“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]