I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had (7 page)

BOOK: I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had
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“Okay. More of that, less of this.” I make the talking motion with my hand next to my mouth. David smiles.

As our conference ends, I feel better. I’ve taken everything he said onboard, and I think I know how I’ll apply it to the section on mythology that we’re to start in the morning. But then, as I’m getting up to leave, David hands me back Eric’s origami wreath and offhandedly asks, “You cried yet?”

It’s as if he’s turned on the faucet. I can feel them coming, and I put up my hands, but it’s no use. The tears begin to roll, and in seconds I’m sobbing.

I flee the office, and David follows. He stops me in the hallway, but all he does is pat my shoulder. It’s hard to see through the flood. Is he surprised, or annoyed? “I’m sorry,” I blubber. “I can’t believe how it affects you when you try so hard and get nowhere.”

He hands me a Kleenex. “I remember one of the guys I started with would close his door every day after school and cry at his desk. They can reduce the best of us to tears. It comes with the territory.”

It takes me a while to compose myself. Many people—guards, janitors, kids—see me. This is bound to get around to the other teachers. Probably it will please them, like a rite of passage. “Now you know what it feels like,” they might say. Silver lining time: maybe it will convince them I really am doing this for real.

from one teacher at Northeast who talks even more than I do. Lynn Dixon, a veteran English teacher, is the leader of our Small Learning Community. Because Northeast is such a huge school, it’s broken into eight of these communities or SLCs, housed in the eight different sections of the school where students have their core classes. I belong to the Arts and Education SLC (this appeals to our producers, seeing as we’re making our show for the A&E network), and Ms. Dixon is our guiding light. Having taught for over thirty years at some of the toughest schools in Philadelphia, she has seen it all.

The twenty teachers in our SLC meet every day during second period in a recommissioned classroom that passes for a teachers’ lounge. We have teachers of English, music, drama, art, math, and social studies. Today when I walk in, Ms. Dixon is telling a story about one of our veteran art teachers, an older woman in an artist’s smock who looks a little bit like my grandmother when she was younger. “So this girl bursts out in class—’ You’re not my mother, you can’t tell me what to do!’—and instead of showing how hurt she felt, Laurie here smiles sweetly and says, ‘No, but I am your art mother.’ ”

The others must have heard this tale dozens of times, but they still whistle and clap, and Laurie the art teacher takes a little bow.

It feels weird to be in the teachers’ lounge without some sort of a pass. A couple of the other teachers have already told me they’re apprehensive about our project. “I don’t like those reality shows,” one young teacher announces as he gets up and leaves my table. I don’t, either, I want to tell him, but I’m afraid the waterworks will let loose again if I open my mouth.

Others are kinder. They offer advice and tell me what they believe it takes to be a good teacher. “You have to be prepared to play many roles,” says an older woman who’s been teaching for decades. “You have to be a mother, father, sister, brother, social worker, counselor, friend, and anything else they need.” They tell me some heart-wrenching stories about kids who’ve come to school hungry, or late because gunfire outside their bedroom kept them up all night, or who don’t talk in class because of abuse
their bedroom. They tell me about teachers almost adopting their students to keep them from falling into the abyss of foster care or homelessness. “Adoption fantasy,” one man says, “comes with the territory.”

What these teachers and I have in common are memories of high school as a better time. We all remember teachers who touched
us—and some who didn’t. We remember fistfights after school, but no gunfights. We remember walking home from school without fear of getting mugged. We remember parents who pressed us to do well in school so that we could go on to college. In spite of the fact that many of these same parents never went to college themselves, they wanted something better for us.

“We have to make up for so much that’s missing in kids’ lives today,” says the “art mother.” “Especially in the poorer schools. But this rarely factors into the equation when politicians talk about cutting the cost of education.”

She’s interrupted by Ms. Dixon’s high, piercing cry. “May I have your attention, please!” It’s impossible not to comply. She wears a bright red blazer over a T-shirt printed with a sparkling Cowardly Lion. Her blond hair fans across her shoulders except for a clump held by an oversize polka-dot bow. But for all her love of kitsch, Ms. Dixon is the maestro of edicts from the district and the administration. She gathers up a pile of papers on the table near the door and passes them out. It’s her job as head of our SLC, she informs us, to distribute notices, warn us of the deadlines to get our grades in, and tell us where to enter them on the district website. She will remind us about required seminar schedules, common planning times, technology instruction, and how to fill in graphic organizers for classes that we think might attract more students to our SLC. It’s beginning to dawn on me just how much work teachers are besieged with
the classroom. This, I think, is another thing that politicians and the media rarely mention.

Not everyone, however, is paying attention. One teacher nibbles on health food and reads a diet book while Ms. Dixon talks. Another noisily unwraps a large cinnamon bun and nudges his neighbors, who actually are trying to listen to Lynn’s announcement about a new academic mandate that we all will be expected to fulfill. At first I’m
perplexed by the man who sits by himself in the back of the room like one of the problem kids. I decide he doesn’t like the others. Later he’ll confide that it’s just a matter of decibels.

