky I was with the market so glutted in 1973.
I’d made the right impression in my hour interview with the principal — poised and enthusiastic — just the type of youthful energy he looked for because he sensed the teacher would work her heart out for the $8,000 a year salary. I doubted a hearty handshake and a dazzling smile were reasons to put someone in charge of a roomful of 5th graders, but I could sense from his enthusiasm that he didn’t.
Okay, maybe I wasn’t giving myself enough credit. For one thing, I found out in my last two years of college that if you went to class and didn’t cram a whole semester’s worth of reading into the night before your final, you could actually get decent grades. I couldn’t believe my high school guidance counselor hadn’t mentioned this.
My father went in search of the atlas because he couldn’t find Skaneateles on his New York State map. I started telling my mother my reservations about being ready to take this on.
“Oh, come on, you were a great student teacher!”
I remembered my mother’s stories of being a student nurse, how she had to practice giving shots into an orange before they let her have a person with a real arm. Sure, I hadn’t killed an orange during student teaching, but I still wasn’t ready to be let loose with actual kids either. After listening to more of my doubts, my mother let her voice trail off. I could tell she was done giving me reassurance and ready to hang up so she could call her friends and tell them, “Linda got a teaching job! Can you believe it? In this market?”
First of all, student teaching. I was assigned, along with two other students from Cortland, to a school in Auburn, NY. Like most student teachers, we thought we knew what we were doing until the moment we came face to face with an actual child. Then the real teacher went down the hall on some made-up errand to give you a few moments alone with the class, and they could smell fear all over your body, and things got dicey real fast. On Day 2 you were a lot more realistic, which in this case is a synonym for petrified.
My master teacher was Ron Donatelli, a twenty-year veteran. I waited excitedly for him in his classroom on my first day. I sat down on one of the chairs arranged in a circle in the back of the room, to see how it would feel to run a reading group, but it was one of those kid-sized chairs, and I realized my slip was showing just as I heard the doorknob turn. I tugged on my skirt and stood up quickly, not wanting Mr. Donatelli’s first glimpse of me to include lace.
“Hi there, Linda,” he said. “Think you’re ready for this?” As far as pedagogy went, Mr. Donatelli was partial to a Throw ‘Em to the Lions first day for student teachers. He would lean back a little and watch the hours unfold, and if you were still standing at 3 o’clock, you could count on riding solo for eight weeks.
For Mr. Donatelli, having a student teacher was a gamble he took once a year. If you got a loser, you made more work for yourself. But if you got someone who had control of your class, it was all worth it. You could reignite your passion for the Jumble and the Crossword in the back of The Auburn Citizen. You could check in with your mother in the nursing home using the teachers’ phone in the front office, and while you were there you could hang out and tell the secretary about the chicken cacciatore your wife made last night. Mr. Donatelli kept a calendar in his middle desk drawer where he drew Xs in each box and kept a running tally of how many days it would be until he could retire to Florida. He had just over 5,000 to go.
I fared better than the other new student teachers on our first day in the trenches. During lunch, a kid tripped Patsy Rossi and she fell against the leg of the cafeteria table and bruised her shin. From that point on, every kid who passed her made her flinch.
During Susan Werzbicki’s first science lesson ever, a boy threw a handful of 9-volt batteries out of the second-story window. She responded by crying, not a good look in front of her master teacher, a woman who had not been afraid of anything since 1948.
I was holding my own but desperately wishing I had an orange to practice on.
[Coming next Thursday: When a Fifth Grader Asks You Out]