The Magic of a Re-Admit

I arrived at my empty classroom and started rehearsing. It was my first day teaching a college class, and I felt the need for a dramatic opening line. I waited until my English 101 students had all filed in and sat down. I probably cleared my throat. “Ladies and gentleman, from this room you can go anywhere.” So an hour into my new career, and I had already walked away with the Full-of-Yourself Award.

For the first few weeks, my classes hummed along, and I believed my own hype. Then in the second month, several students dropped out. Then a few more disappeared. I liked the word “attrition” because it made it easier to forget their faces: The quiet, studious kid, who took copious notes but never came back when the paper was due. The young man who worked the night shift and couldn’t get out of bed for class. The ones who ran out of money or succumbed to their addictions or didn’t want to be there in the first place.

I blamed myself. A colleague, who had long since stopped taking it personally, took me aside and said, “Look, this is community college. Lots of kids bail.”

It didn’t help.

When I added tutoring in the college’s Writing Center a few hours a week, it became a panacea. I no longer got involved in students’ lives. In and out they filed, wanting an hour of my time, just a little slice of my expertise. “Can you help me fix this paper?” they’d say, and I would, and then the next person would sit down.

On the morning I met Annie, I spotted her leaning against the doorway, deciding if she should enter. Her head was shaved on one side, showing off dozens of piercings on her left ear. She wore army fatigue pants and thick black boots. A tee shirt tight across her chest bore the name and logo of a rock band I’d never heard of, for good reason. As she sat down, I realized she was anxious. She pushed three sheets of paper across the table and said nothing.

I started reading. Sometimes students plagiarized and made it easy for me. I could just hand it back to them and say something like, “Uh…William Faulkner wrote this,” and they would feign disgust and storm out.

But Annie’s essay didn’t have the telltale hints that it had been lifted from someone else. It was her work, and (okay, by community college standards) it was brilliant. Not only had she written this little gem, but she wanted to make it better. I didn’t want to fix everything. I wanted her to come back. The next week she showed up early.

Annie was a “re-admit,” someone who had dropped out years ago, and was now giving it another try. Tutoring was bumpy in those first few weeks. At times she seemed so frustrated with herself that I was afraid she’d give up and be sucked back into her old life. I lost track of how often I reached for clichés about Rome being built. But every Tuesday and every Thursday, there she’d be at the door. And then she’d step in and get to work.

After a few months, she was still coming to the Writing Center, but I was running out of things to teach her. One day the Director of the Center, a woman who’d been teaching community college students for thirty years, sat at the next table waiting for her appointment to show (or not). Annie and I were working on her latest paper. I leaned over, and, as casually as I could muster, said to the director, “Would you mind looking at this?”

I watched her eyes get bigger as she read. She looked at Annie and asked, “Did you write this?” Annie nodded.

She smiled. “Then we need to find you a better college.”

That would come, and when it did, it would be on a full scholarship. From there she was accepted into an English PhD program at a university. If she cared — and I’m not sure she did — she now had all the trailing ivy and Gothic towers she could ever want. She kept in touch. I was no longer qualified to give her advice on anything she was writing. That elated me.

When her dissertation was finished, she landed the only teaching position she wanted. Every fall, I picture the first day of the semester there, her nervous students waiting for their professor, in a classroom two doors down from the Writing Center. No grand and bloated opening line for Annie. All she has to say is, “I have a story to tell you.” And I bet that’s just the way it happens.

 

A Teacher’s Regrets

I was 23 and had landed a job as a teacher in Skaneateles, NY, a village that sits at the northern tip of one of the pristine Finger Lakes. I didn’t know much, but fresh from college, I didn’t know that yet.

I learned quickly that there were village kids and there were the farm kids. There were deep pockets of old money. And just as many folks on the outskirts of town scraping by.

Marcus Pendell was a student in my first class, a third generation farmer. Of all the absurdities of life, it turns out that he has been a grownup for a couple of decades now, and I’m on my way to visit him and his wife and kids. You get to do stuff like this when you become a “teacher of a certain age” and you’re now part of the nostalgia that takes over 50 year-olds’ lives. And yes, my former students are in their fifties.

