Updated: Oct 23
By Carolyn R. Russell
During the last year of a tumultuous decade, I was a student teacher at one of the state’s most underperforming high schools. It was quite a ways away from my university, and having no car, the job involved a complicated mix of public transportation one way and catching a ride with one of the other high school teachers the other.
I judged that it was worth it for this particular gig. I had hit the jackpot: teaching speech communication courses and spoken word performance, called “reader’s theater” back then. Adding luck to luck, my mentor in the classroom was terrific. Over the three decades he’d spent in education, Dr. B had cultivated a teaching style that made room for all kinds of unusually progressive ideas. His students were each free to learn in a manner best suited to their learning style, resulting in a classroom that was kinetic, loud, and, it seemed to me, an oasis of creativity that centered true mutual respect.
One time, an outspoken student named Kevin slunk into Dr. B’s classroom just before the bell and folded himself quietly into his chair-desk wearing what looked like a beach hat. The kid behind him knocked it off almost immediately. Kevin’s head had been shaved near bald. Back then there was only one reason for such a thing. Head lice.
From my perch in the back of the room, it seemed that Dr. B just materialized next to Kevin.
“Tough break,” said Dr. B.
He ran his hand across the top of Kevin’s head.
“My family went through this last year,” he said. “It happens.”
And that was the end of it.
Dr. B’s teenage children also attended this school, and they would bring their friends into our room during breaks and at lunchtime. This was astonishing to me, that his kids’ buddies would gravitate toward this sweetly grumpy, funny, older man during their free time. We’d sit around cracking jokes and talking about movies and music; these kids were a rowdy subset of the theater nerds and art freaks. I adored them.
I wanted to be the kind of teacher Dr. B was, a source of kind authority in the classroom and a safe harbor elsewhere. A teacher who could shut down a bully by modeling empathy and provide a sense of joyous community within the heart of a struggling and sometimes emotionally tone-deaf institution.
After several weeks of assisting and observing Dr. B, my certification protocols called for me to step in as head teacher. It was a fairly seamless transition. Of the classes I took over, public speaking, debate, and reader’s theater with an accompanying workshop, the workshop was my favorite.
It was a particularly boisterous class. Raucous, even, at times. My students were free to move about the classroom when they needed to, and sometimes our discourse got loud, especially when I asked the kids to work together in small groups to analyze and perform a piece. It was a difficult challenge for them, as it is for many people of all ages: the art of blending a personal creative vision with a larger collective vision can be tough to grasp. Egos can take a beating. But as long as everyone stayed focused and well-intentioned and our time together was productive, the noise was okay with me. And with Dr. B, who usually monitored my classes from his glassed-in office in the back of the classroom.
Most of our students had never seen a professional play. There was a very well-regarded theater in the larger city a half hour away, and that spring they were featuring a Neil Simon comedy, “The Odd Couple.” I thought our students would love it, and that it would be a perfect gateway drug for a life in the arts.
After Dr. B and I discussed it, he gave me the go-ahead to make my case to the administration. It would, he made clear, be my project to pilot.
I worked hard on my proposal, making an argument grounded in equal parts pedagogical research and passion. Their answer was a resounding no. The principal even seemed a bit angry with me for suggesting the trip. I got the impression my request had ruffled his feathers, had somehow insulted his leadership and judgment. The trip was denied for a predictable list of reasons, with cost and “the bother of it all” at the top. The unconventional nature of my reader’s theater workshop was in there, too. There was some concern about student behavior. But while our classroom might have appeared dysfunctional through the small hallway door window, Dr. B and I were happy with the way things were going. Our students had learned how to better decode and analyze written material, how to use a range of vocal tones and inflections, and how to pace themselves according to the internal rhythms of the texts they performed aloud. Best of all, they seemed to enjoy their time in the workshop.
Dr. B responded to my disappointment with a mix of empathy and information about the school’s history. It wasn’t until the last leg of my bus ride home that I realized he had put me in charge for a reason. I had a lot to learn about the nature of institutional politics.
Not long after, I was informed that that my supervisor, the university Department Chair, would be dropping in to evaluate me. According to him, his schedule was overbooked and would allow for only a single visit. The timing meant he’d be visiting my favorite class, the reader’s theater workshop. It was a bit of a shock. I suddenly saw my classroom the way he might see it, as an outsider and an expert educator. My stomach dropped. To this dignified standard-bearer, it would look like chaos.
