It was my very first sixth-grade faculty meeting at Little Lake Valley Middle School. There were just four of us, all men, but we were waiting for one more teacher before we could proceed. That teacher was Alotta Lipski, a transfer from the local elementary school, whose no-nonsense reputation had these guys worried, and they were trying to agree on how to handle her.
I didn't say much, except her name out loud, slowly: “A-lot-ta Lip-ski?”
And just then, as if on cue, the door opened and she marched in, slammed her load of books on the table, and sat down, as if to say, “Okay, dickheads, let's get this over with, I have more important things to do!”
She was attractive, in a tight-lipped, stern-squint sort of way. Pete, the more experienced of the crew, started the meeting by introducing her to me, the other new teacher. She gave me a curt, non-judgmental hello, and looked back at Pete, prompting him to get on with it.
I decided she had a nice body, what I could imagine under that below-the-knee-length skirt, and long-sleeved, buttoned-up-to-the-neck blouse. I mean, it was still August and the temperature outside was pushing 100 degrees!
When the meeting was adjourned she was the first out the door. I lingered because I had questions, but mostly because, unlike my room, Pete's was air-conditioned. My air-conditioner was “being fixed.” Being fixed, I soon learned, was the district's equivalent of “the check's in the mail.”
The other male teachers congratulated Pete on his handling of Alotta, which noticeably pleased him. The few things she did say during the meeting were direct and to the point. She got what she wanted and left. After which I learned that she had been married to a fifth-grade teacher at this school, but got divorced last year after he'd been seen too often with one of the lunch aides, a tough born-and-raised local who always seemed pissed off at someone, and naturally took it out on the kids.
I spent that afternoon trying to get my room ready for the first day of school the following Monday. I was knee-deep in out-dated textbooks and useless art supplies when the door opened, and there stood Alotta, smiling at me.
“Hey, it's three o'clock, break time.” She walked in and handed me a Pepsi, said she doesn't drink alcohol, but has a six-pack-a-day Pepsi habit. “Everybody has a weakness, right?” She winked seductively, adding, “What's yours?”
“Mine is teaching sixth-grade,” I said, sounding a bit too serious. She offered her help in “any way possible,” and gave me two teacher tips, which didn’t sink in right away:
1) Don't take any work home you can finish at school, and
2) Don't smile until Thanksgiving.
The first day of school was much like a bad dream. I had thirty-five kids bouncing off the walls. Some were repeating sixth-grade for “emotional reasons.” One kid was taller than me and looked about fifteen. Turned out he had never been “mainstreamed” before. I was told later that the fifth grade teachers who passed these feral kids on to me figured I could handle them because I had taught “troubled kids” in the local continuation school (my first job in the district).
I complained to Alotta, who slowly became my invaluable sixth-grade guide, and after reading my class list, informed me that I was “dumped on.” She taught fourth grade in the district for the past ten years and knew most of these kids, their older brothers and sisters, parents and guardians.
“The new teacher always gets dumped on,” she said, taking a swig of Pepsi while scanning my class list, “But they really stuck it to you!”
“Great,” I deadpanned, “A challenge, just what I needed.”
She then summed up my attendance list: “Some of these kids should be put back in Special Ed, some should be split up, and a few should be sent to reform school — and the sooner the better!” She laughed, and added, “This is more than a “challenge,” it's a cheap shot by them (the fifth grade teachers), and a survival test for you!”
Somehow, even though I was dumb enough to smile on the first day of school, and even took work home, I got through that first semester. It wasn't easy, but I learned a lot, even though it was often “the hard way.” It got to the point where the class was willing to help me write up a list of rules. I was surprised how strict their rules were compared to mine, but then I realized they wanted to spend way too much time policing each other, as in, “Joey wrote on my paper!”; “Troy broke his pencil on purpose!”; “Lynda said the F-word!”
I was tired of this continual battle to keep order, of always being the stern teacher, constantly being tested, pushed. I didn't want to keep them in for recess or after school — why should I be punished? Then there were those rare days I sensed I taught them something. I mean, it had to happen, right? To see their eyes light up and have them thank me in so many kind-hearted ways — not!
