“Welcome to Haversaw High, Hornet Valley, NC”
I am William Gregory, veteran teacher and survivor of nineteen-years worth of service to the state of North Carolina. During this time, I’ve laughed, cried, yelled, encouraged, begged, pleaded, and taught; but mostly I’ve laughed. Teaching was a great profession. Any heartbreak was tempered with joy. Over the years, I’ve written numerous humorous stories concerning teaching and the antics of my students set in the village of Hornet Valley, a suburb of Camelton, in Haversaw County, North Carolina. However, in light of the current hostile political situation prevalent in North Carolina, I felt a need to take a more serious look at my education world.
Within these pages, you will not find any revelations of deep secrets concerning lust and intrigue carried out in the dark recesses of teachers’ lounges. Neither will you find teachers trying to subvert the innocent minds of our wards into mindless communist-pacifist-socialist-terrorists. Frankly, when you are dealing with around 180 crazed teenagers, lust is the last thing on your mind and, well, you just don’t have the energy for any intrigue. As to teaching any hidden agendas, you don’t have the time, what with all of the overt political agendas that pepper the standard courses of study for classes around the nation. All of your time and energy is consumed by the art of teaching and trying to properly present the material the state deems to be vitally important to the future of our students. Outside of a few rare instances, lust, intrigue, and conspiracies to overthrow the government by perverting young minds to a socialist agenda only happen on TV. Instead, teachers, like me, are just regular people trying to make a difference in the lives of the kids they teach.
While lacking in the shootings, sex, drugs, and skullduggery the media has presented as everyday occurrences in our schools, it is my hope that this journal will set the record straight and portray the real drama and struggles that I and my fellow teachers face each day. While maybe not all teachers’ story, this is mine.
As one reads this diary, it will be obvious that the first month is not chronicled by date. The reason for this is simple to anyone who is in the field. I was just too blame tired to do any writing during this time. The first month of school can best be described as hell. Consider the following analogy: You’re in a blissful, carefree state somewhere in the world, where time and stress are unknown—I like to think of this area as a tropical beach with an endless supply of your beverage of choice—suddenly, some demon from the netherworld sucks you back into the hard world of reality. That’s what the first day back at work is like.
For those people who do not enjoy two months off from work, please do not begrudge the poor teachers this pleasure. This is a time of renewal, a time of rest, a time of lowering your stress levels to a point where you don’t rip someone’s head off of their shoulders. I once confided in a friend that I could not see how the regular worker managed without an extended break. His response was, “William, I’ve never had a co-worker walk into my office and body slam another co-worker on my desk.”
I had to correct him on a few key points. First, it was a student who did that deed, I was talking with a fellow teacher; second, it was a lab table, not a desk; and third, it was the nicest fight I’ve ever had to handle.
While the event was surprising, I must admit the student in question was extremely courteous about the whole situation. Jennifer, my fellow teacher, and I were calmly talking about changing diapers when Big Bob walked into the room and asked if he could talk to one of my students. As the name implies, Big Bob was large, standing well over six feet.
“Of course, Bob. School hasn’t started yet,” I said.
Jennifer and I continued our discussion concerning the pros and cons of heated versus cold wet-wipes when I saw John’s arms and legs fly through the air. John was, maybe, 5’5” and had a mouth that was at least 5’4” and ran constantly. Big Bob was not the first person to entertain thoughts of body-slamming the little braggart. “You don’t talk about my Mama like that!” yelled Big Bob as he
repeatedly slammed John onto the lab table.
With arms and legs flailing in every imaginable direction, John yelled back, “I’m going to kick your ass!”
Once I was able to process what had just occurred and reached the two combatants, Bob quickly released his hold upon the offending classmate, order was restored, and both boys enjoyed a vacation from school.
After dealing with issues such as this one, I hope it is easy to understand why teachers desperately need the summers to recoup their equilibrium. While these situations ensure that I am never outdone at parties when the conversation turns to strange happenings at work, it is stressful in the extreme. So, if any politicians are reading this, please don’t try to chip away at summer break. Not only is an extended summer break good for the tourism industry, but it also keeps the teachers from going insane and staring off into space, only to giggle maniacally at odd moments. The first workday of this school year saw the arrival of a new principal at my school, Haversaw High. There’s nothing particularly special about Haversaw High, but it represents any school because basically schools are all the same. Yes, schools come in different sizes and diversity of populations, but once you boil teaching down to its basics, all schools have the same core mission: the teaching of students. While the flavors of the problems are different, all schools face student apathy, unrealistic expectations of parents, lack of funding, etc., all of which make educa-
As I was saying, our old principal, Mr. Peace retired at the end of last year while he still had a few strands of hair left. If you think teaching is intense, try being a principal. You get the parents, the teachers, and the superintendent all trying to tell you how to do your job, usually at the top of their lungs. I only get the parents telling me about how I’m screwing up the life of their child. But, the administrators have known me long enough to know I’m competent at what I do. They tend to leave me alone, so I rarely have trouble. Hopefully, our new principal will follow suit.
