Kevin Billy Sheldon

Paco was a good rabbit. A ball of thick, black fur – he was as obedient as the family dog. He was the perfect class pet. We’d leave his cage door open and he’d come and go as he pleased. Most mornings he’d spend lounging on his belly in the hallway, next to the bust of Abraham Lincoln, waiting  for the  kids. After the first bell, he’d flop back to his cage for breakfast.

Paco was everyone’s favorite, but no one loved him as much as Kevin Billy Sheldon. Billy was one of those kids who spent his life attending to everything but what he should have been doing. I couldn’t get more than a minute or two of his attention at a time. His conversation went into wild circles, never focused, just whatever flashed across his mind. Paco became the center of his scholastic universe, though. The other kids realized this and abdicated feeding duties to him. I rationalized; I felt the added responsibilities might develop better mental habits for Billy, and after awhile I noted that he was following through with his responsibilities, although overdoing it a bit.

“Billy,” I’d say, “Paco shouldn’t eat the whole box in one  day.”

“Yea, Mr. Tim, but he gobbled  it all up. He just ate it all up.”

“Sure, Billy, but he should only have one bowl every day, not a whole box.”

“Yea, but he ate it all up, didn’t he?” – he’d say with a satisfied grin.

It was hard to reason with the boy.

One afternoon Billy’s mom came to the classroom. She wore leather pants and a halter top. I couldn’t tell her age, although she dressed young.

“I come to pick up the rabbit,” she said.

I put down the map I was showing the kids and walked toward the door.

“Pick up the rabbit? Why?”

“Billy said you’d let him take the rabbit home this weekend. I come to take him home.”

“Take him home? Um, O.K.” I was a first year teacher. I wasn’t about to challenge her.

While the kids stared at Mrs. Sheldon with mouths agape, Billy and I gathered the food, wood shavings, water bottle, cage and our beloved rabbit and set off for the car. There was more than enough room in Mrs. Sheldon’s 76’ Pontiac for Paco and all his belongings. I remember Paco driving away, his nose wiggling frantically as Billy shouted out the window – “I’ll take good care of Paco, Mr. Tim. You’ll see. Don’t worry, Mr. Tim.” He must have read my face.

***

A week went by. The kids kept at me, “When’s Paco coming back? When’s Paco coming back?”

I felt like telling  them to go ask Billy, but I was afraid of what he might say. Sure enough, during independent reading, I overheard Billy talking in an excited voice. He used the same tone of voice he’d used when relating an exciting episode of a neighborhood feud, or a real cool explosion. I heard the words “fur,” and “flying” and saw Billy’s arms waving as if demonstrating the flight of an injured bird. It caught my attention. Instinctively I did a word association: fur, flying, Paco. Paco doesn’t fly. Dang.

“Billy, come here!”

“Yes, Mr. Tim.” He came to me as if nothing was out of the norm,  processing only what was happening that very second.

“Where’s Paco, Billy?” I asked, my forehead turning red.

“Well, Mr. Tim,” he began, turning his gaze from the floor, to the wall, up to the ceiling, down to my shoes, anywhere but at me. Something was wrong. Terribly wrong.

“You know my pitbull Sammy?”

“No, I don’t know your pitbull Sammy. What about Sammy?”

“Well, I went down to feed Paco. I feed Paco, you know.

“Yea, I know. Where’s Paco, Billy?” By this time I had both hands on Billy’s shoulders.

“Well, I went downstairs, and there was fur all over the place. Sammy bit his head right off!” he said, eyes wide, as if relating something cool that happened at recess that day.

Still holding Billy, I scanned the room without moving my head, just rolled my eyes back and forth to see if anyone heard Billy. Sure enough, the same kids who didn’t pay any mind to me thrashing about and shouting when our egg incubator caught fire were frozen in place, eyes glued on Billy and me. You’d think I was a master teacher, having all those kids’ attention at the same time.

