The August heat is stifling; thick with moisture, ninety percent humidity. The walls ooze wet drops of grime; the remnants of ninety-plus years of blood, sweat, tears, dirt; simple wear and tear. Sweat drips down my brow, spreads under my arms, through my shirt, as I, the teacher, walk into the classroom.
It is the first day back in school, the start of another year. My stomach twitches in a flutter; sweat stings my eyes as I cross the threshold. This nervousness remains unspoken; the heat is simply too draining. Outwardly, I show only disdain. I hate everything about this place: the building, the classroom, the administration, the students. I hold everything about this place in contempt for the benefit of my fellow haters: the teaching staff. I have always been awkward with my fellow teachers, partners in academic fraud. The majority of those teaching in this building have been doing so for at least twenty years. They began their teaching careers before the school declined. They are invested in the school and cannot afford to begin again. The others are first-years, grabbing a quick shot of experience before bolting for greener pastures. I am different. I have chosen to stay for seven years, even though I could go; should go. Some think I am a crusader, others just think I am stupid; but all are convinced I am crazy. I tailor my behavior to suit other’s needs; not my own. I hate, as I am supposed to hate. Secretly though, I love this place. The students have captured me. They keep calling me back. It is all in the challenge; the challenge of getting through to these children of poverty, of teaching them and giving them a shot at a better life. It is what makes me get up and come to work every morning. As I walk back and forth across the tattered remains of carpet, I run the one-act play I have titled Opening Day through my mind. I believe this is what teaching really is; acting. I must perform a play, for the benefit of the students. The performance must be good to engage this audience for ninety-minutes each day. I am not just the actor in this play; I am the writer, director and producer. I control the entire performance; except for the audience’s reaction. This is the one variable each actor, each teacher, cannot control. How will the audience receive this day’s performance and will they play their own roles? Stopping to make sure everything is exact. I want the room to be perfect and the props ready; all the posters straight, the desks arranged, my own desk organized, my pictures in their place.
I linger at the photo of my wife and my two daughters. Having spent lazy days with the girls, running, jumping, throwing, catching, playing; I know the magic of those summer days has slipped through my fingers for another year. Now, my days will be filled with teaching and grading and the talk of things learned and homework to be done, both at school and at home. My girls are my pride and joy. They color everything I do. They are my center. In many ways, my students remind me of my own children, struggling to unlock the mystery of letters and numbers. At five and seven, the girls are learning how to recognize letters and numbers, how to add and subtract, how to read and write. My ninth- and tenth-graders are still struggling to unlock these same mysteries.
It is sad, but this is part of the challenge. I continue to pace back and forth across the room, as the minutes tick down, before the students enter the school. The students will not arrive at my door until 7:15, so I still have time to wrestle with my rotten stomach and the adrenaline coursing through my veins. The knot of my tie suffocates. I loosen it an inch, while my throat tightens and loosens, tightens and loosens. My hands begin to tremble, so I grab a yard-stick, which is only another prop, and twirl it around. The back and forth swing is almost relaxing. Almost. The repetition is simply to give my hands something to do, but my stomach wins the confrontation. The need to vomit passes, while I remind myself that I have done this before. I have been teaching for seven years now, and today is no different from any other first day. I think my nervousness is a sign that I still care, about my job and my students; my children. These kids are my children, even though I was not present at their births, or even the first thirteen- or fourteen- years of their lives. They are my children to shape and mold. They are mine for ninety-minutes, each and every day. I want them to succeed, just like I want Sarah and Anne to. I want them to learn and live, to grow and mature, and to take responsibility for their lives. I can show them the way, if I can just reach them, and they can get past the color of my skin.
Being able to stand up to and face down racism is difficult for everyone and it is not any different for a light teacher in a dark school. I think back to my very first day of teaching in this place. I was nervous then but not nervous enough. Disadvantaged by the cool crisp October air, instead of the oppressive heat of a Midwest August, I started late. I was a replacement, hired after school began, an innocent lamb walking into a den of wolves, offered up for the slaughter. Although my gut was twisted and my heart was a machine gun, I thought I would get a honeymoon, a few days to settle in and get caught up. Not nervous enough, the honeymoon lasted less than a day, less than an hour, less than even that first minute. It ended the second I walked into classroom. I introduced myself and then the torment began. Every vile name known to mankind, and then some more, spewed from the mouths of those students. They were teasing me, the lamb, before moving in for the kill. They taunted, yelled, racially slurred, left the room, came back, threw things, threatened. Not nervous enough, until the student threw his punch.
