The Journey Here

First School

I created it in the corner of the basement in our split-level suburban Chicago home. My parents must have recognized my love of all things school-related and they found two old hinge-top desks for me. They scrounged a chalkboard from somewhere and mounted it on the stubborn cement wall. My dad made ditto machine copies for me at his office from the workbooks I begged my mom to purchase at the strip mall teachers’ store.

I had this…

in case I had to take things on the road.

I begged my younger sister to play school with me and she’d frequently oblige. (I’m so sorry, Sharyn! It was so early in my career.) Occasionally our neighborhood friends would come down and I could convince them to put down the Barbies and Star Wars figures or quit roller skating around the support beam for long enough to cajole a worksheet out of them.

I loved that little space. I loved being the teacher.

My students often hated me.

I had internalized the system that I was attending, and I was cranking it back upon my sibling and friends, unaware that a space meant for play must release them from the shackles of their Monday through Friday, 9:00-3:3o lives.

But I couldn’t get enough of it. I loved my teachers, loved the smell of textbooks–even read them for fun, marvelling at why on Earth! couldn’t we ever finish them in a school year?

I loved the quiet dimness and echoes of the cinder block and tile hallways if I worked up enough courage to seek permission to go to the bathroom or get a drink during work time. I’d steal glances into the boiler room and the mysterious chugging machinery within.

I loved the library and the spots on the shelves I returned to time and again for my favorite books, piling them high on the checkout desk, always forgiven a book or two over the limit.

I loved the playground with it’s massive maples and places amongst their roots we called ‘secret’ for hiding special bits of stone and wood chips essential in scenes long forgotten.

In so many ways I was a fortunate child in an affluent school system that paved a foundation for my dedication to this field. But for all the warmth and goodness around me in those spaces, I knew early that others were not happy there.

In kindergarten, the beloved woman who smiled over her piano to keep us singing “O Beautiful” was also someone who tied a classmate to his chair with a jump rope. His needs were exceptional and special. I did not tell anyone who could help.

In second grade, a left-handed boy who looked out the window too long to those swaying maple towers was physically reprimanded to write neater, pay attention, and work harder at not smudging his papers. I remember the sound of his hand hitting the desk and seeing that she had made that happen, with her fierce grip on his wrist, tears and fear in his eyes. I bowed my head and colored my ditto copies for the pages of our bird books. Cardinal. Blue Jay. A robin like my name.

In third grade, the teachers shared a doorway between two classrooms. They were terse, diminutive women with high heels, cigarette-tuned voices, and a set of reprimands they spoke in common to us nine year olds:

“You’re a day late and a dollar short.”

“What? Do I look like your mother?”

“You’re going to need more than the right answer to get anywhere further than where you’re going.”

During presentation once where we had to report on the states, one boy had proudly traced the shape of Kansas and marked a star labeled “Kansas City” as its capital.

“Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me?” the gray-haired one began. She went over to the doorway, opened it and called for back-up. The red-haired sidekick clicked over in her heels, and they put on a kind of back and forth act as my classmate stood in front of the room, slowly lowering his report. “This kid thinks the capital of Kansas is Kansas City. For the love of Pete, did you even do any research?”

Did they cough and spit upon the ground, too? In my memory, they’ve become the kind of people who would have done so.

Fourth grade was a reprieve. Our teacher was golden to everyone. She never changed the burlap background to her bulletin boards, raised chicks from eggs in the front of the room and once placed a lost duckling from the schoolyard into my hands so we could take it to our family’s farm. She was the kind of person with self-awareness to lower her voice when she felt it raising in frustration. She’d try again and again to explain difficult topics to learners who were stuck, and she included us all in celebrations. She was so kind.

Except for the time she was bowled over at the year-end picnic on the park hill by a gregarious classmate who was running one way, yelling and looking in the other direction. No one expected the full-contact hit and our teacher’s legs flying up from beneath her ever-present chambray skirt. She all but cursed the poor girl’s name.

In fifth grade, I missed out on being placed in the young and pretty new teacher’s class and was instead seated next to a child who never made contact with the seat of his desk chair, orbiting about that station in as many ways as he could. His lips were perpetually cracked and he’d gape them open at me as he glanced at my work, attempting to grasp something to put down during a pause in his movement. Our teacher wore various colored nylon stockings for belts, was considered “odd” and had a curious habit of playing Brahms and Beethoven unpredictably on the boxy class record player at various points during the day. I had just begun to learn to draw a bow across the strings of the viola so I found a place inside those swells of sound.

I remember drawing the Jamestown colony and trying to remind my busy neighbor to include a town square in his work. I think he finished just one goat. One day I returned from lunch to find him crouched under the coats along the wall, crying. I don’t think I had any idea how to help him. I think I must have just taken my seat.

I wrote that I wanted to be a “chimpanzee communicator” on the page about our future goals in our little fifth grade memory book, but somewhere in there I was already considering that I never wanted to leave the environment of school.

I had schoolosis and I was a watcher. I was transfixed by the actions of my teachers and my peers, and while I know that I must have spoken and interacted with my classmates, I remember them most with an almost-photographic quality or silent pans across the scenes in those rooms.