I released Billy from my grip. He casually walked over to the block area, sat down, and lost himself in play. The rest of the kids stood in place, apparently waiting to see what I’d do or say. I stood with them, thinking, “Why wasn’t there a class-pet methods class in teacher training? Yeah, with a section on violent death.’

Intuition kicked in.

“O.K., everyone, recess!”

The kids unfroze and filed out of the room into the cool hallway, past the bust of Abraham Lincoln, Billy taggin along well behind everyone.

***

 

The Things Dad Carried

Ronald Ernest Fournier
August 30, 1939 – March 16, 2014

The things Dad carried were largely determined by his love. Among his mementos were a St. Christopher medal, a picture of his mother, a picture of mom, a loc of our sister’s hair pressed in a plastic bag, a prayer card, an American Legion membership card, a Red Wings schedule, a handful of change for a paper or a cup of coffee, a badge and a leather notebook.

Dad’s notebook was wrapped in a thick rubber band to keep the business cards and receipts from falling out. It was chock-full of birthdates, to-do lists, planned favors (“fix Mary’s gutter”, “call Ed’s lawyer”, “take mom to doc’s”), appointments pending, batting averages, and devotions.

I remember once finding the dog-eared notebook under the front seat of the family station wagon. I took off the rubber band and it sprang open, sprinkling scraps of paper onto my lap. His distinctive cursive filled the journal. I found the dates of our ball games, references to work, car mileage and gas usage, and titles of books he had read. The mundane and the profound were scattered within a worn diary where our dad recorded the little parts his big life.

Ms. Cross

“The first stab of love is like a sunset, a blaze of color…” – Anna Godbersen

I agree with Anna Godberson. I’d add that first-love isn’t the only love so outstanding, but it is the measure of the (eventual) love of our lives.

My first love was Ms. Cross. It was the purest, warmest, fuzziest kind of love. Ms. Cross was my first grade teacher. Yet, she was so much more than that. She made my heart bigger, my courage stronger, my curiosity broader. I was years from puberty, my first car, or my eligibility to vote. Shoot, I had just learned to tie my own shoes when I met her, the lady who graced our first grade classroom at St. Jude Elementary School. 

Ms. Cross shone upon me like a magical force and transformed me into my better (seven-year-old) self. Beside her making me feel like a million bucks when she looked at me, she showed me kindness, beauty, grace, and generosity. She revealed those universal gifts in the classroom, on the playground, and as she floated down the hallway en route to the cafeteria.

Man, and her snacks: oyster crackers and cherry Kool-Aid. She served the Kool-Aid in those little Dixie cups with riddles printed on the sides that I only began to decode with her gentle tutoring. I ate each oyster cracker individually, letting them melt in my mouth like my heart melted for her. 

Oh, Ms. Cross. Once, I got to stroll with her, hand-in-hand, on a beautiful moon-lit summer night. It made a memory I take with me into old age. It would have never happened without the deft scheming of Mrs. Wahl, my mother’s friend, confidant, and collaborator. Mrs. Wahl and her four children were like family – we were always over each other’s house and the Wahls were a permanent fixture at our cottage in the summers. Mrs. Wahl was keen to my infatuation with the rookie teacher who, as luck would have it, lived just a few doors down the street. The night was still young, and the eight of us kids had just devoured a few Fantasy bowling ally pizza pies. We were in the backyard starting a kick-the-can tourney, when Mrs. Wahl called me up to the back porch.

 “Tim, you want to visit Ms. Cross?” She said, my mom peering over her shoulder with a mischievous grin.

I nodded, dumbly, answering matter-of-factly like any seven year-old would; not realizing in my young innocence that the question wasn’t rhetorical. 

 “Come on.” Mrs. Wahl took my hand and led me around the aluminum-sided bungalow and out onto the sidewalk. We walked down the street as I counted each crack in the concrete on our way to meet my angel-on-earth. 