The new guy, Mr. Flair, is different from Mr. Peace. Mr. Flair has a quiet confidence about him. During the first month, he seemed like a “hands-off ” manager unless he needed to be involved. I can respect that trait.
The only real thing of interest I’ve discovered about Mr. Flair was uncovered two weeks into the school year. Jane, another teacher, came into my class one day at the end of the day. She was on the verge of tears. My concern quickly changed to curiosity when I realized the tears were from laughing.
“You’ll never guess what just happened,” she said breathlessly. I said, “Do tell.”
She proceeded to spin a tale that had me laughing so hard I almost fell out of my seat. It turns out, she has a very inquisitive fourth period class. While this sounds good, their curiosity has nothing to do with schoolwork and everything to do with the personal lives of teachers. You get classes like that sometimes. Anyway, this class was gung-ho about tracking down the rumor concerning their principal and asked her just as Mrs. Purple (one of our assistant principals who really likes purple) walked into the room. Jane deflected the question toward Mrs. Purple. The students were frantically shaking their heads “no” but Jane carried through with the challenge.
“I don’t know the details of Mr. Flair’s prior work experience, but why don’t we ask Mrs. Purple,” Jane said. “Mrs. Purple, do you have any clue as to whether Mr. Flair was ever a professional wrestler?”
To her credit, Mrs. Purple held her composure and answered, “While he’s certainly in good shape, I am not privy to his pastwork experience either. You’ll just have to ask him. Would anyone like a note to the office?”
At this point, the students respectfully declined the offer. Quick thinking will often get you out of some sticky situations, and Mrs. Purple is one of the quickest thinkers I know. It is an honor to work for her. So I’ll leave the mental images of principals addressing the school over the P.A. system while standing in an awkward pose and wearing nothing but a mask and wrestling tights and move on to other occurrences.
The first thought I had as I surveyed each of my classes at the beginning of the school year was the impression of looking out over sea of humanity. At last count, I had 34 students in each of my regular Earth Science classes. This, by the way, is the lowest level of science classes we offer, which means these kids need a lot of help, a task that is next to impossible with 102 kids in three classes. As I said, when you survey 34 students in a class, you are indeed reminded of the undulating sea as it moves on its timeless journey. Of course, when all 34 students are talking at once, the class bears a strong resemblance to the fury of the strongest of the ocean’s tempests.
The question begs to be asked how this all came about when a mere ten years ago, a class of twenty-eight was considered quite large. It all boils down to one word: “Budget.” North Carolina has been hit hard by the recession and tax revenues have dropped. Compounding the problem was one political party’s zealous endeavors to cut taxes at all costs. The one-cent sales tax deduction enacted two years ago amounted to a net increase of my income that allowed me to take my family of four out for a big night on the town at the end of each month. Of course, that is with the stipulation that we went to McDonalds and ordered off the value menu.
This same loss of revenue, however, meant a huge budget deficit for the state of North Carolina at a time when tax revenues were already down. One estimate put the additional loss at a billion dollars. I can’t rightly say what the final numbers were, but it equated to a huge loss of money for my school system.
To make up for the shortfall, positions were cut. Officially, we lost very few personnel in this process. However, the numbers of teachers laid off doesn’t tell the complete story. Two years ago, four Haversaw High science teachers resigned for various reasons. The Central Office only allowed Mr. Peace to replace three of them. Technically, nobody lost a job; but the reality was we had one less science teacher the next year. With one less science teacher, that’s six sections of classes that had to be absorbed among the remaining teachers. Last year was bad enough; but at the beginning of this year, our enrollment had increased and we still had not replaced that lost teacher. So, at the beginning of every class, I look across the sea of humanity hoping and praying I make it through the day without mishap. Being a science teacher who is required to incorporate laboratory experiments into his curriculum, this is a daunting task.
Over the years, I have noticed that the school year starts out with a honeymoon grace period. This is the time where you’re trying to figure out your students, and they, in turn, are trying to determine if they like or hate you. There is usually little middle ground, for the average student is still in that area of cognizant ability where everything is either black or white, or right or wrong.
If the students like you, I can’t say that they will do anything for you, but they will at least be manageable. If they don’t like you, well, let’s just say it is not going to be a pleasant year. I’ve had both experiences over the years. This process of determination usually takes about two weeks. Now, if you can already sense a deep dislike in the first few days, the school year can best be described as a place of fire and pitchforks.
Two weeks is also the time it takes before students start to open up to their teachers. It is a mistake to view high school students as “little kids.” They are not. They have grown into physical adults by the time they are sixteen and they are dealing with many adult issues. I have noticed that the only people who want to continue to treat them as babies are the parents who refuse to admit that time has passed since they last changed their child’s diaper. As my own children have grown older, I am beginning to understand this stubborn clinging to the past.
One such student, Cindy, wandered up to my desk today while the class was working on an assignment. Usually, when a student does this, something other than science is on her mind.
“Mr. Gregory,” Cindy asked tentatively. “What are we doing tomorrow?”
