An Introduction to the Blogger

So I want to start off by saying that I am, I suppose, “old school.” Blogging is new to me and seems like a very strange animal. My first film school professor said you have to know the rules to break the rules. Well, here’s the rub–I’m not sure if there ARE rules in blogging. So my plan is to tell my story and hope others are either amused by it or learn from it.

My husband and I are newly retired–three weeks in. It has always been our dream to own and live on a boat, so we have sold our house and are in the process of finding that elusive boat. This blog, then, is a (hopefully) humorous telling of our journey. Before I get into the boat search itself, I’d like to give a little background on myself.

I started my 12th year as a public high school teacher this past August. I was by most accounts a good teacher–some say better than good. Before I earned my teaching license I had many job changes. Early on I worked as a bread girl for a fish restaurant. I once had a job collating paper. Yes, eight hours a day, five days a week, collating papers. I spent many years at many locations working as a secretary. Later, that position was renamed “Administrative Assistant,” yet still meant the same mind numbing repetition each day. I was a meeting planner, a technical writer, and a small business owner. For a brief period, my husband and I were part-time independent filmmakers (although we never actually made any money or films–but we tried really, really hard and somewhere still have the proposal we used to try to get backing. It was a good proposal). My point is, well, I have been around the job block a few times.  But teaching was my first true “career.”

As a child I wanted to be a writer. But I always had a secret desire to be a teacher. I wasn’t sure I was smart enough, but I thought that would be the best job ever! I played school a lot. I was the best fake teacher on the block.

People tend to think teaching is a cush job. Summers off. Two weeks at Christmas. Obscure three day weekends. I don’t know. I spent my holidays working. I spent my weekends working. I attended training in the summer and spent evenings working. The desire to write that elusive perfect lesson that gets that one kid excited is so powerful.

My point is its not an easy job. Bread girl is an easy job. (Although I managed to drop a crock full of butter on the carpet in the dining room.) But teaching is difficult and all consuming. I don’t know if all teachers feel like this, but I always assumed I just screwed up. I’ve always been excessively reflective (which is a nice way of saying “critical of myself”). When you are scrutinized by large portions of the population daily (parents, students, administration, politicians, etc.), when all that is wrong with education is heaped onto your shoulders whether you have anything to do with it or not, and when someone, somewhere is always upset with you, well you tend to get a little tired of defending yourself and instinctively want to be PERFECT just to prove them all wrong.My point is no one has a clue what the job is unless you’ve done it.

It’s not like being an actuary or a scuba instructor. If a teacher screws up, we’ve just ruined the future for the ENTIRE PLANET. Awesome responsibility. Why do you suppose there are so many teachers that don’t make it to their five year anniversary? I mean besides the pay, crummy hours, ridiculously large classes and lack of respect. So what IS it like to be in the classroom? Well, let me tell you…

I was fairly old when I started teaching. My kids were grown, my husband and I had just sold the family business and I was floundering around looking for something new. I lived in North Carolina and in an attempt to get fresh blood in the classrooms, NC Teach was born. The program took people who had a career other than in education that also had a degree and gave them training in the basics of running a classroom. You continued your education while having on the job training. They were only looking for math, science and special ed teachers. Having no abilities in math or science, I interviewed to enter the special education program. I was accepted and set about learning child psychology and classroom management. It took me an additional two years to get all the special education courses I needed in order to get my unrestricted license. Basically, I got another bachelor’s degree without having to take the 101 courses again. I would continue my education and earn my Master’s degree in language and literacy, but first I needed a job.

After the summer boot camp I started interviewing. I had a surprisingly easy time finding work and was quickly offered two positions. The first was in a middle school with a group of emotionally behaviorally challenged kids. Their previous year’s teacher had been a burly guy that quit the profession after a year with these kids. The other was a high school group of kids with mental disabilities. The high school job would be job preparation and internship placement. That seemed more in sync with my history, so I took a slight reduction in pay from my secretarial job at a non-profit (yes, you read that right) and headed back to high school.