And there she was. Ms. Cross stood in the middle of the sidewalk, bathed in the glow of the streetlight, her back ram-rod straight, her auburn hair cascading over her shoulders, a dimpled smile that couldn’t be fabricated – she was really happy to see me! If I could only describe the mirth, the joy, the serenity that whirled within me… pardon the cliche, but time stood still. And so did we, for a moment. Mrs. Wahl transferred my damp little hand into Ms. Cross’, bid us good bye, turned, and walked back into the darkness. I was left under the streetlamp with Ms. Cross. She looked down upon me and asked if I’d like to go for a walk around the block. Struck with wonder, I wasn’t able to articulate language –  I probably just grunted, or gestured, in the affirmative. And we were off, drifting around the block, my hand at head-level to reach hers, as we shared fifteen minutes of exquisite, pedestrain communion. 

I don’t know what was said on that twilight constitutional, nor what was seen. I simply remember that cacophony of splendid feelings within me, and the sense that all was right in a world that was graced with someone like dear Ms. Cross.

We soon went our separate ways, me to the public school a few blocks away, and Ms. Cross to a career that, I imagine, blessed the lives of many other children over the years. 

I’ve walked the earth for many, many years with her memory in my heart. That memory served as a life preserver during times of little faith, and a wind beneath my wings during more inspired periods. But, I assure you, her effect upon me wasn’t matched until many years later – in very similar circumstances, too. I was in my late twenties by then, and a good friend of mine and I went for a sunset walk at the cottage. We’d been friends for quite awhile, laughing at the same movies, horsing around while waiting in long lines, and reading the same books. But on that particular walk, I realized what this auburn-haired, dimpled-cheeked, straight-backed friend of mine was doing – she could conjure in me that same cacophony of serenity and joy that I knew back in first grade. 

She made me a better man, as she held my hand. 

Public School Welfare

Seems to me the American public schools are saddled with two particularly heavy burdens. One is discussed widely and debated heatedly, the other is like an elephant in the classroom – huge and hungry but rarely acknowledged:

Teaching poor kids is expensive. Their deficits are costly in time and resources.

Teaching wealthy kids is expensive. Their demands are costly in time and resources.

