As Chinua Achebe Said, “Things Fall Apart”

My brilliant mother forced me to become a teacher, and for a while I was furious with her.  Before long, however, I became eternally grateful to her for being iron-willed and knowing what was best for her children.  Without her determination, I might have never discovered a profession that I absolutely loved from the first morning I stepped into a classroom to the erasing of my last blackboard.  (See blog entry “Anything But a Teacher,” January 25, 2017)

Ninety-nine point ninety-nine percent of my teaching career was wonderful.  I loved going to school, and I loved staying after school—directing plays and musicals, coaching the academic team and the quiz bowl team, and sponsoring S.A.D.D. (Students Against Driving Drunk—a huge 300-member club).  Every day was different.  Most days offered something exciting.  For the majority of my career I taught in two great buildings.  Follansbee High School had been converted to a middle school.  I taught seventh and eighth grade language arts in a wonderful, large, room with black boards, high ceilings, and big, tall windows lining its south side that overlooked my house just kitty-cornered across the street.   Later I coordinated the gifted program at Brooke High School, a beautifully kept, modern high school with every bell and whistle from a planetarium to an indoor pool.  I taught with many bright, dedicated colleagues who cared about our students.  And only occasionally did things take a wrong turn.

My first husband and I moved back to my hometown of Wellsburg, V.Va. to oversee the second season of the Brooke Hills Playhouse in the spring of 1973, and I started looking for a teaching job in the area.  I applied in Brooke, my home county, as well as in the counties to the north and south of Brooke.  Within a week, I received a call from Brooke County to interview for a job teaching language arts at one of the five middle schools.  The county administrative staff knew me from my student days, so they sent me to interview with the principal of the school, Mrs. Betty Shaw, who was relatively new to the county.

I dressed in my best two-piece outfit, a darling little navy blue mini-skirt with a matching top and a white and blue braided belt and navy and white spectator pumps.  I arrived a little early, and before long the secretary showed me in to Mrs. Shaw’s office.  Mrs. Shaw was an attractive woman of perhaps fifty.  She was very stylish in a brightly colored dress complemented by a necklace of big, bright green beads with matching bracelet and earrings.  Her blond hair was big and full and suited her, and her make-up wasn’t subtle.  In the fashion field, we didn’t have a lot in common, but we got along well.

She asked relevant questions, and she listened attentively to my answers.  She wanted to know why I’d left my last position, what I liked about teaching, and my philosophy of discipline, among other things.  She was asking questions to learn, not to trip me up.  It was going well, then she said, “Although you’re certified to teach in middle school, your experience is in high school.  Wouldn’t you rather be a secondary teacher?”  Gulp, yes, I would, but I knew there were no secondary positions available, and I really wanted to teach in Brooke County and not have to drive for miles north or south each morning and evening.  So I looked Mrs. Shaw, an ordained minister as well as a certified principal, in the eyes and lied.

“Mrs. Shaw, I love to teach.  You’re right, my experience so far has been with high school students, but I like kids of any age, and I know middle school kids will be interesting and exciting, and I’d like to teach them.”

Except for some polite pleasantries, that was the end of the interview.  I didn’t break stride or change expression until I got to the car and pulled onto the street.  Then out loud to no one but myself I said, “You may live to regret that big, fat lie!”

A few days later I got a call saying that I was hired and would be teaching seventh and eighth grade language arts at Follansbee Middle School under Mrs. Shaw.  I spent the remainder of the summer worrying about that whopper, while trying to convince myself that all the horrible things I heard about teaching middle school kids couldn’t possibly be true:  girls who were clique-ish to the point of cruelty; girls who giggled at anything and everything a boy, any boy, said; boys whose voices had changed working hard to be macho; boys whose voices were changing not wanting to talk; boys whose voices hadn’t changed picked on by the boys whose voices had changed; lots of girls screaming in laughter  over burps and farts shamelessly delivered as loudly as possible by boys; girls and boys who were only interested in boys and girls—schoolwork be damned; raging hormones all around; and so it went.

Amazingly, over the years I found that all of those things were indeed true, but certainly not to the extent that pushed learning aside.  Well, except for the brazen burping and farting, something I’d never encountered in my two years of teaching high school, except for the occasional S-B-D variety (Silent-But-Deadly gas expulsion) that someone let slip, causing some complaints.  As a matter, I quickly learned that I hadn’t lied to Mrs. Shaw at all!  Big relief.  I loved middle school kids.  They weren’t too cool to be excited about something—a short story, a lesson on prepositions, sharing their knowledge with a peer, acting in a play.  And they so wanted to please.

“Can I wash the blackboard?”

“Can I dust the erasers?”

“Can I hand out the papers, post the spelling words, hang up your coat in the closet?”

