Chapter 4: My First Year of Teaching
I went on a handful of interviews for teaching positions after graduating college. From what I was told, everyone wanted to be an English teacher, but I couldn’t imagine why because, for me, English was about the most boring class I could recall. All that sentence diagramming and grammar drilling was annoying, but I had no way of knowing how well that would eventually pay off. What I didn’t know were two things: 1. Most teachers love to kill time. 2. It was easy to kill time in English by just giving an essay to write. Something going on in the news? Write an essay. Something locally? Write an essay. Hand out lined paper, sit back with the newspaper, and wait for the bell to ring. Today, it’s even easier because in addition to assigning essays, you can also just show a movie. English teachers can get away with that more than anyone, but that doesn’t stop other teachers from showing movies too.
In my daughter’s school, they’re watching movies constantly. In math recently they were watching Finding Nemo. In her Ceramics class they watched The DaVinci Code. Totally true. Years ago, it was only in English/Language Arts/Communications class that we showed movies regularly because of how they correlated and illustrated the books we had read. We’d read Romeo and Juliet and then watch West Side Story, things like that. Most English teachers I knew would read a book and then watch the movie version. I’d ask them, “Why show the same movie? You’re only telling the same story twice. Show a different movie that’s related in some way.” That’s just one of many reasons why most other teachers did not like me.
Of all the interviews, the only one that counted was in the Freehold Regional High School District, offices in Englishtown, NJ. I interviewed in mid August and was one of three finalists, but the job was given to someone else. Roughly a week later, the woman who was given the job had to give it up in order to move across the country to be with her sick, elderly mother. The guy who was second for the job had already taken another position, so they were stuck with me and I was stuck with a career path for which I was clearly not ready.
Freehold Borough High School
How amazing it was that my first teaching position was at the same high school attended by Bruce Springsteen. I sought out a few older teachers to ask about Springsteen’s time at that school. There was an art teacher who not only remembered specifically how Bruce would sit in the back of his classroom and pick at his face, but the guy had kept all of his gradebooks in his time there and brought one in for me to see Springsteen’s name and grades scribbled on those familiar pages of green and white bars and columns. A science teacher recalled how Bruce would cut class and sit with a guitar beneath a giant tree in the middle of the U-shaped school, playing and singing, and nobody bothered him. The school had since closed the U into a box through needed expansion, and sadly the tree was no longer there.
On my first day in the building as an employee, prior to the first day for students, a group of new teachers were touring the building with one of two assistant principals when we heard the glottal voice of a large man in shorts not quite his size yelling “Dick! Dick!” The vice principal looked at us. “Anyone named Dick?” For reasons I don’t need to explain, I’ve never known anyone with my first name – Richard – who preferred the name Dick, so I didn’t imagine the large man was referring to me, but he was. The loud, overinflated man was the English department supervisor, Bob Leonard. Nice guy with sausage-thick fingers and a slightly effeminate drawl in his voice. He had very little interest in what I was actually doing in the classroom because he was hanging on from the days when students did what they were told because their parents made sure it happened. Those days were fading, especially in towns like Freehold where more attention was paid to muscular instead of mental performance.
I had a rookie principal, tall and mild mannered with a slow, deep voice. Frank Penn was very easy to talk to provided you showed the respect his title deserved. I only recall seeing him upset one time. It was shortly before Christmas (aka “winter holiday”), and Mr. Penn brought in a Christmas tree to help decorate the main office. He started to assemble it early one day, but as first period approached, he asked the three office secretaries if they wouldn’t mind finishing the project. One of them rather rudely looked at him and said, “We’re Jewish!” Thus declaring she would not assemble the tree, nor would the others. Penn looked at them oddly. He didn’t intend to insult anyone’s religion and only wanted to bring a festive look to the school. I imagine he might have insulted them more if he instead asked, “Ladies, since you’re Jewish and likely won’t assemble the Christmas tree, can you find some Christians to finish it up? Thanks.” The ladies were not wrong in their refusal to build the tree, but they were wrong in their response. Usually, it’s not what you say but how you say it. They didn’t say it well.