Not only is it Ms. Dixon’s job to teach, run our SLC, advocate for students and school, and mediate with problem kids, but also, critically, she knows how to repair a copy machine and keep it working. She won’t let anyone else work on it. “The copy machine is essential. The copy machine has your name and password,” she informs us. “You must log in before you copy anything.” She goes on to explain that most teachers in the school are limited to a fifteen-thousand-copy quota for the year. Fifteen thousand copies might sound like plenty, but if you have five classes a day, then those fifteen thousand copies go fast. “So one of the perks of being a member of the A&E SLC is that we all have unlimited reproductive rights.”

That gets a good laugh, which loosens things up. It actually is nice to know we can make as many copies as we need, but reproduction isn’t all that’s unlimited in Lynn Dixon’s world. In her office, she can find just about anything you could possibly need for a lesson. She has Tootsie Pops and colored pencils, Viking helmets, subject-related movies, books, costumes, award certificates, magazines, old newspapers, even a life-size cutout of President Obama. Ms. Dixon is a Shakespeare expert, and since I’m going to teach
Julius Caesar
this year, she gives me a T-shirt with an image of old Will pumped up like an action star. “Shakespeare’s
,” she says, mimicking our students’ slang as she hands me a stack of teaching materials.

Ms. Dixon also has tricks for teaching. “Ever hear of a six-word memoir?” she asks me.

I have no idea what she’s talking about.

“Hemingway wrote the first one: ‘For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.’ A whole life story in six words. Try it with your students, Tony. It will make the children think. And that’s what we want them
to be doing, critical thinking, not just rote learning. But they’ll also like this assignment because it’s short, and they do like short. Best try it yourself first, though. So how about it?”

“How about what?” She makes my head spin.

“A six-word memoir. Your life in six words.”

For the next five minutes I sit like a dunce, counting words on my fingers. Could she give me the night to think on it? I feel a sudden and uncomfortable kinship with Al G.

Then it comes to me. I count again on my fingers. “I’ve got it! ‘Once a fighter now a teacher.’ ”

Ms. Dixon beams, looking as proud as if she just taught me to take my first steps. “That’s one big story in six words, Mr. Danza.” She pauses and says gently, “Now prove it.”

The Half-Sandwich Club

we’re going to study myths, Monte looks like he wants to die. But when I ask for a definition of the word
, he’s the only one who can answer.

“A myth is a story with supernatural gods or goddesses that explains why things happen, like an origin myth.”

“Origin myth! Or creation myth. Very good, Monte. As a matter of fact, we’re going to focus on creation myths.”

We talk a little about how myths helped people in ancient civilizations make sense of natural phenomena, like the planets and the rising and falling of tides, and also helped them answer the riddle of their own existence. I tell the class that as I was reading Greek myths and getting ready for this unit, I found myself thinking about where I originally came from, where I’ve been living, and where I am in my life right now. Then I stand in front of my desk and shake out my hands. My plan is for them to write their own myths, but I want them to understand, this can be fun.

“So I wrote my own creation myth rap.” I tap my foot. “It goes like this. One, two, three, four …”

In the beginning before there even was time

the world was so quiet without even a rhyme

Thor the God of Thunder was his name

he wasn’t happy being quiet, this god Thor had some game

He was the first rapper, yes it’s hard to conceive

cause rappin’ ain’t easy when there’s none to receive

With hammer in hand he went right to a place

where still there yet was no one there to get in his face

He swung his hammer hard and he pounded the ground

and up sprang an audience that followed around

Everywhere he went he swung his hammer again

and more and more homies found out just what was in

His rhymes were all chill, every woman would swoon

and just cause of that, the religion of rap saw a boon

Not only men but women too got into the act

it’s cool to kneel and pray at the altar of rap

God Thor was a gangster and then one day

he woke up the sun and found a brand-new way

Still cool and tight and always chill

he realized then someday he’d have to pay the bill

So back to school he went and what a change he did see

he teaches now in Philly, teaching the mantra of we

His uniform he wears with beaucoup Viking pride

a him he never knew, he swims against his own tide

His students he loves he can’t believe his luck

for them his many fears he will continue to buck

This change is for the best, he feels it deep to his core

he bows now to teachers forevermore

Peace out

The kids clap along, laughing and nodding. It’s fun for them to watch me make a fool of myself, but the rap also seems to have the desired effect. If I can do it, so can they.

“You know,” I tell them when they’ve quieted down, “I wrote that line—‘a him he never knew, he swims against his own tide’—but when I read it just now I realized it was actually a
him he used to know
. Coming here to Philly and teaching you guys, I’ve actually come back to my old self, a kid from Brooklyn just like you. It’s like coming home. So thank you for that.”

Chloe and Katerina exchange glances, then call out in unison, “You’re welcome, Mr. Danza!” And everybody cracks up. Wiseguys.

“All right, all right,” I say. “Your assignment is to write your own creation myth. Explain creation and natural phenomena, and include gods, goddesses, or spirit forces. Your myths have to contain at least three of these elements.”

They moan and groan. We read and discuss the myth of Anansi, the trickster spider credited by Ashanti legend with creating the sun, the stars, and the moon. Then, remembering David’s advice, I pair them up to write their own myths, which they’ll perform together in front of the class. “Get creative,” I urge them. I tell Eric, “Maybe you can use your paper skills.”

BOOK: I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had
9.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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