I couldn’t help but love teaching in that atmosphere.  Unfortunately, I had two experiences that were anything but pleasant.  One incident was absolutely my fault.  I precipitated the second incident, but I still maintain that it was in no way my fault.

By the time the first incident occurred, I had taught two years in a high school, and I was about five months into my first year of teaching middle school.  I had never walked into a classroom unprepared, and this day I had prepared to a certain extent.  My lesson plan said something like, “READING CIRCLES:  Oral reading from Where the Lilies Bloom, the selection titled “A Proper Burial.”  Each seventh-grade student had been assigned approximately five column inches of text to read aloud during class that day and had been given plenty of time to practice, so no one was reading “cold.”  The reading began, and we were all getting into the story with its interesting characters: a poor father who tenant farmed on the land of a mean landlord in Appalachia and his four children who gathered wild herbs and roots which they sold to help augment the meager family finances.  The story was beautifully written, and my students were reading so expressively and well.

And then the plot took a tragic turn.  The father died, and the children decided to bury their father on top of a beloved mountain and not to tell anyone to avoid being made wards of the state and probably separated.  Oh, my gosh!  It was just horrible, these precious children, ages 5, 10, 14, and 18 were burying their own father!  This was the first time ever that I had not read an assignment ahead of time, and it showed!  I couldn’t help myself.  I was saddened beyond belief.  Tears started running down my cheeks, and when it was time to call on the next student, I had trouble collecting myself enough to talk.  I wasn’t sobbing out loud or anything, but I was certainly crying away.

“Are you okay, Mrs. Harper?” one student quietly asked.

“Yes,” I said, looking up to see some of the students also crying or fighting to hold back tears.  “I guess it’s obvious I’ve never read this story,” I said while getting up from the circle and walking to the tissue box on my desk.  “Anyone else need one of these?”  We took a little break, so I could blow my nose and compose myself along with some of my students who had also been moved to tears—by the story or because they were sympathetic criers.  I don’t know.

I do know that I learned a valuable lesson that day, and for the next two decades, I never walked into a classroom without being completely prepared.  That incident was absolutely my fault, and I suffered the consequences that day in a very public way.

However, the worst experience during my teaching career, I will never accept as completely my fault, although my actions caused it to happen.

Each spring the eighth graders had to fill out registration forms for the high school.  I was always assigned an eighth-grade homeroom, so I helped the kids fill out their forms.  The guidance counselor, anticipating that some kids would have trouble answering some questions, always sent the eighth-grade sponsors the permanent records for his or her homeroom students for reference.  Some kids knew their birth day but not the year of their birth.  Some kids wouldn’t know how to spell the name of their street.  Some might not know what “ethnicity” meant.

This particular year Johnny Charris (not his real name) raised his hand and asked for help with his mother’s maiden name, another common unknown.  I looked in his file and said, “Gamish,” and I spelled it for him as he wrote.  When he finished writing, he raised his hand again, “That doesn’t sound like it.  I’ve heard her name before.”

“Come up here, Johnny,” indicating for him to join me at my desk where I had thirty-five files alphabetically stacked on my lap.  Johnny came forward, and I pointed to the place where his mother’s maiden name was filled in.  It read, “Mary Gamish.”

Johnny looked at the file then gave me a pained look.  “My mother’s name isn’t Mary,” he said very quietly.  “It’s Joan.”

It was as if someone had stabbed me in the back of the neck with an ice pick, as I realized that something was very wrong here.

“Class,” I said, standing up and walking to my filing case where I locked away all the files except one.  “I need you to carry on here for a few minutes.  Katheryn, will you be the monitor, please?  Class, I’ll ask Mr. Cucarese from next door to look in on you shortly.  Leave the door open.  Do as much on the registration forms as you can.  Thanks.”

Turning to Johnny, who was looking sick, I said, as casually as possible, “John, will you come with me, and we’ll get this straightened out?”  Adding, “Mistakes happen all the time,” seemed to help him some, but I had this terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach.  Somehow I knew I had opened a big can of worms.

We only had to wait a couple of minutes in Mrs. Shaw’s outer office.  Handing him a magazine which I grabbed out of some colleague’s mailbox, I asked Johnny to let me talk to Mrs. Shaw for a minute.

With Mrs. Shaw’s door closed and speaking as softly as possible so not a word escaped to the outer office, I handed Mrs. Shaw the folder and told her what had happened.  Mrs. Shaw walked me back to the outer office and sat down beside Johnny.  She told him that she was going to make a phone call or two to find out about the name discrepancy.  She reassured him that there would be an explanation and he should return to class with me.  This was her problem not his. “Okay?” she asked him with real love in her voice and attitude.

Johnny said, “Okay,” looking much more like himself now.  We went back to our room.  I collected all the registration forms, and minutes later the extended homeroom period concluded.  My homeroom students left my classroom and walked down the hall two doors to Mrs. Way’s math class.  Mrs. Burns’ homeroom filed into my room for language arts, and the day progressed.

