My supervising teacher went around and introduced each student. She didn’t let them do it. She spoke for them. In five minutes, she labeled each kid. He is a good worker; she’s not. This one likes to talk too much; that one doesn’t talk at all.
There was a big kid sitting in the back with his head down. She didn’t introduce him. Later she told me that his name was Lamar Thomas. He was an orphanage kid. It was one of the best facilities in the state, but still he was living with strangers doing the best they could with a kid who had nobody else to take care of him.
My supervising teacher told me it was best to leave him alone. “Just let him sleep,” she said. “It will make your life easier. It’s better for everyone.”
The next day, she left, and I was alone with the students. I was going to be with them by myself for the rest of the year. I was twenty years old. This would never happen today. It shouldn’t have happened then, but these were the kids that didn’t matter – the remedial group, the kids from the projects, the kids from the orphanage. Nobody was going to complain about these kids being with a student teacher. My professors wanted to move me. I begged them to let me stay. I had only spent one day with these kids, but I was already attached. That third-floor classroom was where I was supposed to be.
I was glad that woman was gone. I could do things my way.
I told the kids I had a terrible memory. I told them I didn’t remember which student was smart and which one was shy and which one was lazy.
It was 1988. I had on a new dress from The Limited and a silk scarf from Talbots. That was when women still wore pumps and Hanes Silk Reflections pantyhose. The kids looked at me as if I were Princess Diana. I had my own apartment, my own car, and was about to receive a college degree. All these things that seemed normal to me were the stuff of dreams for them. My apartment was right around the corner, walking distance from the school, but we were living in different worlds. No doubt.
I went through the usual “My name is…my favorite hobbies are…I go to school at ….”
I invited them to ask questions. Every single class, every single time, the first thing they wanted to know was, “How many babies you got?”
My initial reply was, “Oh, no, I’m not married. I don’t have any children.” By third period I changed my introduction to include, “I’m not married, and I don’t have any babies.” They were shocked by that. Twenty years old and no babies? An enigma.
The lesson my supervising teacher left for me had something to do with tongue twisters. Everyone recited the riddle but Lamar, the boy in the back. I woke him up. I encouraged him to try.
“I’m not good at English,” he said.
“Well, what are you good at?” I asked.
He answered, “Nothing,” and his classmates went crazy shouting that he was awesome at basketball.
I struck a deal, a skill I get from my father. I told him if he would try one of the tongue twisters, I would play H-O-R-S-E at recess in front of everybody. He accepted my terms.
Lamont tried the tongue twister. I tried to make the shots. Neither of us had much success, but that day at recess was a turning point. I played H-O-R-S-E in my Liz Claiborne pumps. The kids cheered for Lamont and laughed at me, and that was exactly as it should be. I laughed at myself. Lamont was a gracious winner.
That day set the tone for the next few months. From then on, no more sleeping in class. No more being the shy girl or the lazy boy. No more being the one who talked too much or not enough.
That game of H-O-R-S-E somehow gave everybody a clean slate. That day was the first day of school for us all.
Tammy Davis is a SC writer. *She changed the name of this student for privacy purposes. Davis is really bad at basketball but is pretty good at connecting with students, particularly the ones who would rather put their heads down and sleep through class.