I picture what Marcus might look like, and realizing he farms so close to a village known for its good taste and style, I wonder if he’s turned into one of those celebrity farmers, the ones who talk about sustainable sourcing and charcuterie. They show up on glossy magazine covers. They wear suede jackets. They pose in a field of flowers, holding a jar of honey, or with both arms outstretched, full of chanterelles.

By the last turn onto his land, I can tell I won’t be seeing organic herbs or morels today. Just a hunch he won’t be wearing anything from the J. Peterman catalogue.

Two German shepherds announce us as the car pulls up to the house at the top of a dusty hill. Marcus’s wife is waiting and she shoos away the dogs from under our feet. This is a dairy farm. Cows. Milk. Knee-high rubber boots from Sears.

“He’s still a man of few words,” his wife laughs, “but he’s excited to see you again.”

We wait in the kitchen, and after a few minutes, Marcus bounds into the room through the sliding door off the back deck. He’s still big and burly, now with a dark beard. He wears one of those big caps farmers wear with the name of a seed company on it. We hug.

He says, “You look exactly the same except you have short hair now.” I laugh. Then we both laugh. He was 11 the last time I saw him.

We start our farm tour by climbing into his big pickup. I’m still processing the idea he’s all grown up. That he could — if he wanted to — shave. He may be processing that I need a hand getting myself into and out of his truck. I can’t tell.

And then, sort of out of nowhere, he says, “I never forgot the first day in your class.”

I’m surprised by this because I don’t remember much at all.

“Tell me,” I say.

Apparently I had written on the black board: Write a composition about what you did over summer vacation. Marcus tells me he looked at the instructions and thought, Well, I didn’t do anything over the summer — milk, cut hay, clean the barn, feed cows, deliver calves — nothing. He figured it was going to be one of those years.

He sighed. He began writing. His opening line was “I’m a farmer.”

He says I collected the compositions, sat down at my desk and started reading them aloud. The one I read right before Marcus’s was written by someone whose family owned a 30-foot sailboat.

Then I turned to his. I read his opening line and stopped. I said, “Where is Marcus?” He tells me this was the worst thing I could have said because everyone knew who he was, and everyone (even the ones I thought were nice girls, he tells me) had made fun of him somewhere along the way since kindergarten precisely because he was a farmer. He raised his hand, but he knew no one would laugh because it was the first day of school and they all wanted to get on my good side.

He tells me I looked straight at him and said, “A farmer! Wow. You’re a farmer.”

 

This is the life of a teacher. Once in a while, you get stories like the one Marcus is telling me.

But once in a while it goes this way: You send a friend request on Facebook to another child-now-grown-up who also spent a whole year with you. And the person sends you a terse reply, letting you know in his first sentence that his memories are not warm. They’re not pleasant, or inspiring, or even mediocre. And even though a Facebook friend is not a real friend, he has no intention of being yours. It was something you said, trying to be funny, maybe, but he heard it as unkind. Maybe it was.

You want to go back and make it all better. At the very least you want to remember saying it, but you don’t. He is all grown up, with children of his own. But he still remembers what you said. You write a long apology back, and you hope maybe he will forgive you. You never hear from him again.

 

“Watch your step here,” Marcus says.

He is about to answer a question I just asked about tractors, but he stops instead and says, “I was proud that day, that first day, when you read my composition and asked all those questions about being a farmer. Thank you for that.”

Even in this moment — pretty much a teacher’s dream — I think of telling Marcus about the other boy. I want to let myself off the hook, maybe, by saying, “Too many kids, too many moments, too many words for all of them to end well.” But I’m still too sad about the kid who hates me to even talk about him.

“We better get back to the house,” Marcus says. Lunch is probably ready.”

The year he was in my class, Marcus taught me about farming. He schooled me — the suburban girl who didn’t know field corn from sweet. Lots of times he’d arrive in class and tell me about the calf he’d helped deliver a few hours before. I was always breathless during his lessons. I took more than I gave. He was always the teacher, though neither of us knew it then.

