Related Content from And There Came A Day:
- Teacher Appreciation Week – Personal Journey Two
- Teacher Appreciation Week – Personal Journey One
- Best Teacher in Fiction
- Goodbye, Regis Jesuit or It Was 20 Years Ago Today
During this Teacher Appreciation Week 2016, I intend to share a memories of my years in teaching – some I’ve posted in years past and some new ones – if only to recall the moments that stand out and the moments that have somehow inspired me to press on.
To Be or Not to Bee
As a kid, I was allergic to many, many things. Dust mites. Animal fur. Penicillin. My own shadow. Many, many things. Because of that, I was certain that, if I ever got stung by a bee, I would swell up to the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and die. I avoided bees with the type of energy people normally reserve for avoiding cops.
Or the Ebola Virus.
I was in my classroom in the bowels of the building a few years back. This particular room was – the year before – literally the weight room. It was dank, dirty and dusty with cracks and crevices in the walls that opened to the outside world and admitted wind and rain and insects. More than a few.
I was teaching a class full of boys and I noted they were not riveted by my lecture on Hamlet’s use of the word “word” throughout the course of Hamlet. Can you imagine not being riveted by such a fascinating topic?
Right, me neither.
Regardless, I noted that their attention was wandering and, with great angst, tried to identify what was arresting them more than my brilliance.
It was a bee. A single bee flying around the room.
“C’mon, guys,” I said, “let’s focus up.”
My redirect helped for a moment, but the bee kept flying and the boys kept watching.
“Gentlemen,” forceful voice now, “pay attention.”
Again, they came back. Again they went. The damn bee kept flying. They kept watching.
Finally, I’d had enough.
“It’s just a bee,” I said, “it’s not going to kill you.”
A kid in the front row pointed: “It just few under your collar.”
Reaching back, I, stupidly, grabbed at the bastard and it stung me.
“SON OF A BITCH!” I yelled, throwing the now dead bee to the ground and stomping on it.
No one moved. I assessed my health. Was I alive? Were my hands swelling up? Was I developing numb tongue?
I think the boys were actually frightened. Everything hung suspended by the moment, the students, my breath, my considerations of my health …until I smiled. “You can laugh,” I said.
And laugh they did. How they did laugh.
You Want Me to Sign What Now?
I have been asked some odd questions in my years as a teacher. I mean really out there, where did that come from kind of questions. I am not including all the curriculum based questions – the totally out of nowhere questions about whatever subject is at hand in a given classroom – in this assessment, just the questions in the hallway, the questions a teacher receives because he or she is viewed as a mentor, the questions that come up as a matter of course.
I could list many of these sorts of inquiries but none of them, not a one of them, beats a question I was asked by a sophomore one afternoon as I was walking the hallways of our tiny, all girls Catholic high school my the Principal and the Assistant Principal. I was Dean of Students at the time. Rounding a corner we came upon a student who, for our purposes here, we will call Kylie.
Kylie was a great kid, full on energy and enthusiasm, warm and friendly and always in awe of the world around her. She would go on to be a member of the first graduating class of that all girls Catholic high school and I will always hold a special place in my heart for her and for the other members of her class because of that. I taught her in my English class and I knew her well.
“Mr. Dean,” she said that day, “can I ask you a question?”
“Sure, Kylie. What’s up?”
We all – the Principal, the A.P, Kylie and myself – we standing in front of the door to the Faculty Room before Kylie asked her question. After she asked it, in an instant, I was alone with her in the hall – my principal and the A.P. having disappeared into the Faculty Room to muffle their laughter.
The thin door didn’t do the trick.
“Mr. Dean, would you sign this card,” Kylie said, offering me what looked like a business card, “certifying I am a virgin?”
Though it took a moment for the question to sink in for me, it didn’t for my female colleagues who laughed as they disappeared.
“What did you say?” I said in full stammer.
Kylie, who was 15 going on 25 said, “will you sign a card saying that I am a virgin?”
It was a pledge card, a purity card, something that was very much in vogue 10 years ago.
“Sure.” I said, signing the card and opening, as quickly as I could, the door to the Faculty Room.
A quicker wit would have asked the young woman just how I was supposed to validate what I was signifying with my signature – a quicker wit who wanted to lose his job.
Sometimes, in teaching, it’s a good thing not to be too quick-witted.
Turn Out the Lights
There have been more than a few times when my career has passed in front of my eyes. There have been more than a handful of occasions when I have thought: “Well, that was nice. That was a diverting few years. I wonder if Barnes and Nobel is hiring?” I’ve mentioned a few of those in previous posts here and some of them have been more serious than others – serious in the sense that they might have actually ended my teaching career.
This one probably wouldn’t have. This one, because of how it turned out, was really no big deal. But, in the moment, this one was terrifying. Literally terrifying.
Early in my career and for the first seven years of it, I was a moderator of the Student Council, initially at the school at which I was first hired and then, later, at my alma mater, which hired me when I returned to Denver. This was a good gig – working with students who felt empowered to change the school while reminding them, without actually saying so, that their “power” was very limited. I enjoyed the work.
I didn’t enjoy Homecoming Week Pep Rallies. These were never any fun to plan and they were absolutely thankless tasks. Teachers lose class time, students are rowdy and administration looks at the clock. You only have so many minutes in the school year devoted to pep.
In one of my early go-rounds with pep rallies, the Student Council – in the all boys school – determined they wanted to rent big screen televisions (this was way before the age of digital … anything really but projectors, certainly) and show highlights of the sports teams while we announced the seniors on the team and brought them in under spotlights.
Sounds good, right? What could possibly go wrong?
The first step for this plan, of course, was to turn off the lights in gym and it was the one step we didn’t practice in our dress rehearsals for the rally because the gym lights, back then, took about five minutes to cycle back on once they were extinguished.
When the Pep Rally arrived, 700 boys poured into the gym and invaded the stands. It was a Friday afternoon, right before the end of the school day. They were rowdy. They were pushing and shoving. They were loud.
Those facts probably should have been my cues to amend the program, but I didn’t.
On cue, I snapped off the lights in anticipation of the spots and the big screen televisions. The entire gym went immediately quiet as if all the boys remembered their elementary school training: when the lights go off, it’s quite time. The boys’ rowdiness ceased. They stopped pushing and shoving. The gym went deadly quiet.
Then a dull roar began that rose, slowly but inexorably to a cacophonous crescendo.
Realizing my error too late, I immediately flipped the lights back on.
And the five-minute start-up cycle for the lights began.
Five minutes doesn’t seem like enough time to consider one’s career.
It was plenty.