Junior high was taxing on my need for large swaths of time and space for my tendency to notice, mull and wonder.  The pace was so different. We had many more teachers for the first time, and hallways filled with students. I survived it. I remember having to play what was termed “The Ghetto Game” for points and a grade in a social studies room. I lost early by becoming a single mother without a GED. The teacher had a habit of rearing back on his chair and putting his boot-laced feet on the desk. He wore dark-tinged sunglasses and smelled of alcohol.

In high school, the mad dash to keep up was upon me. I found myself noticing things teachers were trying to do to engage us in critical thinking to stretch our habits. During the first back to school night as a freshman, the ambulance came roaring to the school’s great circle drive and they carried out the English teacher who had just introduced us to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. I had finished it overnight beneath the glow of an overheated task lamp clipped to my bed. I was ready to hang on every word of his analysis over the coming weeks. He was gone.

The class treated the substitute horribly. I faced forward and raised my hand whenever her shaky questions hung in the air without any response. I could see her fight back tears most days. She nominated me for a position in the student writing center.

I found the elective for early childhood development and the chance to teach in the in-house preschool run by a fantastic home economics teacher and early childhood specialist. My advisor made certain to say that this was a course track most suitable for students who might not go to college and those who might find work in daycares. He repeated this two more different ways. I must have had a blank look on my face. A school within a school? Nothing was standing in my way.

One of my childhood friends questioned me relentlessly about my college choices. My peers were Top Ten-conference bound. I needed constant help with my AP Calculus work. She wondered if I was really going into education. “You’ll never make very much money. And no one respects teachers.” I started leaving out big sections of my thoughts and dreams in our conversations.

I was interviewed by a nun in an office with a view of Chicago for consideration of a scholarship at DePaul University to study education. She asked me why I wanted to become a teacher. I remember struggling to come up with words and landing on something like, “I can’t remember not loving school.” She was the first one to mention social justice to me, and that I would be expected to give back by teaching in an urban community one day. It didn’t matter if I wasn’t Catholic. Commitment to the mission of helping others through this social justice lens in the classroom was what they were looking for. Could I do that?

I signed various papers indicating that I could and the most transformative phase of my journey to become a teacher began. We read Freire and hooks and Giroux and stepped into classrooms that looked nothing like those I had come from. When asked to write a paper on our personal philosophy of education in a senior class on historical foundations in education, I procrastinated. Things weren’t feeling settled in my path to become a teacher. I was uncomfortable about attempting to understand and reconcile differences as the leader in a classroom. I panicked. I could not take on this responsibility.

Instead of writing an essay drawing upon the great philosophers of education, their contemporaries, and my dawning connection to them all, I wrote that I clearly had to quit this path because I was confused about my role in the classroom. Dr. Haymes scrawled the dreaded “See Me” across the top. I approached his desk after the last class and he said that I obviously hadn’t completed the assignment according to his guidelines but that he’d hoped I would reconsider my decision. That classrooms needed doubt, uncertainty, and the absolute commitment to ongoing questioning that I had communicated in my paper. There was a small “A” near the last line of my writing.

I took my first position in a creaky hulk of a three-story building on the the Northwest side of the city. At one time, there were over a dozen different languages and backgrounds represented in my classroom. I muddled through. A pair of Fiskars grazed my temple one day when I continued to force a point about missed math homework on a student who lived in a group home. I remember his shocked look at my fear. He bolted from the classroom. I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to follow them if they ran. My principal said to let him go.

He came back at some point as the days went on. We settled on some sort of truce and I struggled behind it all to make sense of what I was doing to him and his classmates within these structures.

I discovered the idea of classroom libraries and the possibilities that a wired classroom might bring. My students, so many of them new to this country, smiled when they could at my mistakes. We laughed more.

When it was time to say goodbye to that beautiful old building with its views of the distant skyline through the big windows and WPA murals, I wept. Where would I ever learn as much as I had there? The undocumented parents of students had just started to answer my phone calls and come see me at conferences. Small treasures were pressed into my hands. I had learned to abandon what didn’t work and listen carefully to what wasn’t being said.

I considered taking a break from this work. We downsized. Sold our home at the height of the real estate bubble and moved to a farmstead in Iowa. A rare position opened in the small rural district near our family’s Wisconsin farm. A neighbor asked if I might be interested. In the interview I had to answer a round of unending questions about managing student behavior if all other resources were unavailable. At the time, I didn’t question the ridiculousness of the question. I started to sweat and babble, exasperated. I finally blurted out the scissor story. The interview committee dropped their jaws. I was hired.

And thus began my education as a rural educator.

Somehow I’m not quite ready to write about the decade I spent there. It’s coming, of course. My work and relationships there are unfinished. I hope to tell you more about how they were the best teachers.

And of my beautiful year in the School District of Holmen. About the freedom and respect I’ve found to create true learning labs for my students. And how I finally found my niche.

It’s funny how it looks a lot like my first school on George Street in a sleepy little suburb so many miles and years away.

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