I want to thank him for being a kinder one, a better one, but I don’t. We go inside to wash up for lunch.

“You got a boyfriend?”

Auburn is not just any city in central New York, and I found that out on my first day of student teaching. There is a maximum-security prison right in the middle of town. It was built in 1812 and takes up square city blocks, its walls and guard towers made of forbidding gray stone. When it rains, huge black splotches appear on the walls, making it look even more ominous. Auburn Correctional Facility is famous for being the site of the first electrocution in the United States, which, I thought, might be hard to get behind in the hometown pride department. But the prison comes up a lot in conversations.

A bell rang and the kids swarmed in and took their seats. They stared at me as Mr. Donatelli went through a solemn introduction of their new student teacher, making me sound like I had lots of reform school experience. One of the kids thought Miss DeMers sounded like Mr. Mers and blurted out, “You a man or a woman?” and his audience erupted in laughter, because for all the things I was not in 1973, a man would have been at the top of the list even to the most casual observer. Mr. Donatelli quickly showed me the way this was handled in his world.

After lunch, one of the boys feigned a question he already knew the answer to, and took advantage of having me all to himself as we stood in the back of the classroom. After I gave him a much too-long answer to whatever his fake question was, he scanned my body up and down and his gaze lingered at my breasts.

“You got a boyfriend?”

I don’t remember what I said, but I’ll bet money it had the word appropriate tucked into it.

He backed down, like all of a sudden he remembered he was ten and not his 13 year-old brother, who was most certainly getting some. Mr. Donatelli gave me a thumbs up from across the room.

When I got to school for my second day, Mr. Donatelli was already in the classroom.

“Well, you’re on your own! You know where I am if you need me, but I don’t think you will.” And he whistled as he walked to the faculty lounge with the newspaper under his arm.

We never knew when, but one day a week Mrs. Ambrose, the student-teacher supervisor from Cortland, would show up for a surprise observation. Never knowing when she’d pop up, Mr. Donatelli and I had a scheduled sit-down every Monday morning before the first bell.

He’d start by saying, “So how was your weekend?”

Since I was spending weekends back in Cortland cozied up with my boyfriend, doing things I knew Mr. Donatelli had never dreamed of, I usually went with, “Great! How was yours?”

His wife cooked Italian on weekends, and he took his dogs for long walks, so pasta and the weather usually headlined his recaps. Then we’d get down to a review of the previous week, and by that I mean he would say, “So how did things go last week?” and I’d assure him Piaget couldn’t have done a better job.

He’d say, “Alrighty, then!” and give me his sweet, toothy grin. And then I’d wait for Mrs. Ambrose to appear out of nowhere. Sometimes, if the gym teacher was holding his class outside and he’d see her car pull up, he’d send a kid running up to my classroom ahead of her with a note: “Eagle has landed.”

Most times, though, Mrs. Ambrose would just appear. She was forty years into her job, without a hair out of place and a purse to match every pair of shoes she owned. After she sat down in the back and smoothed out her skirt, she would rip a piece of paper out of her notebook and fold it in half with (+) on one side and (–) on the other. And for twenty minutes she’d watch your every move and take copious notes. You tried not to notice if she was writing on the left or right side of the page.

Afterwards Mr. Donatelli would pop back into the room to give Mrs. Ambrose time to critique me in private. He seemed to show off a little as he strode in with, “Hi, boys and girls!” Maybe he wanted to stay on her good side so he’d continue to get a stream of student teachers. Maybe he was just happy to see the kids after another week of seclusion in the faculty lounge.

I’d thank her for the feedback, although at least half of the time I thought she was sadly out of touch when it came to the pulse of young children, of which I was now an expert. These sessions tended to end abruptly, like she had to get extra time in with poor Patsy Rossi, who lately was breaking into hives as the first bell rang. But then one day she paused.

“There’s one more thing, Linda. I just found out about an opening for September. Fifth grade. It’s in Skaneateles, right down the road. I’ve arranged for you to interview on Monday. I told the principal there you’re my strongest candidate, so don’t let me down.”

