A Chat With An Old Teacher

A student teacher sat down with an old teacher and asked a few  questions:

1. What originally got you interested in teaching?

While living in the Dominican Republic as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was asked to teach English in the village school. I was immediately drawn to the challenge (and sometimes futility) of teaching. The experience ran counter to the common assumptions I had always heard about teaching. I left Peace Corps service and entered a fellowship program at the University of Michigan that placed returned volunteers in Detroit Public Schools classrooms. That experience revealed the similarities between the challenges in Third World classrooms and those in our impoverished U.S. schools.

2. What have been some of your hardest challenges during your teaching career?

Compliance and money. The public school system is a labyrinth of policy upon well-intentioned policy, creating a quagmire for students and teachers to navigate. From common assessments, to textbook contracts, the classroom is subject to an onslaught of non-instructional distractions. Coupled with dwindling resources, the public school teacher is working harder than ever, while receiving unprecedented scrutiny.

3. What do you tell people when they ask why you are a teacher? Or why you do something that does not have a large salary?

Public service. I explain that I’ve always been drawn to the honor of public service, be it law enforcement, healthcare, or education. It can be a wonderful way to (hopefully) make a living wage while contributing to the welfare of the townsquare.

4. What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Students’ academic gains (of any size) and the exquisite relationships with children and their parents that are an essential ingredient to teaching and learning.

5. How did you choose where you began teaching?

Detroit is my hometown. Also, I am a product of the Detroit Public Schools. Timing was key, too, as the Peace Corps Fellowship was centered in the Detroit Public Schools, and the district was in dire need of bilingual teaching candidates (I returned to Detroit fluent in Spanish after serving in the Dominican Republic).

6. What is one piece of advice you would give to a college student studying to be a elementary teacher?

It is imperative that you get into as many K-12 classrooms as possible. Substitute, volunteer, visit, anything you can do to breathe in the reality of a classroom. Too many of us enter public education with coursework, degrees, and perceptions of the vocation without intimate experience of the hallowed ground of learning: the classroom. Get there.

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Happy Birthday, Dad

This was your fourth birthday party you’ve missed, Dad. But Mom was in a huddle of kin, holding babies, laughing at her sons’ lame jokes and her daughter’s hilarious tales. She was doted upon by daughters-in-law and grandchildren. Your kid sister brought stories of the old days along with your beloved niece and nephew. Jim held Mom’s chair and Rosie hit a whiffle ball onto the neighbor’s roof. The kitchen counter was filled with tubs of pulled pork and mac & cheese (you would have doubled down on your Lipitor, for sure), and the fridge was packed with beers and lemonade. 
We miss you.
But we felt your presence in a baby’s embrace, in the thud of a bean bag on plywood, in the sweet release of laughter, in the first swig of a beer, and the last hug out the door.
Happy birthday, Dad. 

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.