When I first began my student teaching in the spring of 1979 I was an idealist. “Chuck E.’s in Love” by Ricky Lee Jones, “Dependin on You”, by the Doobie Brothers and “Dog and Butterfly” by Heart were on the top 40. The Bee Gees did a shamelessly disco version of “Sergeant Pepper’s” which was way over played on the radio. Way over played. Saturday Night Live was happening on, well, Saturday night and we all crowded around my roommate’s old black and white TV. Nothing was sacred any more on TV with Saturday Night Live. We were loving it. Bell bottom pants were in but going out. We called our girls “chicks” and it was cool. “Cool” was in, “groovy” way out. Being a hippie was becoming passé but long hair was still fashionable for about half the young men I hung around with. Jimmy Carter was president. I had voted for him in 1976. I was a senior in college. I was looking at graduation (not that I would actually walk across the stage – I was way too cool for that). After graduation, a graduate internship in Grand Rapids, Michigan. All was good in the world. All was cool.
With my course work mostly behind me, (I had changed majors and still had a little catching up to do the following summer – but that was cool) I was looking forward to real teaching. I had loved spending time with the little ones in my practicum courses. After a spell of not knowing what I would do as a “grown-up” I had settled into the fact that I would teach little kids. It was going to be a wonderful experience, a wonderful life. My classmates and my very best friend Heidi (who was to become my wife in another year and a half) were doing their student teaching at the same time. I had just enough money to make it by. I lived in a communal house with my music buddies. All was right with the world.
Because I was going to have an Early Childhood Endorsement with my teaching credential, I had a split placement for that semester. I was going to spend the first 9 weeks in a second grade class and the next half of the semester with a Kindergarten group. When I showed up, bright and early at the second grade class on that first day of school the door to the classroom was locked. I had never met Mrs. G (I shall use her initial henceforth), but I knew that her husband was the principal of the elementary school. The door was locked. The other teachers in the hall were all there early, setting up their rooms, taking down the Christmas decorations (in those days it was still politically correct to have Christmas decorations publicly displayed in the halls and in classrooms) and anxiously preparing to see their precious students. Two weeks is a long time in the life of a little one and these teachers knew it. They were probably as excited to be back at school as their kids. I was excited too. Breathless. This would be my first real class. I knew I would fall in love with them, that I would learn so much from this experience.
All of the other teachers were there and the door to my new classroom was still locked. Children were entering the building. I was beginning to doubt whether or not I was in the right place when Mrs. G. came barreling down the hall. She was an enormous woman. I wouldn’t even mention this except that it was part of her presence. She practically yelled whenever she spoke. Most of what she said was an order. The first words I ever heard her speak were something like, “Get out of my way! DON’T YOU SEE ME COMING?” She hustled down the hall (as fast as she could hustle) and dropped her bookbag at my feet as she reached for the classroom key on the springy elastic band around her wrist.
“Hi,” I said weakly. “I’m…”
“I know who you are! Pick up my bag and place it next to my desk. On the right side looking forward.” We walked in and I beheld the room where I was to spend the next nine weeks, the official beginning of my teaching career. “WELCOME TO 2ND GRADE” was stenciled on faded construction paper above the chalkboard. Above that was the manuscript alphabet, white letters on a green background. They’d been up there for years. They looked exactly like the alphabet up on the wall in my second grade classroom in 1964. “That’s where you’ll sit,” she said with a swivel of her large head. In the corner of the room, facing the wall was a student desk with a student-sized chair. “Wash the board before the students get here. So, they let you have hair that long at IU, do they?”
“Not very professional in my estimation. You’ll find that when you have your first interview, I expect. Now hurry with the board and dry it with that rag. Write in your neatest manuscript, ‘WELCOME BACK CHILDREN’ all capitals. Children really love capital letters. They didn’t teach you that in your methods classes did they?”
“There, you see, I taught you something already. Hurry up, the children are coming.” Mrs G. smelled. Her body odor trailed behind her like an unwanted ghost. Sweat. Perfume. She hadn’t had a bath in a while. My first impression was a scary one.
