Friday, October 5, 2012

Teaching 101

Well, I’d made it. Gotten my degree, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Batchelor of Science in Child Welfare and a minor in History. And now what?

My dreams had been vivid those last weeks before graduating. I’m standing at the edge of a precipice and need to get to the other side. The chasm below me is so deep I cannot see the bottom and yet I know I have to get across. I always woke in a cold sweat. And so after the ceremonies, I went home with my parents. They had moved while I was a senior to a town where I knew not one soul. I spent my days reading want ads and lolling about. One day, my mother rushed up to me and said she’d heard that a number of small town superintendents were hiring teachers. They were meeting at the local high school. I dressed and made my way to the school.

I have absolutely no memory of any interviews. I only recall coming home with a contract to teach first grade at an elementary school in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. My entire salary for the nine months was $1700 (this was 1946). The following Sunday, I packed my bags, took a bus to Fond du Lac, and rented a room from the local butcher. The rent was to include breakfast, which usually consisted of toast, jam, stale cake, crackers, and coffee, which I didn’t drink. The butcher was on a diet.

The school was over a mile away and I had to walk, as there was no bus service. And my walk fronted Lake Winnebago, one of the largest inland lakes in the country. So along with the (often) below zero temperature, there was wind. And so I dressed for it. I wore wool slacks under my skirt (yes, we had to wear dresses), a wool ski cap, two pairs of mittens, and air corps boots over my shoes. The boots were warmer than galoshes as they were lined with sheepskin. I also covered my face with baby oil so it wouldn’t freeze.

My school was the oldest school building and was in the poorest part of town. One of my favorite professors had always warned us to save pictures, poems, stories, anything that might be of interest to children. I had taken her advice and when I walked into my classroom sent up a prayer of thanks. My classroom was bare, the walls dire, dark. It would take a small miracle to illumine that space. I spent the morning doing what I could to brighten the grim walls.

Our reading books were the Dick and Jane series. They were stacked neatly in the corner, their pages covered with little grubby prints. I remember feeling a sense of awe as I realized I was going to help the children learn to read, to open up the world of books. I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility and the privilege and I was terrified that I might fail them. An inventory of my room listed boldly: 23 library books. There were no library books on the shelves. I looked everywhere. I finally opened a low cupboard and there found 23 little pamphlets of Mother Goose, printed as an advertisement from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

I was furious. These were the poorest children in town. How dare someone claim these tiny pamphlets were library books. I had to do something. And luck was with me. The janitor. I wish I could remember his name. I can see him in my mind’s eye as clear as anything. He was old, ancient, wore bibbed overalls over a flannel shirt. He always wore his hat and smoked a smelly pipe. Raised and cured his own tobacco, he boasted. He called me “Missy” and invited me down to see the furnace room. It was cozy, foggy with smoke. A handmade rag rug covered the floor. An old rocking chair with a worn pad and a crooked wooden chair were separated by a turned over box. His ashtray was large and overflowing. A single light bulb hanging from the ceiling lighted the room. On the table was a violin. He played the fiddle. And I was a ready audience. I sat and drank tepid tea and listened while he performed. I felt I’d made a friend.

But back to the 23 library books. As I said, I had to do something. These little first graders needed to have books, lots of them. And so I found an empty box, tossed the little pamphlets inside, and sealed the box. I took it down to the furnace room and handed it over to my friend. “If you’re smart,” I said, “you won’t look inside.”

He smiled and tapped the side of his nose. “Just some trash you need to get rid of, I take it?’ I nodded. He opened the furnace door and tossed the box inside.

The following day, I approached my principal. My heart ached for her, for you see she was very worried about her position. Women were not principals in those days. Only men had that privilege. However, there had been a Second World War and many men had not returned. Marie had been given the position of temporary principal until a man could be hired. So she was not about to do anything to upset anyone. Ever.

I explained that I’d looked everywhere for the 23 library books I was supposed to have and couldn’t find them. She rushed into my room and spent an hour searching. I was right. There were no books. Reluctantly, she filled in an order and sent it off to the library. It took two weeks, but we got books, colorful, exciting, and fun. And I learned there was more to being a good teacher than I had ever dreamed. According to the definitions, education’s history began with the classical Greek philosophers and sophists, and today it is spoken of in terms of reflective theorizing about pedagogy, andragogy, curriculum, learning, and education policies, organization and leadership. Educational thought is informed by various strands of history, philosophy, sociology, critical theory, and psychology among other disciplines (I copied this out of several heavy books.)

Where are the words for hope, using your smarts, being savvy, and love?


  1. This story really made me smile! Pardon the pun, but you did some wonderful out of the box thinking for those children! :)

  2. Clever classroom solution, Ruth. Those kids were lucky to have you for their teacher. (Sad to hear you didn't get bacon for breakfast while renting from a BUTCHER!)