I thought for a second and responded, “We’re continuing our discussion on the planets. If you’re going to be out, I’ll print you a copy of the notes.”
She nodded gratefully, and I thought she was going to return to her desk. After two steps in that direction, she turned and said with disgust tinting her voice, “I’m going to court tomorrow.”
Not the reason I was expecting. While I hardly knew her by this early stage of the semester, she seemed like a good kid.
“I’m trying to remove my dad from any semblance of custody over me,” she said without prompting.
I made some form of grunting comment, which is the universal acknowledgment that states, “I understand you need to talk, and I also understand that you really don’t want advice.” Cindy continued to talk for a while explaining how she had lived with her father, but had been more of a “mother” to him than he had been a “father” to her. While Cindy’s mother was no saint, she at least could take care of herself. I felt sorry for Cindy. As I said earlier, these aren’t little children. They are young adults trying to deal with adult issues.
We just received word that one of our fellow science teachers has received a promotion to become a science coach at the Central Office. For those of you not familiar with educational jargon, the position of science coach was created years ago when the standardized testing took an ugly turn with “No Child Left Behind.” The scores of every possible sub-group of student now came under intense scrutiny. The pressure applied to teachers jumped three-fold because, no matter your views of this piece of legislature, it is very difficult to take a child who, through no fault of his own other than the misfortune of being born with a low IQ, is reading on a fifth-grade level and bring that child to a pre-collegian level where words such as tertiary roll easily off of his tongue. To offer testimony to the Herculean task presented to schools, we were deemed an at-risk school a few years back even though our passing average for the tests was in the range of an accomplished school. It turns out, Mr. Peace, our former principal, made the mistake of having compassion for a kid who was sick on the day one of the standardized tests was administered. Mr. Peace let the boy go home to vomit in a more comfortable surrounding. The only stipulation the principal asked was that he return as soon as he was well to make-up the exam. The boy never returned. As a result, Haversaw High was deemed an atrisk school. Go figure. So, in order to help schools, our Central Office created “coaches” to go into the individual schools and provide support and advice when needed.
Amidst jokes accusing our coworker of joining the “dark side,” we’re happy for him. (As with any corporation or business, a certain amount of animosity exists between the common workers and the top-management. Schools are no different. Even though we’re “all on the same team,” the Central Office personnel are often viewed as tyrants seeking to place more work upon the teachers. For their part, the central office personnel probably look upon us as a bunch of whiny jerks.) He’s a good man and will do a good job. I wish him luck.
Today was Crayon Day, the first day of Spirit Week. I’m not certain how dressing-up in your favorite color demonstrates your school spirit, but hey, who am I to argue?
It was slightly disconcerting to have a black crayon sitting in the front row of my class. I kept confusing Bill’s cone head he used as the end of his black crayon suit for his hand raised to ask a question. Other than that, the only real casualty was one of the fashion sense. I don’t believe it is ever proper etiquette to wear a pink shirt, a different shade of pink pants, and topped off with a third shade of pink hat.
I spent my time in all of my classes teaching how the oceans regulate global temperatures and moderate the climate of both the East and West coasts. Because these were regular level classes, I have learned to define not only the science vocabulary words in my lecture notes, but words such as “moderate” as well. It was extremely sad to see fourteenand fifteen-year-olds struggling with terms my eight-year-old daughter had on her vocabulary tests. When I pointed this out, in a joking manner, to one class, Maria responded, “That’s because she’s at that smart school.” My daughter Kaitlyn, was enrolled in a magnet school for highly academically gifted kids.
This spoke volumes concerning the problems of our students. Notice, I said “students” not “schools.” Maybe I’m biased, but the schools seem to be doing the best job they can with teaching students. However, when a student justifies having a poorer vocabulary than a girl six-years her junior, there’s not much I can do. Her problems have now been transferred; they’re someone else’s fault. “I didn’t go to the smart school, so therefore it’s okay that an eight-year old has a better vocabulary than I do” figures prominently into this mentality. Instead of a little bit of self-reflection into the root cause of her problems, she blamed anything or anybody but herself.
Along those lines, I also told the students they needed to try to use their vocabulary terms at home. The response by a majority of my students was, “If I use words such as moderate and leeward coast, my mom would look at me like I was crazy!” This highlighted another problem. If we can’t get the parents to buy into the fact that it is all right for their kid to be intelligent, then, once again, there isn’t much I can do. I see the kids for ninety minutes each day. They are with their parents for the rest of the night. I don’t care what any politician or education expert says, I’m out gunned on this one. Unfortunately, I’m just a teacher, not a miracle worker.
Fourth Period was a challenge, but I’ve lowered my expectations in that class. If I don’t have to call the Law down to my room, then it’s an acceptable day. A sad testimony, but when you have thirty-four kids in the lowest-level science class and of those kids, twenty-four are boys, and of the ten girls, four of them could out-do most boys, and I’m not even going to talk about the kids with criminal records, then you take what you can get.
© Chip Putnam 2016. All Rights Reserved.
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