The kids came piling into the classroom in that way that kids do. They were eager to see each other and to catch up on the last two weeks. It was obvious that they were not looking forward to seeing their teacher. She barely addressed them but as soon as they came across the threshold their voices dropped and they put their things away and went to their assigned seats. Mrs. G hardly looked up as she was pulling out worksheets to copy for the morning work. “Here, get these run off.” I didn’t know the procedure for running papers in this building but it was clear that I was on my own. It was also clear that I’d better hurry. “BOYS AND GIRLS! QUIET. GET TO YOUR SEATS!” It seemed to me that she was hollering and I couldn’t tell why. “Get out your math books and do the problems on page 68. Let’s just see how much you’ve FORGOTTEN over these last two weeks!”
In that building the secretary had to run all papers. They used an old ditto machine, the kind with fumes and purple ink. The secretary asked me who my cooperating teacher was and when I said Mrs. G. She paused and sighed. I couldn’t exactly read that, but it didn’t strike me as a positive sign.
I could hear her hollering as I came back down the hall toward room 202. I don’t remember exactly what it was but I do recall that, “WHAT IN THE WORLD IS WRONG WITH YOU!?” was one of her favorite sayings. When I came in the room was silent. Stone quiet. Mrs. G. was puffing. Sweating a little too. And stinking a little. “WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT!?” Well I hadn’t been looking at anything I mumbled. “Make yourself a key and check these papers for me,” she ordered. I was happy to oblige.
The rest of the morning was seatwork with the language dittos I ran off for her. She let me have the honor of taking the kids out to recess. It was a little chilly and I had checked all the papers she left for me. There was a blacktop pad on the playground with a basketball goal. With Mrs. G. not around, I felt more at ease with the kids. We played and laughed and had a good time. No one misbehaved in any way that I could tell. They were just kids. I was miserable thinking that Mrs. G. was going to be my mentor for half a semester. All I had seen her “teach” was the dittos and they were pretty insane. Circle the letter for the initial sound of the picture… Fill in the blank with a word from the word bank… And handwriting, handwriting, handwriting. The way she “taught” handwriting was tracing over letters and copying letters. On dittos. The morning seemed like it had lasted for hours. No one could talk or whisper.
Now that we were outside and playing and laughing hard, I wondered if I could take being Mrs. G’s underling for nine weeks. I was trying to be optimistic but the morning was the exact opposite of what I was taught about good classrooms. I had already participated in a number of practicum courses and all of my methods courses and underneath all of these was a basic respect for human dignity, an appreciation for children. There wasn’t a whiff of those feelings in Mrs. G’s second grade classroom.
The afternoon was nearly the same as the morning, only the handouts were fairly random math seatwork (called arithmetic by Mrs. G). These sets of papers were handed to me as the children went to gym. I sat at my assigned seat in the corner fuming about the day and thinking that all she wanted me there for was to run off and check her stupid papers. What was I going to learn about how to be an effective teacher from this?
We had hardly spoken to each other all day. The silence in the room was uncomfortable as she snacked on potato chips and I graded the papers. “I saw the way you were interacting with the children at recess. I can see the recess field from the window.”
“Yes?” I responded. Her tone was accusatory. I hadn’t a clue as to why.
“Awfully familiar, don’t you think?”
“Familiarity breeds contempt, you know.” It was an accusation.
“You’re NOT to play with the children at recess. It’s unseemly and the children will not treat you with the respect you deserve if you play with them. It’s unprofessional.”
I was perplexed. I could see that she could never - would never, even if she could – play with children. But she was forbidding me to play at recess. I was only 20 years old. Not much more than a kid myself. She was telling me that I couldn’t become friends with the students. I didn’t know how to respond. I tried to be bold. “Don’t you think that a little time playing together might help me to get to know the kids? I mean we just met and I thought…”
“You thought? Are you questioning me? What in the world are they teaching you at IU? It’s all about respect, Mr. O’Keefe. RESPECT!” She turned away from me toward her desk and left me to sulk about not being allowed to play with the kids. We’ll see about this, I thought.
“Libby,” I pleaded with my university coordinator after school on the phone. “She is totally mean. She is always yelling and the kids don’t even know what she’s mad about half of the time.”
“You were just there a day. You don’t know the history of the class.”
