“Now this is the thought that wakes me up in the middle of the night.
That when I get older, these kids are going to take care of me.”
—Richard Vernon, The Breakfast Club
I’m not at all anxious to face my first English class as a student teacher. It’s terrifying, being on such a scary, complex threshold. I mean… a career and everything. I’m feeling totally unprepared here.
I’ve tried to express my utter panic to Mr.Polk, my mentor, but he claims all practice teachers experience performance anxiety at first, and that most of them live. Most. I don’t like those odds. Oh, I know he’ll be right downstairs in the teachers’ lounge correcting exams and all, but if something goes wrong I can’t just up and leave the room to go and get him! Not really. How would that look?
Thank God his schedule (now mine) begins with a free period this morning (or planning period, as we’re admonished to call them “lest the taxpayers get the impression we’re just free-loading around here all the time”). I’d sell my own grandmother down the river to put off The Moment of Truth as long as possible! But on the other hand, that’s a mixed blessing. Postponing the inevitable just gives me sixty more minutes of stewing in my own juices, worrying whether I’ll stink or swim.
Staring out through the open classroom door, I marvel at the wild river of students surging at flood stage in the hall after first bell. There are so many of them! In so many shapes and sizes and descriptions! And many are acting so rowdy! And some are just… weird. But all of them are downright intimidating!
I ease myself down into Mr. Polk’s chair, trying it on for size, and release a long sigh. OK, I admit it: I’m quaking in my hush puppies.
Unexpectedly, two young ladies materialize in the doorway. They’re tall, attractive, very neatly groomed, and dressed to the nines. They radiate confidence, something I wouldn’t mind having a little more of. They carry themselves with an air of professionalism... obviously a couple of faculty colleagues I missed when I was formerly introduced at yesterday’s teachers’ meeting.
The taller of the two smiles with a warm politeness and speaks over the hallway roar behind her. “Are you Mr. Lyford?”
I return the smile with a shrug and admit, “I am.”
“The new teacher?” asked the other.
“Uh, new student teacher, Yeah. I’m here for the next eight weeks. If I make it.”
“English?” asks the first.
I’m nodding a little too energetically, I realize. It’s the nerves. “Yeah. English.” But just the act of speaking to someone is such a relief, so much more preferable than simply hiding behind Mr. Polk’s desk and counting off the minutes like the man on death row. “And you two? I don’t know why, but oh I’m guessing maybe Home Economics and French?” Me, being suave.
“Oh no, we’re seniors.”
“What? Oh my God... you’re students?”
“Yeah!” says one, popping her gum as if to prove it.
“I don’t know, I just assumed you were… teachers.” They don’t look like students! Not my idea of students anyway. Well… college seniors maybe.
“Well I wish we’d known that. Then we would’ve strung you right along.”
And we all have a good, nervous laugh over that.
“So, what? You’re looking for Mr. Polk maybe?”
“May be,” smiles the gum-popper.
“He’s down in the faculty lounge. Scoring exams.”
“Well… you’re an English teacher too. I bet you could help us…”
“Well… student English teacher,” the other one corrects her importantly.
“What do you need?” I ask.
“Uhm, we’ve got this problem?” says one. To me, it’s disarming and kind of cute, how she delivers her declarative sentence as if it’s a question. “A vocabulary problem…?”
“Uh-huh. So would you help us?” asks the other.
“Oh… vocabulary?” I say. “Well, sure! I’ll try anyway. Can’t make any promises though.”
“Cool. See, we’re stuck, trying to think of this word?”
“Yeah, and you know how frustrating it is when you know you know the word and it’s right on the tip of your tongue...?” This one unexpectedly sticks out the tip of her tongue at me in a rather saucy and unsettling manner.
“Ah, a word, huh? OK! Being a wordsmith (at least that’s what I like to think I am), maybe I’m your man. Let’s find out, OK? Go ahead, shoot. What’ve you’ve got?”
“Well,” begins one, “all we’ve got is just the letter it starts with…”
“Yeah,” the other agrees with an energetic nod.
“Well, a starting letter? That’s a start!” Once again we share a little friendly laugh. I’m really glad though, no relieved, that they’ve stopped by. This conversation is really breaking the tension for me. “So, what does this mystery word begin with?”