I have taught in both communities. My experiences have taught me that, besides a swath of American families who lightly tax school systems, these two groups are the biggest consumers of public school services. My experiences have also taught me that impoverished schools are largely populated by students of color and wealthy schools serve mostly white kids. Aside from their disparate assignments, teachers in both communities have this in common: both are overwhelmingly white.
The schools in the Dominican Republic were probably the poorest I’ve worked in, outside of the Detroit Public Schools. The first town I worked in had a school whose principal and two of its teachers went missing mid-year. We soon discovered that they had taken the dangerous overnight journey by rickety fishing boat across the Mona Canal to Puerto Rico in an effort to provide better for their families. Dominican students attended class if they could afford the uniform and if they didn’t have to work a day job to help feed their family. Some came totally illiterate, but ready to read; others came eager to read, but with deficits and dysfunctions that would be impossible to overcome without specialized instruction that the school couldn’t afford, let alone find.
My experience teaching in Detroit was similar, in a way. Although Detroit teachers didn’t seek to flee the country, many of us did seek to flee the city schools. Along with other returned Peace Corps volunteers, I entered the Detroit classroom by way of the Peace Corp Teaching Fellowship. Having survived the trials of an impoverished foreign land, we were selected to teach in ‘unfilled’ assignments by day while pursuing our credentials at night. We committed to teach three years in Detroit. Of the dozens of us who began the fellowship, only a handful remained after five years. A decade later, I knew of only two of us left teaching in the Detroit Public Schools. The great majority of us took our credentials and Master’s Degrees and moved to wealthy suburbs, others left education altogether.
Needless to say, both the Dominican and Detroit classrooms tended to be chaotic. Attendance by students and staff was sporadic. Although the students were organized by age group, their reading abilities varied wildly; illiteracy was epidemic. Classroom support and materials were uneven. Teacher salaries and esteem were low. I remember many days driving home feeling like I had failed and that I was part of a larger failure. The newspapers and politicians often helped to reinforce those feelings.
My wife (a fellow Peace Corps Fellow) and I left the Detroit Public Schools after five years to teach internationally. We moved to Colombia and taught at a wealthy private school in the city of Manizales, a college town in the heart of the nation’s coffee production. The school hired half of its staff from Canada and the United States, the other half were local. We foreign teachers received a salary and living allowance that provided a lifestyle far better then we could afford back home in Detroit. All my fourth grade students were bilingual and biliterate, and all could afford after-school tutoring (most took advantage of it). Leaving school each day, we felt like we were part of a success. We were often praised for our successful teaching. Yet, we weren’t as exhausted and worried.
Although we returned to the States and to “at risk” schools, we eventually found ourselves teaching in one of Michigan’s wealthiest zip codes. The pay grade was better, with the promise of maxing out our pensions, and the students walked in the doors fully literate. Many families sought extra-curricular tutoring and opted their children into our district’s Spanish and Mandarin immersion programs, where their home-language fluency would transfer to their second languages (and eventually onto their college applications). Student gains could be expected like a check on payday. And we rode home at night feeling like we were, again, part of a success.
Public schools opponents argue that education can not compete with poverty. They lament the resources that poorer districts devour with very little to show for it. They bicker about the cost of bilingual services (why don’t they learn English like my grandfather did?), and the pricey enrichment programs, free lunches, and remedial services. Most of all, they rally at the price of the teacher. Her greed almost surpasses her laziness, why look at her students! They can barely read!
Yet, we can walk into the zip code next door and that consumer regret is met with great consumer demands. The public school customer in wealthy communities might pepper teachers with emails, expecting a 24 hour (or less) response. State of the art athletic fields, chaperoned field trips abroad, accommodations built upon accommodations, customized parent teacher conferences and unscheduled meetings in aisle nine of the grocery store become expectations, not burdens. And if an expectation isn’t met, the next parent-teacher organization meeting will make a presidential debate look like a walk in the park.
My performance in Detroit and Dominican classrooms generally looks different than my instruction in wealthier schools, even though I generally use the same methods and practices and my instruction has produced measurable student gains in both communities. The half- baked lesson I deliver in Forest Hills might look like I hit it out of the ballpark – winning student gains in spite of me missing the mark, while the lesson I nail in Detroit leaves students engaged and learning, but only baby steps forward on the great spectrum of literacy.
Until we address the reality that affluence enhances instruction and poverty corrodes it, politicians and policy makers are merely practicing voodoo. Pretending instruction in Del Ray is the same as instruction in Grosse Pointe is insanity, and perpetuates the tragic American tradition: a nation of two public schools systems, one highly successful, and mostly caucasian, another an abject misery populated by most students of color.
If we begin by confronting the lie that all our Public Schools play on an even playing field, we take baby steps to a better future for our kids and “their kids”. If our public schools are vibrant enough not to need charter school competition, why should their kids have to navigate a marketplace of speculators? If our child’s teachers find pride and gainful employment in our districts, how can we create the same environment for educators in their districts? If a healthy campus and modern resources are essential to our child’s growth, why should our neighboring district have anything less?
Fund it, tend to it, celebrate it – just like our own child’s district. We don’t question the cost in time and money for our home districts. We have no lack of enthusiasm for our child’s teachers, sports programs, and physical plant. We devote plenty of our time and energies to our school organizations and events. Imagine the gains those same energies and resources would yield if we expended them beyond our own district’s

boundaries. Think of the public schools we could have if we took into account, and responded to, the situations of other people’s children.
Turning what we perceive as a burden inflicted by ‘“them” into an expectation for all our nation’s children could be the best education reform yet.