I was given the old band equipment storage room for a classroom. No windows, but two doors (only one opened) and a small “office” attached, where the band uniforms had been kept. Mine was the only classroom in an area full of locker rooms and the gym. My room came equipped with an old-fashioned, freestanding, swivel chalkboard, an old sink, and a pile of crap I needed to organize, in the center of a narrow room. The pile of crap was actually a very expensive hands-on job preparation system for students with disabilities. But it had no instructions and no training was provided. There was no “panic button” or phone in the room and the nearest speaker was in the hall. I was told if I had any fights in my room, I should send a kid to the gym to get a coach to help out. This came in handy in the not too distant future. I was also told by the principal that he was a little concerned about my being by myself down that wing. (Not concerned enough to find me a real classroom, but still…). If I wanted my students to hear the daily announcements or the pledge, we needed to keep the door open and be very, very quiet or go into the hallway.

The NC Teach program assumed your job was your “student teaching,” so I had never been in a classroom as a teacher of any kind when I started my first day of work. Needless to say, I was ready to wet my pants. The upside was that I was enthusiastic and my class sizes were small (given they were special ed classes). If I recall correctly, there were only seven in that first hour, all upperclassmen. (Eventually experience taught me the older the students in a sped class, the more dropouts.)  This class had six boys and one girl. The girl didn’t show for the first half hour. There was one scrawny boy (who was later caught selling cigarettes out of the school store I set up) and five MASSIVE men. I thought back to what the principal had said.

That morning I met James. It hadn’t dawned on me that my upbringing was all that different to my students. But James was an African American living in a broken home in rural North Carolina whose family were welfare recipients from way back. He wasn’t the biggest one in the class but he had a very intimidating scowl on his face. He didn’t speak. He didn’t work. He just stared at me. I had started them off, right out of the box, with the hand-on stuff I’d organized. I wanted them to enjoy themselves in the class and think this place would be okay. Because it was hands-on and everyone had something different, my plan was to sit with each student as needed and assess as I went. While I pondered what to do with James, I walked past another kid, stopped and asked if he needed help. He smirked and said, “No.”

“Why aren’t you working?” I asked.

” What’re you gonna do about it?”

I wasn’t sure. They didn’t cover this type of thing in the education classes. When we practiced with our cohort they always did what I asked. My head was reeling. I knew if I didn’t take control right away, it would be chaos all year. I would be a wash out as a teacher. I also knew I didn’t want to puke in front of them, but my stomach was doing flip-flops. I grabbed a book.

“Fine,” I said. “If you aren’t going to do that then you can read.” I slammed a book onto his desk. “But you’re gonna do something!”

“Naw, I’ll do this. I was just foolin’,” he said with a big smile on his face.

So I passed the first test.

They all turned out to be great kids. Most made good choices and I got to see them graduate. James turned out to be the biggest teddy bear of them all. He had a fantastic smile, and wanted to get a decent job, meet a girl, and live happily ever after in a little house (he literally told me this). I learned a lot from James my first two years of teaching. Like don’t judge a book by its cover. Like southern boys are terrified you will call their Mama and tell her how they have been behaving in class. Like we all just want a decent life.

I had some disappointments. The girl that had, literally three weeks left to graduation and dropped out because she was pregnant. I came to realize these kids didn’t have the childhood I did. Nor did they have the same ideas about men and women. One day the kids came in talking about a fight that had happened over the weekend. I saw this as a teachable moment and said that no one has the right to hit another person. Kristina looked at me funny and said, “Miss, you can’t tell me your husband don’t hit you to keep you in line.” It took me a minute to register what she was saying. “N…no…” I stammered. “I wouldn’t still be with him if he did.” I was unable to convince her that what she had seen all her life wasn’t reality for all people. She was another student that heartbreakingly got pregnant, dropped out and became a welfare recipient. She followed in her mother’s, grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s footsteps.

But not before she started the first brawl my classroom had seen. I had both her and her brother, Kevin, in the same class period. An argument that had started at home continued in class. She was in a surly mood and he loved to taunt her, which he did liberally at the start of class. She got up and punched him, swear words flying freely. He retaliated. A chair flew. Clothes were ripped. My free standing chalkboard was no longer standing. All in a split second. I did the exact thing I was told not to do. I got between them resulting in a glancing blow to my cheek. I yelled to another student to go get a coach. They stopped fighting before the coach got down to us. He took Kevin to the office. I told Kristina we had to go to the office too. She started crying and threw her arms around me. A cry turned to wracking sobs and pleads to stay in class. They both received nine days suspension which cost them much needed instructional time and cost me hours of paperwork and meetings.

One day my mentor (a wonderful older lady named Mrs. June who got me through my first year of teaching) came to my room to tell me that one of our students was in jail. Josh was a goofy kid who wanted to be a rap star. Yeah. He lived a lot of the time in a fantasy world where he was walking down the street and was “discovered” by someone in the biz. Every other week he was flying to LA to cut a record.  But he was a good kid. It had to be a mistake. When I heard the story I wanted to spit nails.

