I recently was “friended” by a former student, whose first post to me was ” To one of the few teachers who cared.” This former student is at least thirty-five years old, and yet, he still took the time to send me, as many of my former students do, warm fuzzies about our time together, most of which were decades ago.
Was the impact I had on these students because I was a spectacular instructor, skilled in pedagogy and steeped in Aristolean methodology? Nope, it was because I had a sense of humor and mainly because I simply gave a damn about them as human beings as well as students.
My second year of teaching I taught at Roosevelt High School in Dayton, Ohio. I was hired in October, and was the fourth teacher assigned to that post. The other three had left in various stages of frustration, despair, or outrage. The classes I taught were American History to juniors and Government to seniors, both required for graduation at the time.
My mother and husband did not want me to take the job. Roosevelt was a tough school in a tough part of town. All black, virtually all low-income and with a dreadful academic reputation. It was also known to be a relatively dangerous school. But I was a young teacher and hubris is a wonderful thing sometimes, so I gladly answered the call to come bring knowledge to these poor, underprivileged, ignorant kids. Little did I know that I would learn much more than I could ever think of teaching.
My first day of classes I realized I was not in Kansas (or the suburbs) anymore, fairly quickly. The principal welcomed me warmly and then informed me where she would lock up my purse for the day and how I could retrieve it should I need it. I smiled at her and politely declined to have my personal belongings locked up to protect them from my students. She shook her head and gave me a pitying look, and escorted me to my classroom. The room itself was in fair repair, with huge windows and the standard wooden student desks for the students and a standard issue wooden desk for me.
My students began to arrive, and I noticed immediately that I was the only teacher standing in the hallway to greet her students. This was standard operating procedure according to my classes at Central State on teaching methods, but it appeared not to be the practice at Roosevelt. Most of the students eyed me up and down, and went by me without returning my greeting. I was not worried, I was the teacher, I would bring them around soon enough!
It soon became apparent that my students were not really interested in me period. They ignored my attempts to start class, pulling their desks into small clumps of friends and chatting away. They did everything but light up a cigarette and put their feet up. By fifteen minutes into the period I realized I was going to have to make a statistical adjustment.
So, I wrote on the board–which got most of their attention– “If you want to learn come sit in the front two rows”. These two rows had not been touched, as the class had gravitated towards the back of the room.
Slowly, first three, then five, then a few more kids drifted up to test me out. I began the history lesson by explaining that we were all part of history. The first assignment I gave them was to write their own obituary. How would history remember them? Even more importantly, how would they like to be remembered?
By now the kids in the front row were asking questions, raising their hands and getting into the assignment. Slowly, oh so slowly, the noise and tumult from the back of the room began to die down, the noise of desks being scooted back into rows got more frequent. By the end of our first period all but about three hold outs who simply sat back with their arms crossed, were engaged in the assignment.
The same scenario played out all day. By the end of the week we were cooking. They were engaged. I was having a ball! My students were fascinated with a picture I had on my desk of me, my son Mike–then three-and my husband and our black and white cocker spaniel Wolfie. They acted as if the picture was of alien life forms. Casual conversations over time revealed that my students led lives that I could not even imagine. The poverty they lived in was staggering. Most of them had never been out of Dayton. Many of them seemed to have a sphere of influence of only six or seven blocks.The stories they told of their home lives were heart-breaking.
One day I announced a pop quiz, and one of my students, Brayden, said ” Oh Miz Newsom give us a break, it’s my birthday today!” I laughed and told him that he could make it through the quiz and would get paid back for it by his birthday cake that evening no doubt. He stopped smiling and told me he had never had a birthday cake. He was turning 17. I had to fight off some tears, but managed to tell him, ” You will have a birthday cake tomorrow. Sorry it will be a day late, but it will still be good.”
Quite a few of the other students chimed in with similar stories. No birthday cakes, no celebration, no gifts. For the rest of the year that I taught at Roosevelt I baked a cake each month and we celebrated the birthday of everyone who had a birthday that month. I baked a cake for each period 2 the first week of the month, one the second week, one the third week and two the fourth week. I broke rules and brought candles and matches. I was not going to know children who never blew out candles on a birthday cake. We re-lit the candles for each celebrant and joked about spit on the icing.
My husband and I were a young, struggling couple. I could not afford paper plates and forks for 180 students a month, but I could not bear the idea of a child never having anyone acknowledge that his or her birthday was a reason to celebrate.
I had one student, Derrick, who was known to be a bad actor. I had been warned that he might be dangerous, so the first time he approached me after class in an empty classroom I was nervous. I kept the desk between us. He stood there for a minute looking up at the ceiling then he pointed to a pen on my desk and blurted out ” Can I borrow that?”
I did not understand him at first he said it in such a rush, so I asked him to repeat it. When I realized he was asking to borrow a pen I was quite relieved. “Sure” I replied. He grabbed the pen and left. I had Derrick third period, but he was standing by my door the next morning when I arrived to unlock the door, holding out the pen to me. “Thanks” he mumbled and shambled off. I was puzzled. Derrick borrowed something from me every day after that, a paper clip, a pen, a piece of paper, something. And he returned it the next morning faithfully. It was not until months into this ritual I realized what he was doing. He was trying to make sure I was coming back.
I only taught at Roosevelt one year. I got pregnant with our second child and my husband and mother convinced me that the drive was not a great idea in the winter. I never locked my purse up at Roosevelt. I never had anything stolen, I never had my car damaged, I never had anyone threaten to hit me or hurt me or even call me a name.
I started teaching in Xenia, my hometown the next year. The challenges there were very different, but no less vital. At one point our tax levies failed and students were required to pay a fee to play sports. Some students did not have the money to participate. So, I began a fund, by collecting money and merchandise from local merchants. The merchandise we raffled off at basketball games. The fund grew rapidly when people heard about it, and we were able to fund not only fees for participation but for equipment.None of my students were going to be denied the opportunity to participate in extra curricular activities because they could not afford it. I cared.
So, to my teacher friends, and my future teacher future friends. There is only one thing you need to do to be a good teacher…….care. And follow through on what is required to support your care. And do not let anyone get in the way of your care. Rules that hurt children not only should be ignored, they must be ignored. I rarely followed rules when I was teaching. I also never had to look at a student and think ” I did not do my best for you.” I am not sure how much of the academics they retained that I tried to teach them,but, I never bored them and I respected them. My classes were frequently louder than other people’s and involved a lot more raised voices either in argument or in laughter, but I know my students always knew one thing… I cared.