Truth is, the job was so stressful and demanding that some days the 3:05 bell would ring and I'd just sit there staring at the papers stacked on my desk, wishing like hell I didn't have to return the next day and do it all over again. I took the job home with me every night like an incurable disease. I felt no freer than those guys from the county jail on work furlough — only I was sure they were having more fun.
Halloween and Valentine’s Day are good examples of the worst days for a new teacher. The kids come to school loaded on sugar and caffeine. It’s a war zone. You can’t let your guard down for a second. You can’t even show a movie because they’ll go nuts as soon as you turn off the lights.
The big craze that school year was Jolt, a cola with “all the sugar and twice the caffeine!”
Just what these kids needed! They’d come in from lunch wired to the max on Jolt and candy. This is when I wished I were the PE teacher. Make them run around the playground for a while.
I eventually whittled the class size down to a manageable twenty-six, splitting up the trouble-makers as Alotta suggested, sending some to the school psychologist, and the big kid back to Special Ed. The school psychologist, by the way, enjoyed observing my class. She thought it was a lively bunch, and said I was “Doing a good job — though a bit unconventional — keeping the kids interested in learning.”
Lucky for me she was sitting in the back of the classroom the day Aimee came in and wouldn't leave, even after I asked her politely. She kept talking to her friend Lynda until the bell rang. I told her to leave again, but she ignored me and continued to converse. I walked toward her with my grade book held stiff-armed, “pushing” her out the door.
Aimee was originally in my class with her best friend Lynda, but Alotta had suggested I transfer the clique leader to Pete’s class. I had to choose who was the alpha dog in this group? I decided it was between Aimee and her friend Lynda. I chose Aimee but soon learned that Lynda was the alpha in this group, but she had a weakness — Michael Jackson’s new Thriller album. She not only cooperated with me all week if I would let them hear Thriller on Friday afternoon, but actually helped keep order. Not even the boys would disobey Lynda.
But back to Aimee’s forced exit.
Before the day was over I was told to report to the principal's office after school to meet Aimee’s mother. I made sure the school psychologist also attended. Aimee was crying when she told her story, describing how I had my “hands all over” her. What she didn't realize was that the psychologist had been sitting in the back row observing the whole scene.
When Aimee finished her story, the psychologist described what really happened, pointing out that both my hands were clutching my grade book, proving they could not have been “all over” her. Furthermore, she reported that she was appalled at Aimee's rudeness and disrespect.
When Aimee's Mother realized her precious daughter had been lying, she gave her an I'll-deal-with-you-later look, apologized to me and the principal, and made a quick exit.
Why did the school psychologist come to observe me? At first it was at my request to see if she could help size-up the situation, possibly give me some helpful hints. She returned out of curiosity, telling me once, “You can't duplicate this experiment in a laboratory.”
She was partly referring to my Teacher-Student Day. I would choose a volunteer to teach a lesson for say, five to 10 minutes. Some were better than others, but the best part was usually the question and answer session afterward. She liked their enthusiasm, and we both agreed they were easier on each other — and me! — after they took turn as teaching in front of their peers. In fact, it seemed to improve the overall behavior of the class, an unexpected plus.
Things were going much smoother the second semester, in fact, better than I had anticipated. We seemed to be co-existing on a rather relaxed set of rules, as if everyone agreed to get along and work together to actually learn something (this time I’m not kidding!).
Few nights went by without Alotta calling me and crying about the latest fight she had with Rick. He couldn't be as bad as she made him out to be, could he? She said his lunch-aide girlfriend went as far as threatening her physically! Although Alotta and Rick own property west of town, she had recently rented her own apartment in town, taking custody of their two children. Although we were warming up to each other in private, at school she was business-as-usual, preferring to eat in her own room instead of the teachers' lounge.