A lot would be riding on this particular hour, but I’d established a thriving culture that I didn’t want to disrupt. Nor would it be fair to change the rules now.
The week of the visit, I told the kids that just as their teachers were tasked with regular assessments of their work, my work as a new teacher was going to be evaluated in a couple of days. The room stilled as they absorbed this information. Carina D, whose interjections were always well-timed and really funny, asked if I was scared. “No,” I lied, and explained that it was an expected part of my training. Tomas J. stopped his cartooning, and without looking up, said he was surprised they were only coming in once. He was something, this kid, always paying attention and participating in discussions while his head was down, his magic markers careening across the pages of his notebook in flights of colorful storytelling. We’d performed one of his vignettes. I told him I was surprised, too. Isiah B said nothing, but his characteristic smile faltered and the pace at which he stimmed increased. His nail-bitten hands were a blur as he stalked the perimeters of the room, counting under his breath how many times he spotted the color red We moved on.
The day of the visit, I put on a dress and heeled sandals rather than my usual uniform of button-down shirt and painter’s pants. I was nervous. More than nervous. What if my Department Chair was so appalled by the deportment of this class that he missed what was actually going on; the energy, the joy, and the incorporation and demonstration of the skills they’d mastered?
I met the Chair before the class in the high school lobby at the prescribed time, and we walked together to the classroom. My palms were sweating and I willed myself not to tremble. The day’s lesson plan called for a discussion and “warm” reading of the letters of E.B. White, which I knew had been a challenge for many kids. White’s humor depended on an appreciation of his particularly understated style of writing.
We walked through the door and onto a stage set. The room was perfectly quiet, each student at a desk organized into concentric semi-circles. My desk had been moved and set facing this mini amphitheater. Its top had been neatened, and on top of a pile of books I recognized my Bob Dylan cassette tape, which had been stolen weeks before after we’d analyzed some of his lyrics. Our visitor took a seat in the back, behind the students’ desks, and pulled some papers out of his briefcase. I introduced him, and most of my students took a quick look at him. Then, I began class, trying my best to keep the elation I felt from showing on my face.
These kids were strangers to me, as though some shape-shifting force had replaced my students with stand-ins from one of those 70s school-based earnest dramas. They were polite. They raised their hands. They made steady eye contact with me. Carina opened her mouth a few times out of turn before checking herself and clamping her lips together. Tomas’ sketchbook was nowhere in sight. And Isiah! I’d never seen him sitting down before, ever. He jiggled his knees and flexed his fingers over and over again but stayed in his seat. At one point during the discussion, I took a question from a boy who winked at me before he asked it. Winked!
Overwhelmed by their kindness, and thankful that I might not fail out of my student teaching program due to their efforts, I looked forward to my next day’s conference with my supervisor.
The meeting was quicker than I expected, maybe 35 minutes. He had charts and diagrams that he unfurled before me. They documented each time he had observed one of my kids tap a pencil, rearrange themselves in a chair, fidget or scratch themselves…that kind of thing. Sweeping his forefinger across these papers, he counseled me to look for patterns of inattention, and to identify their source. Dumbfounded, I nodded and arranged my facial features into what I hoped was an appropriate expression.
When I told my classroom mentor about the conference, he was very comforting, calling my supervisor a dinosaur who hadn’t stepped foot inside a public school classroom since the late 1940s. He was terrific, but really, I was fine. My kids had seen me, not only as an educator, but as a person, and had responded to my passionate investment in their well-being by responding in kind. And to pull off what they’d done for me, they’d had to successfully coordinate their efforts as a group! Their achievement meant a lot to me; I’d seen their previous struggles to collaborate. I don’t remember much more of that hour besides a raging satisfaction: those kids had certainly learned how to perform. Maybe I might be okay at this teaching thing.
Carolyn R. Russell’s latest novel is "Q & A," a humorous YA mystery which will be published by Vine Leaves Press in June of 2023. A collection of cross-genre flash called "Death and Other Survival Strategies" will follow in October. A Best of the Net nominee, Carolyn’s poetry, essays, and short stories have been featured in numerous publications, including The Boston Globe, Eunoia Review, 3rd Wednesday, Litro Magazine, Reflex Press, Club Plum Literary Journal, Daikaijuzine, Orca: A Literary Journal, Bridge Eight, Penumbric Speculative Fiction Magazine, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and New World Writing. Carolyn lives on and writes from Boston’s North Shore, where she teaches flash fiction. More at http://carolynrrussell.com/.