They look at each other, perplexed, like maybe they’ve forgotten it since we began talking. Heaven knows I hate it when that happens. “What does it begin with?” one asks the other.
“Oooh! Wait… I know this. It’s… it’s…”
“Take your time,” I coach.
“Begins with an F!” cries her companion.
“Starts with an F…” I repeat, computing already in my mind. “Hmmm… good! You’ve just narrowed it down to one twenty-sixth of the dictionary! OK, now what about context?” Yeah, this is just what I need to take the edge off all this worrying about what’s going to happen period two. Action beats inactivity every time. I think I’m going to be OK.
“Uhmm... how’s it used.”
“Oh. Well, I don’t know anything about context,” says the other, “but… wait! Oh! Oh! Oh! Yeah! I got it! I just now remembered how it ends.”
“Good!” I encourage. It’s great to see kids actually excited over the world of words. “And?”
“Just the last three letters though…” she warns pensively.
“Well, I’m pretty darn good at crosswords and word puzzles. Gimme those letters.” I can feel it. I am going to crack this word wide open.
“Uhm, OK,” she says sweetly. “Let’s see. It’s…” “Oh! I know!” cries the other. It’s uh… let’s see… It’s u… and then a c… and, oh yeah: a k!”
“Alright,” I say, tipping my head to one side in thought, “OK so: begins with…”
Suddenly Mr. Polk’s chair crashes right into the wall behind me and I find myself bolt upright on my feet with bruised thighs, from banging them against the edge of the desk!
“WHAT did you just SAY?” I snap. I am just so… shocked! I am… thunderstruck! “WHAT… DID… YOU…” Oh, I am outraged, “…JUST… SAY… TO… ME?” I don’t know… I can’t imagine WHAT to think! I can’t BELIEVE what my ears just HEARD! And from … GIRLS! Female students in an American classroom! I am INCENSED!
“Oooh, now wait! Wait just one darn minute!” one giggles over her shoulder. “Hey, you know what? Never mind! See, I just remembered what that old word was!”
My God, they’re starting to slip back out the door! “YOUNG LADIES! I… I…”
“Oh yeah, me too, come to think of it,” snickers the other.
“GIRLS!” I threaten impotently. “You stop right there! This is serious!”
“Mr. Lyford? That word…? It’s…”
“DON’T… DON’T YOU EVEN THINK ABOUT SAYING THAT OUT LOUD IN HERE, YOUNG LADY!”
“Fire truck!” the first cries airily.
“Yeah, that’s it!” the other one chimes in, high-fiving the other. “Fire truck! Now why couldn’t we come up with that?”
“HEY!” My eloquence suffers when I’m stressed.
And then my scrambled brain finally catches up with what they’ve just said, and… “What…?”
“Why, Mr. Lyford… what is the matter?” purrs the taller of the two. “I mean, you look so upset. …Oh wait! Oh my! What word were YOU thinking of, Mr. Lyford?”
“Yeah...” says the other, and then, “UH-oh! Guess it wasn’t fire truck!” she giggles.
“Oh my! You don’t suppose he thought…?”
And in a blink they’re gone!
Just like that! Like magic. Just as mysteriously as they appeared!
I rush to the door, to the brink of that roiling river of youthful humanity flowing just outside the
classroom, realizing all of a sudden that I don’t even know whether they turned left or right. Out in the
hall I spot six or seven girls that could be one… or the other… being swept down the crowded stream
past banks of student lockers, but...
And then it hits me that… Crap! I’m so addled, I can’t even remember what they looked like! Not the
color of their hair or their eyes, not what they were wearing even! The emotional shock of the number
they just pulled on me must’ve short-circuited my electrical wiring or something! All I can remember
about them is... that they looked like… teachers.
And now they’ve slipped like elusive fish back into the waters of anonymity.
What the hell…? What just happened here? I’m dumbfounded! I’m numb. Light headed. In shock. And my
feet feel cemented to the floor.
Why hadn’t I detained them? I mean, why hadn’t I even gotten their names at least?
Oh, I think I can guess the answer to that. I’m just a… loser of a teacher, isn’t that it? I’ve washed out
before I even had the chance to get started.
...Did they even commit an infraction though?
...I don’t know!
But… I think so.
You know... I feel so… violated.
And somehow this whole thing feels like... my fault…
Perhaps I’d better not report this incident...