I had the job a week later. And just like that my bravado evaporated.

 

[Next Thursday: A Teacher’s Regrets in Skaneateles, NY]

Student Teacher In Search of an Orange

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]

“Hi, Kid. This is Miss.”

My daughter’s favorite story is one she calls “Daniel’s Rock.” A far cry from Frosty the Snowman, it is one I can count on being asked to recite as Christmas approaches. It begins when she’s picked up the small rock that sits on the southeast corner of my desk and has nestled herself in my lap.

The opening words never change. “The last time I ever saw Daniel, he gave me this rock and told me about his boxes. It was a long time ago, before you were born.”

Daniel entered my life when I was a teacher. Before entering the room, he leaned against the doorjamb of Room 202, where I taught 5th grade. For a moment, he just eyed all of us. Blond bangs obscured half his face. His sneakers and checkered shirt were too big for him. His jeans had rips in the knees.

He had made his entrance in the school of a quaint lakeside village. Slate walkways, brass mailboxes, Williamsburg-colored shutters.

Daniel told me his last school had been in a neighboring county. “We were doin’ peaches there.” Before that it had been an hour south, he told me matter-of-factly, as if he’d given this little speech plenty of times. “We were doin’ onions then.”

And then, maybe because of all his practice at this, he simply smiled and became — because he had no time to waste — a part of the class. If he saw anyone snicker at his unfortunate wardrobe choices, he did not show it. Until the afternoon kickball game, the boys eyed him suspiciously.

Daniel led off the first inning with a strong kick that earned him an effortless home-run jog around the bases. With that came a modicum of respect.

Next it was Charles’s turn. He listlessly approached the plate. Charles was the least athletic, most overweight child in 5th grade that year. After his second strike and accompanying eye rolls and muffled groans of the class, Daniel edged up and spoke quietly to Charles’s dejected back.

“Forget them, Kid, you can do it.”

Charles warmed, smiled, pulled in his chest and then struck out anyway. But it was that precise moment — oblivious to the social order of this jungle he had just entered — that Daniel gently began to change things. He taught by example only. By November, we would all be gravitating toward him. He taught us how to call a wild turkey. How to tell if fruit was ripe before you bite into it. How to treat each other, even Charles. Especially Charles.

He still didn’t know any of our names. He referred to me as “Miss,” when he needed to. He called every other person in the room “Kid.”

The day before Christmas vacation arrived that year with the class bearing gifts for their teacher. My style never varied much from year to year. I’d open the department store box and spout some effusive appreciation, always worrying that there would be a few kids whose parents couldn’t engage in this ritual.

Daniel stood off to the side, attempting a casual pose. He seemed slightly confused. Neither of us understood why I needed another silk scarf, but I pretended to.

That afternoon, he walked to my desk and bent low, close to my ear so only I would hear him.

“Our boxes came out last night,” he said without emotion. “We’ll be leavin’ soon.”

As I caught on, my eyes filled. He countered the awkward silence by telling me about the collection of boxes his family had accumulated over their years of transience.

“We got them good, sturdy ones,” he told me. “That way you don’t have to go to the liquor store for new ones. That way you’re set.”

A boy of few words, he went on at length until I swallowed hard and regained my composure. Then deliberately, and with great style, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a gray rock. He pushed it gently across my desk until it sat directly under my eyes.

Still blinking away tears, I was unsure what exactly I was looking at, although judging from the ceremony involved, I sensed it was something remarkable.

Without moving his eyes from mine, he said, “It’s for you. I found it this morning. I polished it up special.”

And the end of the story is always the same, too. “He’s a grownup now,” I tell my daughter. Together we wonder aloud where Daniel is now, what he looks like, and what kind of a person he has become.

It will be years before she realizes the story of Daniel’s rock is as much about me as anyone else — the lessons learned by the teacher. From the boy who lived month-to-month out of boxes, who never even knew her name.

“Do the end,” my daughter says. And she places the stone in my hand. I touch it gently, just the way it was given to me.

“Hi, Kid.” The same words every year. “This is Miss. Merry Christmas. I hope your boxes are finally gone.”