“Libby, you would have felt it too. It is poison in there. Poison. I’ve got to get out. Can’t you find me another placement? It’s so early in the semester. I’ll make up the day, I swear.” Libby was an old hippie. She was a grad student making her own ends meet with supervising student teachers. She was kind and real and sympathized. She knew what I meant but wasn’t willing to let me give up.
“Stick it out for a week or two, O’Keefe. You were there what, one day? You didn’t give the woman a chance.”
“You should have heard her Lib. She was mean from the second she saw the kids to the second they left.”
“Listen, I have had some kids with tough placements before. You can still learn a lot. It isn’t pretty, but in a very real way you can learn how NOT to be a teacher. Based on the things you’ve told me already, you’re learning tons.”
“No way. Nine weeks? You expect me to learn how NOT to teach for nine weeks? And she stinks to high Heaven,” I said, grasping at straws.
“I trust you, OK? I have heard that she is a decent teacher but you’re probably right. Please just give it a week. Just five school days. If it doesn’t work… we’ll find something. Five days is all I ask.”
“Just to the end of the week. That’s four more days.”
“OK, but keep the faith.”
That conversation did not put my mind at ease. I should be in another classroom with someone kind. I wouldn’t have cared if they were the same as me philosophically, I couldn’t stand being around someone who never lightened up, who never stopped hollering and who stunk. I felt so sorry for those students. I felt that way after a single day, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live with this woman for seven hours a day for one hundred seventy days. That would seem like an eternity.
The next day was basically the same. I was early. Mrs. G was late. I ran off papers and then checked them. She hollered and scolded. She smelled worse than the day before. I asked about teaching science at our break since it didn’t look as though she was headed in any particular direction that way. It didn’t seem as though she had any science of social studies in mind at all. “SCIENCE?” she yelled. “Of course I teach science! Would you like to see how an experienced teacher teaches SCIENCE? Watch carefully Mr. O’Keefe.”
When the children returned from their morning recess, she kept them busy at their seats with plenty of meaningless seatwork. She removed an egg from her huge lunch sack. Then she took a dirty old glass milk bottle from a cabinet. “Watch what you can do with SCIENCE, boys and girls!” she yelled, smirking in my direction. She removed the shell from the hard boiled egg and sat it nakedly on her desk. Then she ripped a piece of paper from a notebook and took some matches from her desk drawer. After lighting the paper she clumsily dropped it into the bottle. She grinned. The children ooohed as they had probably never seen fire in the classroom before. Then she put the egg over the mouth of the grimy bottle which covered the opening completely. The fire in the bottle went out as the air inside was used up. Smoke curled up and because of the low pressure in the bottle the egg sank into the opening. Unfortunately, it was not enough to suck the egg into the bottle. The effect was rather subtle and I’m not sure that the children could notice any change. Mrs. G squirmed a bit.
“YOU SEE?!” she asked. “THE EGG IS GETTING SUCKED INTO THE BOTTLE!” The egg just sort of sat there. “SEE?!” she said again, as if saying it louder would make it actually happen. Then, not so subtly, she reached up from behind the egg with her thumb and popped it in. It landed in the ashes at the bottom. The children were not all that impressed because they had seen her push the egg in. “DID YOU SEE?” The children dutifully nodded that they had, in fact, seen the egg enter the bottle.
“Well, alright then, it’s time for lunch. Get your things.” The children gathered their lunch and recess things and lined up. “Take them to lunch and recess, Mr. O’Keefe. And remember what I said. I can see the recess field from the window.” As I left the room I could see Mrs. G with the overturned bottle and a knife cutting the ashy egg to pieces, which she would no doubt eat as part of her immense lunch.
Okay, disgusting. And not good science by any stretch. Also, I wasn’t allowed to play with the kids at recess. But it was not an altogether horrible morning. I guessed that I could get used to it if I had to. But for nine weeks?
When we got back in from recess it was time for more handwriting. The kids had a few trace-and-copy worksheets to do. When they were finished they were expected to pretty much just sit there quietly. Mrs. G sat at her desk flipping through magazines (she told me that she was working on lesson plans – I never saw any lesson plans). At one point she got up and walked around to check on the kids’ progress. One little girl was sort of doodling on the back of her paper. Mrs. G had walked up behind her as quietly as was possible for her. The girl kept on making her looping drawings on the back of her finished handwriting sheet.
“WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE YOU DOING, MISSY?!” she shrieked. The little girl jumped as if slapped. “WELL, WHAT?”
“Just trying some cursive, Ma’am,” was her soft reply. I wouldn’t have believed that Mrs. G could move so fast. She did not hit the girl. But she snatched up the paper from the little one’s desk and violently ripped it to shreds all the time yelling, “HOW DARE YOU WRITE CURSIVE?! WHAT MAKES YOU THINK THAT YOU CAN TEACH YOURSELF?” She tore all of the papers on the girl’s desk into pieces. “WHAT YOU LEARN INCORRECTLY COULD TAKE YEARS TO FIX! YEARS! DON’T YOU EVER WRITE IN CURSIVE AGAIN UNLESS I TELL YOU TO. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
The kid was scared speechless. “WELL, DO YOU?” A nod. “FINE, and let that be a lesson to all of you.”
She returned to her desk with a satisfied sigh. She was panting. It was the most effort I’d seen her put into anything in the two days I’d spent with her.
That was it for me. After the children were dismissed at the end of the day I gathered all of my things. Mrs. G didn’t have a word to say to me. I didn’t have anything to say to her. Not even a good bye.
“Libby, it’s Tim.”
“You don’t have to worry. I’ll get a job waiting tables this spring. There’ll be plenty of placements in the fall. I’ll just finish my coursework in the summer and stick around. I love Bloomington. I’ll just begin my masters a semester later than I thought…”
“Okay, okay, how bad was it?”
“Truly, Lib, it’s not a problem. If we can’t come up with an alternative placement, I’ll just stick around…”
“What’d she do, O’Keefe?”
“For one thing she screamed in this precious little girl’s face. You wanna know what for? For pretending to write in cursive! She was done with her freaking seatwork and she was bored and G came down on her like a ton of bricks. The kid was just supposed to sit there and do nothing. Like it’s solitary confinement at your desk or something. She committed the crime of pretending to write in cursive…” I was ranting and I knew it. But it wasn’t right, what G had done to that girl. It just wasn’t right. “She tore up that child’s paper, Lib. Shredded it and threw it in her face like she was worthless. She made her cry, Lib. For no reason.” I was running out of breath. “No reason at all. I can’t do it, Libby. But don’t worry, like I said, I can wait tables…”
“All right. All right. You win. If I made you go through nine weeks of that it would be idiotic. We’ll find you something.”
And we did. By the grace of God, Heidi heard a fourth grade teacher sort of complaining at her faculty meeting at the University School about never getting a student teacher. I contacted Libby, she contacted the principal, who contacted Sandy Richards. Sandy welcomed me into her classroom with wide open arms. There couldn’t be two more different teachers on the face of the earth than Mrs. G and Sandy Richards. G's mean spirited attitude was raplaced with Sandy's kindness. The student-vs.-the-teacher mentality of G's classroom was replaced by collaboration and great conversations in Sandy's room. Sandy's students loved coming to school. They laughed a lot. They were optimistic. They dreamed. When I got to Sandy's fourth grade classroom they were in the middle of studying whales. Those students were passionate about whales. They thought they could change the world for whales. I don't even think G's kids knew what science really means. My placement there at University School with Sandy, and later with Vickie Drummonds in kindergarten, was the most incredible good fortune in my life up to that point.
I ask myself now and then how things would have turned out if I had stuck it out with Mrs. G. Would I have become as miserable as her? Would students be my enemy? Would I still be teaching? Or, could I have learned how not to teach and come out on the other side of that mess a strong teacher who loves children?
Because she saved me from my predicament, Heidi and I did our student teaching at the same school for the winter and spring of 1979. We were married a year and a half later. Would we still be together if I had not switched placements? What if Libby was hard-nosed about it and made me stay with G? What if I had quit and waited tables? Would I have even gone back in the fall? I know that I’ll never know the answer to those questions, but I think back on how close my life was to becoming something so very different than it is now and it is another reason for me to count my blessings.