It was a warning, for the bare knuckles missed my large, round face by a fraction, with a purposeful glare from angry eyes. I was so lost that day, not knowing the students’ names, my fellow teachers, where I was, how to get help. I was alone. I recognized the challenge then. I do not back away from a challenge, even when I am crazy not to. The first days have all been easier since, but they are still awkward and I still get nervous. I think I have the key though. This key requires me to yank the students’ attention away from summer and into the classroom the second they enter the room. A teacher must pull the students away from the summer and thrust them into the reality of the now: school. I know a few tricks,learned over time and from experience. I am known in the school now. I have worked hard on my reputation with the students. The majority know who I am, if not personally, then by reputation alone, and not many are looking forward to my class. Those who do not know me are in for a rude awakening. I am nothing like the teachers they have had before. Out crazy the crazies, as the saying goes.
My reverie is shattered by the first bell of the morning and the yardstick tumbles from my hand. It is the warning bell for teachers, the warning that students are now being allowed into the building. My heart accelerates and my stomach flops. It is almost time to begin. Retrieving the prop from the floor, I walk to the door and nudge it open. It swings in the wide expanse of the empty hallway. I savor the quiet for a moment and then cross the room and climb onto one of the desks. Removing the American flag from its holder, I descend back to the floor. Unfurling the flag, I walk back to my desk. My arrival is marked by the second bell of the morning, the bell that frees the students from the restraints of the cafeteria and gives them the freedom of the building. I strain for the first sounds of the morning jungle. When it is carried to my ear by the stale, humid, scorching, school air, I take a deep breath, straighten my tie, step up onto my desk, swing the flag around a few times and begin to sing. The play has begun.
I sought permission to use the Prologue as part of my article on Sex, Lives and the Classroom by James P. Wilcox. The emotion, intensity and...anger and pain were so pronounced that I believe this is a true story...for somebody...
Just as we are appalled by sexual abuse of children, I was equally horrified while I read this story. We had an accusal of one person of another in the family, which was false. We were all upset when that happened. At the same time, we learned years later that there were a number of children who were abused in our family, including myself. This is not something that ever goes away. But when our children learn that they can use the words as a tool to get an unlikable person fired, hurt, or disgraced, while at the same time they are honest and, in fact, really trying to help...it is quite simply a disaster...
Thus the delicate balance between teachers and school students, especially when race, culture, or sexuality enters the picture.
This is a story about an inner city school, where the weather detracts everybody from wanting to even attend school. There is a predominance of one race in the school. We do not know how or why the teacher, not of that race, has decided to accept a position there.
The way I read the Prologue and the story, we quickly learn that this teacher has recognized exactly what happens in this school and is trying to confront the situation in order to make an impact, good or bad, and gain attention and hopefully discussion and feedback.
For instance, he has started first day classes by waving the American flag and singing "The Star Spangled Banner." Personally I thought it was funny...but for their own reasons, three teen girls talked at and back to their male teacher. I think, for many of us, we are not willing to accept the slang talk from young people these days. So, when that happens, we automatically begin a feeling of disapproval. Those girls wound up being suspended...
And began a campaign to get revenge...
In a radio interview, the author stated his belief that schools are in a crisis situation. When I read the end of his novel, I realized why, perhaps, the statistics of teacher tenure in a job was so low. Please consider this book if you care about the educations of our children. This may be a racial issue, but I believe it's, more, a political and personal issue for anybody who cares! Have we changed so much in our schools that simply prepares students for corporations who want technically savvy employees...and dropped the life skills, arts, and other issues that are important to the personal growth of these young ones?
James Wilcox, a former newspaper photographer and writer, is currently a high school social studies teacher in Kansas City, where is lives with his wife and three children. His second novel title The M-16 Agenda is also available at Smashwords.com* * * * * For more information about the author, visit: www.jamespwilcox.com Contact the author at: email@example.com