Glen Elias was a Mystery. Literally. His students called him Mr. E, and it was a mystery that he survived his first year teaching. Teaching at any level is demanding, for a multitude of reasons. In case you think upper division teachers have it worse than say kindergarten teachers, as far as time goes, think again. Whereas middle school teachers spend time editing writing, kindergarten teachers spend time cutting out templates, preparing bulletin boards, and writing assessments. It all amounted to time outside the classroom, for which there was no pay.
Glen spent more than his share of time on work outside of class, but that came as no surprise to him. His classroom preparations for getting his credential had taught him that. He had entered the arena, at the start of the year, with no illusions. He was not a guy who went to school to get a teaching certificate because he had a bad back. No, he had this fantasy of making a difference in kids’ lives, because he saw so many kids who had no one in their lives to perform that function.
He remembered his own 8th grade year, and how hard it was for him. The other kids had alternately been mean and nice, never really allowing him to see any method to their madness. It was even worse for the girls. When two guys get into a pissing contest, one punches the other in the face, and they go off together during 7th period, leaving campus and getting high uptown, behind the video store.
When two girls have a fight, one turns all of the other girls against her opponent, and they all give her the silent treatment. It is ugly. Mr. E. knew there was no such thing as changing the nature of the beast, but he did his best to provide an environment, in which respect and tolerance were cornerstones. He taught his students that defiance was a mixed bag. On the one hand, it was the nature of 8th graders to question authority; on the other hand, classroom rules dictated that it be done respectfully, with the proverbial smile.
Mr. E was overwhelmed in the beginning as all of the good ones always are. If you think you are successful, and you are working fewer than eighty hours per seven day week, then you are deluding yourself. Every week, when the amount of work to be done was assessed, it was obvious that there were not enough hours during a weekend to complete it all, so he prioritized, and did what he could. He recognized that teachers burn out routinely, because they never stop, and there had to be a cutoff point.
He could not ignore the time devoted to staff meetings, student study teams, fund raisers, parent conferences, yard duty, lesson plan preparation and grading papers. There was just too much. He found that actually teaching was less than half of his daily work load, with much of the work taking place in the wee hours, while he lay awake at night, and tried to hammer out the fine details of the week’s schedule. What were those seventh graders doing sixth period next week after we finish studying the Fall of the Roman Empire. This is not a rhetorical question.
The actual teaching part was the fun part. Mr. E, like every teacher who ever came before him, found that discipline was either the worst or the least of his problems. There did not seem to be any middle ground. His favorite grade level was the eighth. They were the most capable of producing a quality piece of writing; they were also the most capable of providing a challenge when it came to trying to not only keep 31 eighth graders under control, but actually try to teach them something.
Then go from teaching them something they might remotely be interested in, to something like the structure of the English language. Take those 31 eager language diagrammers and get them to embrace the concept of learning all of those parts of speech, and then differentiating between them and parts of the sentence, and then how to put them on a line on paper. Can you say synchronized vomiting?
That would be what the “good” kids did. The others let their displeasure, at times, take on other forms. Then there were the anarchists. By definition all eighth graders are anarchists-no rules. But in reality, that first year he taught, Mr. E. had five self-proclaimed anarchists. That simply meant they functioned within the parameters of the class, but on the extreme perimeter. There were four boys and one girl, who took everyday classroom antics to the extreme. They left the anarchistic symbol in dictionaries, on desks other than their own, on 12 inch rulers, anywhere that it would be seen by peers. Mr. E. knew better than to take it personally, but he did give the matter a great deal of thought.
All five were from households where there were minimal boundaries enforced by adults in the first place. Lip service was given to classroom issues and discipline referrals were signed and returned without comment. Mr. E. went about the business of keeping his head above water, and keeping in step with his students.
He took a lot of it home to his wife, Sally, bouncing his ideas off of her, and having them hop-scotch around the kitchen, while he drank coffee in the morning at the kitchen table and got ready for another day in the trenches. Thus he said to her, one November morning,
“I had to write Emma another referral yesterday. I got to a convenient quitting place, and told them they could just chill at their tables until the bell rang. It was all good, and I was walking toward the fish tank in the back of the room, and I came upon the five of them, with their chairs all drawn tightly around the end of one of the tables. Naturally, I wanted to be in on what they were plotting, and that is what they were waiting for.
As soon as I leaned over one of them, to get a clear view of the piece of [blank] paper they had placed in the center of the table, Emma let loose a blown up balloon, so that it zipped right into my face, bounced on its way, and soared up to the ceiling, where it ran out of hot air, and dropped to a table top, with a soft plop.”
“Oh, Glen, what did you do?”
“Well it was pretty blatant, and it didn’t bug me so much, as it makes me wonder why she does this kind of thing. I don’t really think she hates me, or anything, but I mean, that was kind of out there.”
“She doesn’t hate you. I think if they hated you, they would be more likely to ignore you. It’s just her way of saying she cares about you.”
Glen snorted in contempt. “Well, if that’s showing me she likes me, then I hope she never gets mad at me.” Glen gathered his books, papers, and lunch and headed off to the salt mines. saying, “Maybe she will find another way to show me she likes me, besides letting balloons go in my face.”
Glen saw Christmas coming on the horizon, and knew if he could just make it to December 18, he would have sixteen days off to regroup. Of course, he would have papers to grade and lessons to plan, but he had sixteen glorious, uninterrupted days in which to do it. He had brought a tree in from up on the ridge, and placed a few simple decorations on it, just to put the class into the spirit.
The days wound down, and finally the 18th arrived. Glen saw his eighth graders for third and fourth periods, with lunch coming right after fourth period. Normally he ate lunch with the staff, but they were all going to be heading off to a Christmas party being hosted by the principal of the school, so they would catch up then. Thus it was that he was sitting at his desk, munching on a sandwich, reading the newspaper, when the door sprang open, and Emma breezed in, bubbling and effervescent, and danced her way up to Mr. E’s desk, with a small package, brightly wrapped in red and green wrapping, with a fragile little white bow on it.
Genuinely taken by surprise, he asked her, “What’s this?” It was not a brilliant question, but she did not give him a hard time. It was just a tad out of character.
“Just something to put under your tree at home, Mr. E. Merry Christmas!” and giving him a radiant smile, she was gone in a flash, leaving him with a warm and fuzzy feeling.
One week later, on Christmas morning, when he opened the package up, and found a delicate little blown glass elephant, he could only think, “How appropriate. An elephant, seemingly without rules, proceeding where she wanted, trampling along freely, but an elephant with a hint of fragility about it, a crack in the armor.
He would have no problem remembering that.