See, Josh lived with his aunt. Both parents were out of the picture. Dad never in it and I believe Mom was shot to death or some other tragic event. His aunt was tired of him coming in late, refusing to shower or wash his clothes. Her solution was to kick him out. He had nowhere to go and didn’t tell anyone. So he hid after school in the building and spent the night there. He knew there were usually some discarded soda crackers or something similar in the teacher’s lounge and he could usually find something to hold him over until the next day when he would have free breakfast and lunch. Since he was always a ragamuffin his clothing didn’t seem any worse than usual. He lived at the school several days before being detected by the janitor. Who called the principal. Who had him arrested.

That was the only time I had to visit a student in jail. And it was intimidating! They wouldn’t allow me to give him pencils and paper to write his raps. Only cash to use in the prison store. When I got there, I had to wait. All the other loved ones had obviously been there many times. One lady came up to me and said, “Honey, you cain’t take your purse with you. I’d lock it in yer car if I’s yew.” Once Mrs. June arrived we had to put all personal belongings in a little tray and be frisked before heading back. Only one person could talk with him at a time, so while Mrs. June talked with him I hung back a few feet feeling very self-conscious as I got looks from other inmates waiting for their family to enter. The room was small with four Plexiglas “stations.” Sort of like the spot you walk up to to get a train ticket or movie ticket. Only more cramped. With no air circulation. He said he was holding up okay although I had my doubts. He ended up being moved to a new town becoming another family member’s charge and I never spoke with him again (we were not allowed information on where he was).

While working in a small rural school had its challenges, it was a great place to work with great support from the principal. He always had my back. It was a great start to my teaching, working in North Carolina. The southern way meant that I had not only parents and the principal behind me, but also clergy, grandparents, and other teachers that had grown up in the area and knew these kids from birth. Eventually, we moved to Arizona and I learned this was not the case everywhere.

The move was a knee-jerk reaction to my mother’s diagnosis of colon cancer. I wanted to be closer, partly to help out, but in all honesty, mostly for selfish reasons. I had a hyperactive need to get to know mom again and I knew being physically closer would make me feel everything would be alright.

Having completed my master’s degree, I was a “hot commodity” in education circles and found a job for the following school year months prior to moving. I went from a school of 500 students to a school of 2,000. It was intimidating. It was exhausting. It was not a happy time. But I got along well with my co-workers as well as my students who did fairly well in my class, and I was well regarded by administration. Working as a special education teacher is so different than any other teaching job. If you were to look at an average day, 75% of you time is taken by paperwork and its subsequent follow-up. This leaves 25% to create inventive lesson plans, execute them and play parent/counselor/friend/doctor to your students. It can’t be done well in that amount of time. So you spent all your “personal” time doing what you need so that your students have what they need. Inevitably it breaks your heart.

I completed my master’s degree specifically because I knew I would get burnt out as a special education teacher. Eventually, I found a high school job as a reading specialist (a rare, although desperately needed position). The school was in a small town. It had a melting pot of students: rich and poor, black, white, native, and Hispanic, old family names and new transplants, as well as the usual mix of smart asses and sweethearts. I spent the balance of my teaching career here.

Having lost both my parents, there was no reason to stick around Arizona and based on this we had planned to retire soon. The decision to accelerate that came early in the 2015-16 school year. As tired as I had felt battling special education paperwork, it was nothing compared to the struggle as an Arizona school teacher in this particular town. I hate to bring politics into things, but the Arizona legislature. Man. They are experts at funding increases for education on the front end and slipping that money back out on the back end, with a result that the average citizen thinks education has all this money, but must not be spending it wisely. It happened time and again. Lawsuits abound and it still happened. To give you an idea of the money situation, I had been in Arizona for nine years as a teacher and had not had a raise of any kind in five (with teacher salaries as a hot topic). Add to that a dysfunctional school “family”, class sizes as high as 40, and yet another year of screwing up “my” program and I was DONE. There’s no point in airing grievances here, but suffice to say I wasn’t interested in waiting an additional year if it was feasible to leave after my contract was complete. Add to that illness exacerbated by stress and the decision was an easy one.  The process of buying our boat, on the other hand, was a little more complex (see the next posting: Preparation and Boat Purchase).

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