I was paged to Mrs. Shaw’s office at lunchtime.  Sitting in her office were two people whose eyes tried to kill me the moment I walked through the door.  The man jumped to his feet and started to yell something like, “What the hell did you think you were doing?”

Mrs. Shaw masterfully rose with him, and with a great disciplinarian voice out-spoke him.  “Mr. Charris, will you please sit down?  Mrs. Harper, as you’ve probably figured out, these are Johnny’s parents.  Would you come take this seat?” she said indicating a chair near her, a chair on her side of the desk that had never been there before.  “Man,” I thought, “she’s good.  She has this thing all planned out.”

Mrs. Shaw went over the scenario again.  (She had obviously outlined the problem on the phone to the Charrises.)  Then she asked for a clarification.

Mr. Charris immediately attacked me verbally. “You had no right to tell Johnny his mother’s maiden name,” he said.  “It was none of your business.”

Mrs. Shaw jumped in again.  “Mr. Charris, can you tell me who Mary Gamish is, please?”  Betty Shaw was from Weirton, West Virginia, north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and certainly didn’t have a drop of the Old South in her blood, but she was definitely adding some sugar to her tone of voice.

“She’s Johnny’s mother,” Mr. Charris said quietly.  “She died from cancer about six weeks after Johnny was born.  I married Joan when Johnny was two and a half.”

“And you never told him about his birth mother?” asked Mrs. Shaw, now acting incredulous.

“I, we, did not.  That’s our business,” said Mr. Charris, and turning on me he added, “and it most certainly isn’t yours.  I’m going to report you to everybody I can—the superintendent, the school board, the state board of licensing, the…,”

Mrs. Shaw interrupted, “Mr. Charris, if you didn’t want people to know about Johnny’s birth mother, why did you register him for kindergarten when he was five, with his birth mother’s name and not the name of the woman he recognized as his mother?  Or why didn’t you just leave that space blank?  You were willing to tell the school system, a public entity, of which Mrs. Harper is a part, but not your own son.  When were you going to tell him?”  (Mrs. Shaw was really good at this.)

“I don’t know,” he said.  “Maybe never.  For sure, she shouldn’t have told him.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Charris,” I started, “no one is more sorry about this than I am, but Johnny is more than old enough to know about his mothers, both of them, and I have a feeling that when I have him in class this afternoon, he’s going to want some answers.”

“You’ve made a mess of this, young lady, and that apology won’t stop me from reporting you.”

“I understand,” I said, “but right now, I think you need to decide where you’re going to go from here with Johnny.”

“You can report Mrs. Harper to every agency in the nation,” said Mrs. Shaw, “but I will defend her and our lawyers will defend her.  And right now it’s obvious that she is more concerned about your child than you are.  Shall I call Johnny down here so you can tell him the truth?”

“This isn’t right,” said Mr. Charris.

“No, it’s not,” said Mrs. Shaw, “but this is what we’ve got.  If you don’t want to talk to Johnny about his birth mother now, I am able, and I’m certain that Mrs. Harper is able, to do that very compassionately for you, but it has to be done, and it has to be done before he goes to Mrs. Harper’s afternoon class, or you can just take him home.”

For the first time during the encounter, Mr. Charris sat back in his chair, and I could see that he was thinking.  He asked if he and his wife could talk in private for a few minutes, and Mrs. Shaw and I left the office.

About five minutes later the office door opened, and Mr. Charris asked Mrs. Shaw to return to join them.  Mrs. Shaw told me to go finish my lunch.  Yeah, right!

My homeroom, with Johnny now absent, returned to me for their language arts class at the end of the day.  After school I stopped in Mrs. Shaw’s office, to thank her, but she didn’t let me finish.  “I’ve been furious with those people all afternoon,” she said.  “Johnny came down to the office, and they clumsily told him the story.  Johnny’s first impression was that his birth had caused his mother’s death, but we got that straightened out.  After that I think he just felt betrayed and then mad for being treated like a baby.  I’m sure he will be all right, but it might take some time.  I hope you aren’t worried about anything.”

“Why would I worry with ‘Bulldog Shaw’ on my side?” I asked, making up a nickname that thankfully never stuck.

“I’ve talked to both the superintendent and the assistant superintendent, so they’ve been forewarned, and they agree that you did nothing wrong, so go home and enjoy the evening.  See you tomorrow.”

Johnny was back in homeroom the next morning.  He asked if he could finish his high school registration, and we quickly finished it together.  He said, “Thanks, Mrs. Harper.”

“You’re welcome, Johnny,” I said.  “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” he said.  “I’m fine.”

I gave him a questioning look.

“Really, I’m fine.”

And he was.  He finished the year, went on to graduate from high school, and then I lost track of him.  I’m hoping he’s still fine.



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