As for me, I knew nothing about earning respect, and I earned none. I earned so little the I was actually punched by a student, and a girl at that, but there’s a circumstance here. Her name was Joann, and she had a black eye. I knew she had a boyfriend who was an angry bastard, and I correctly suspected he had punched her, but I didn’t yet know that when I saw the eye. Her explanation was that she was brushing her friend’s hair, the brush got stuck in a knot, she pulled, the knot slipped, and she ended up punching herself in the eye. I did the wrong thing. I kept pushing. In my own stupid way of trying to help, I called her a liar and told her that I’d bet anything her boyfriend knocked her a good one. Eventually, with all my bothering, she extended an arm and popped me in the middle of the chest. I had a decision to make, and my plan was to get her in a great amount of trouble for hitting a teacher until another teacher intervened. He called me up and asked if I was really going to pursue the matter against the girl, and yes, I was. The gentleman explained to me a few things about the student’s background, homelife, and whether or not I was reacting to the embarrassment of being punched as opposed to what’s best for the student. I thought about it more, about the role that I played in it, and whether or not I deserved to be punched. Nobody deserves to be punched, but the punch certainly would not have happened without be being annoying – so I decided to drop the issue.
There are three other notable students to discuss, and one is “Froggy.” Let me start by saying that I only knew Froggy about two years before he died. I had to look at him several times when I first met him in order to totally understand what I was seeing. Froggy had a disease called “ectodermal dysplasia,” the result of which is that he did not have working sweat glands which causes the body to age rapidly. His hair was very thin and sparse, his teeth not well, and his skin looked like that of a wrinkly elephant. His voice was also affected, thus the nickname Froggy. What was amazing about him was how positive a person he was despite knowing he likely wouldn’t live beyond 17, but I guess he had already dealt with it a long time ago, and it was more of an issue for others who met him, like me. He was a great baseball fan, knew everything about the New York Mets, and possibly liked me more than he should have because he thought I looked a lot like Mets catcher Gary Carter. I had him in class freshman year, and he died about three years later. He was the first student I had who had died but unfortunately not the last.
There was another student in the same class as Froggy, but I sadly can’t remember the boy’s name, I think it was Robert. I can picture him as well as anyone – blonde hair, wire frame glasses, average size. What wasn’t average was how he reacted the first time I called on him to answer a question and he had no answer. He froze up and turned red. When I tried to talk to him about relaxing and not worrying about not having an answer, he turned purple. Other kids got involved, rubbed his back, and spoke softly to him while I stood in the dark. I later learned that he had a serious condition in which he would easily get nervous and embarrassed, which would then tighten his chest and practically stop his heart. I knew nothing about it, but that was back in 1987. Today’s rules and laws would likely have me well aware of him before ever meeting him. Probably. Unfortunately, he died about the same time as Froggy, and it wasn’t a happy time at that school.
The last memorable student that first year was Thomas Battle. He was a sophomore in my freshmen class because he was not a great student and had failed English the previous year, but not a great student doesn’t mean not a great person. When the class would get a little loud and out of control, Thomas would straighten them out. He’d stand up and tell them to “show some respect.” His exact words that I never forgot. I didn’t deserve respect yet, or at least I hadn’t yet earned it. Back then, education classes in college did not spend much time on classroom management. Thomas was a star on the football team, and it’s very likely that his coaches instilled that “respect” idea within him. I always wanted to thank him for what he tried to do, but to thank him would have been to admit that I had no clue what I was doing. I did not want to admit that, but I also did not like not acknowledging his attempt to help.
Last year, 25 years later, I was at my younger daughter’s middle school graduation and listened as they announced names of students, and I heard “Thomas Battle.” I looked up and saw one of the very few black students in not just the school but the town. I realized now I didn’t mention earlier that the Thomas Battle in my class was black, as were most of the kids. When I saw this Thomas Battle, I immediately did some math. Back in ’87, my Thomas Battle was about 15 or 16 and would now be about 41. The kid at graduation was about 13, so it could easily be the son of the student I had. I looked for him in the parking lot after graduation and saw a guy who looked a great deal like the student I had, but I didn’t approach him. I have no idea why, but I wish I had. Perhaps I can easily find out if that student is still in school in town, which would likely mean his father would still be around for me to find and ask if he’s the same Thomas. I hope he is, and I hope I have the guts to approach him and say “hi” and “thanks.”
In chapter 5 – transferred to another school