I looked forward to the teacher's lounge, a chance to get away from the little brats for a half-hour, and spend that precious time with grown-ups. What I learned in the teachers' lounge, besides the usual scuttlebutt, was a new respect for sixth-grade teachers, especially those who embraced teaching and couldn't see themselves doing anything else. As for the old saying — “Those who can, do; and those who can't, teach” — I now believe it is an unfair put-down.
I'm sure there were plenty of competent teachers at Little Lake Valley, although they did lose a few back in the mid-70s when the Supreme Court outlawed paddling. I was astonished to discover that some of the teachers I was working with actually used to paddle their students!
“And it worked,” volunteered Roy, who quit teaching the year they made paddling illegal. Roy now drives truck for Coca Cola, and just happened to be filling the Coke machine in the lounge, a job he does twice a week. “Oh I had to get another teacher to witness it. We couldn't just hit them when they were bad, like you do with your own kids, I mean, some teachers did, and that IS the best way to train the little animals, but you had to protect yourself. Yes, paddling was effective,” Roy concluded.
“I wouldn't support a system that gave adults the freedom to physically abuse children,” a young female student-teacher said, as if speaking her turn in a Philosophy of Education class.
“Yeah, but it sure felt good, huh Roy?” An old-timer cracked, causing mild laughter.
Roy smiled and flexed his arm. Roy's been a weight-lifter ever since he was a skinny high school kid, and now at five feet, ten inches tall he hits the scale at a solid 200 pounds.
“No, we didn't get paid to go to all these Educational Seminars to learn the latest classroom management skills and self-esteem techniques,” Roy said, snidely, as he turned the dolly of empty coke bottles around and headed for the door, adding, “The rule in my classroom was 'Fear the Paddle!' And it worked!”
Spring came and I started counting the days until summer vacation, but first the annual field trip. As all Little Lake sixth graders knew, spring is the time for the annual Nature Conservancy Field Trip. The Nature Conservancy is in Branscomb, an hours ride north, deep in a Redwood forest. The field trip needed parents to help chaperone, as we would be spending two nights in small cabins, while daytime was reserved for various learning activities.
Things were going fine the first day, so while the students had some rest time before dinner I decided to go for a run. I notified one of the other teachers that I might be gone for up to an hour, and took off.
I got back to find out while I was gone one of the chaperone mothers, we’ll call her Lynda’s Mom, had started a fight with another mother! Well, almost a fight. Lynda’s Mom pushed the other mother, and the other mother backed down to avoid fisticuffs. I don’t remember what pissed them off, but it just might have inspired a few kids into causing a mild ruckus later that evening.
The highlight of the trip to many students had long been the night hike to the “Haunted House.”
The Haunted House was an old abandoned two-story Victorian that hadn’t been lived in for years. The Nature Conservancy counselors traditionally take the students on this night hike to the “Haunted House” after telling them of the local rumors that the house is haunted. When they get there they walk around the wrap-around deck, looking in the windows for ghosts.
Turned out that two sixth-graders (not from my class!) broke into the house before we got there and caused an uproar, running around making scary noises, which got everyone in a tizzy and obviously pissed off the counselors, resulting in the Conservancy people deciding that the field trip experience for LLMS had come to an end, and that turned out to be LLMS’s last Nature Conservancy Field Trip.
As the school year came to a close, Alotta and I discovered that our birthday was on the same day — June 15th! I was a few years older, but the coincidence was so great that we knew we had to celebrate together. We dined at a local steakhouse, and afterward, in the parking lot, made out for the first time. I was in heaven. I had found the woman of my dreams, but when I took her home she suddenly turned cold and wouldn’t invite me in or even kiss me good night. In fact, we had stopped for gas on the way, and unbeknownst to me she had purchased a Playboy magazine. When we got to her apartment she said goodnight and tossed the Playboy at me, explaining: “To help you cool down and go to sleep.”
“Thanks,” I deadpanned, feeling suddenly like a teenager again.
Well, I did get the transfer to the high school and was looking forward to the new school year, a new cross country season, and perhaps down the line a new girlfriend.