My first teaching experience was at a small private school on the South Side of Chicago. We’ll call it The Hitchcock School because of a historical connection it had (it is closed now, I’m almost certain) to an event that became an inspiration for a Hitchcock film. I heard of the opening because a former teacher there worked with my wife. I do not remember much about the interview, but I do remember signing the contract and the principal telling me that the salary was not enough for starting a family. I’ve never been shy about discussing salaries. I think the taboo against it is sometimes a tool used to intimidate people from discovering whether they’re being paid in an equitable manner. My salary for that first year was $15,500. This was 1992. In any event, all I remember about my first day is the last period. A student, a senior, had his hand up for much of the period, but I was having none of it. I kept talking and talking and talking. Finally, with maybe 5-10 minutes left, I called on him. His question: “Can you tell us your name?”
It was a good place for me to start, I think. My Principal, after I’d had a particularly rough day, told me that what he liked about teaching is that you got to come back the next day and that, more often than not, the students had forgotten about whatever had made the day before feel so lousy for you. It’s advice I’ve kept close at hand since then and have passed on to many others.
It’s a tough school to describe. We had a somewhat transient student population. We tended to get students who were getting lost in public schools and needed a kind of tune-up before they could return. But we had some permanent students, including the senior I mentioned above. Class sizes were small. In general, though, I really didn’t know what I was doing, especially with those students who had special needs.
I remember my bubble of naivete bursting when I learned that two of our female students had children by the same father, so they’d been placed in separate grades to try to prevent conflict. There was my first experience with a student who was being abused at home.
What I lacked in terms of training and strategies, I tried to make up for with energy. We read books. One student reported being assigned similar titles in college and being grateful to me for her preparation. Others struggled. I was at a loss when it came to managing a grade book and was grateful that our motorcycle riding math teacher was willing to guide me. I had almost no ideas about dealing with classroom behavior. Or working with colleagues (much less getting along with some of them). Some of our students were involved with gangs. Drugs. A student I had in 8th grade showed up driving a fancy car, maybe a Trans-Am or something, the next year. One senior plagiarized Camille Paglia for his final project. He’d also set another student’s hair on fire, though I think that was my second year. I volunteered to coach basketball. I think I got on decently with some of the parents.
After that first year, we got a new Principal. And we had budget problems, so the staffing situation changed quickly, and I ended up with a British Literature course I hadn’t anticipated. We had a science teacher no one could figure out, and he ended up being asked to leave after the first quarter, I think. Discipline issues persisted. Students came and went and sometimes came again.
I organized some field trips, mostly to see plays. One time we went to an art exhibit. Another time, a dance performance. I tried to help students get into college. I made a student turn his hat around when he was confronted by someone as we walked to see a play at a local theatre. I took some students to hear Malcolm X’s widow speak and mistakenly allowed some students to return in a private car. My exasperated Principal explained the risks involved. We went to see a morning matinee of Of Mice and Men and required the students to buy their lunch at a restaurant opened by the father of one of their classmates. I’d never had jerk chicken before. (It was good. I should check to see if his place is still open.)
I was on the Development Committee and helped organize our annual fundraiser. The only reason it was successful the first year is that someone I invited was, in fact, running a pyramid scheme so he had a lot of cash to spend. When I asked the Chairman of the Board what the money would be used for, he said, “You know those checks you all got today? They won’t bounce.”
Yeah, that was a problem. Luckily, I banked nearby so I was generally one of the first to get my check deposited. Others were not so fortunate.
It was a good place for me to start. I learned that I loved teaching. I also learned that I didn’t know enough to do it well. It was time, then, to go back to school.