*The names have been changed to protect the identity of the children. But, the story is true. So true. The truest thing I’ve ever experienced.
As schoolteachers, we all have stories from the trenches; those that are really horrendous and those that keep us coming back September after September. The story of Anthony is one of those “keep ‘em coming back stories.”
After many, many years out of the classroom, in school administration and higher education, our family moved to Los Angeles, for what we knew would be a two year stint. For years, I had wanted to return to classroom teaching – my first love. Mack was adamantly against it. First of all, it would be a huge pay cut. But even more importantly, it was hard work (not that those other two jobs are a piece of cake!). He had lived through several years, early in my career, when I taught school. It was a never-ending odyssey. Grades, bulletin boards, lesson plans, parent conferences, etc. He just wasn’t on board with being the teacher-husband again. Done right, it’s a tough gig.
But, I talked him into the notion that a limited-time return to classroom teaching while we were in Los Angeles would be a good idea. I had a dearth of experience in inner city settings. I had spent most of my career in suburbia or in upscale parochial schools, and I wanted the experience of inner city education.
Be careful what you ask for!
We moved to Los Angeles from our previous station in Las Vegas, where I taught teachers at UNLV, on January 20. I remember this vividly, because it was our youngest son Jack’s 16th birthday. Mack’s company had rented us a beautiful, huge, gorgeous (did I mention that it was pretty?) house in the canyons north of Los Angeles. Since we had been living in a stucco cracker box for two years in Vegas, this was the most delicious thing that had happened to me in a long time. The company was paying, which was delightful, considering LA prices – and the house even came with a gardener and maid. Wow!
Anyhow, things were pretty good on the home front. In what I know couldn’t possibly have been a coincidence (God’s hand was all over this move!) we found Jack a wonderful parochial school right up the street from the house. It turns out, this is where such notables as Bob Hope’s kids and Jonathan Taylor Thomas, had been educated. And, most importantly, they had a famous Olympic fencing coach – and Jack had recently taken up fencing. The older boys were already in college (in the LA area!). So, these were good times.
Though I didn’t need to work (since the company was paying for the house, etc) I thought that I really should. After all, two kids in college – one kid in private school and on his way to college – an extra paycheck couldn’t hurt. Also, the LAUSD paid teachers more than I had ever made as a principal or university professor. With a doctorate in education, I figured that I was a slam dunk. Every day, the newspapers bemoaned the fact that they were 10,000 teachers short in LA – they would be beating a path to my door.
I called HR weekly, from February 1 till April 1, with no response. Finally, I mentioned to HR that I would probably need to call the newspaper to report that they had a fully certified, highly recommended teacher, just waiting in the wings, ready to take a class. The next day, I got the assignment.
I was assigned to a school in the valley, not officially an inner city school – but, it did have all of the characteristics I was looking for. 100% free lunch students, 99% minority, my 5th graders were reading on 1st and 2nd grade levels. The kids that I taught in my first LAUSD assignment had not had a teacher all year long (remember, I started in April). A series of subs had tried and failed – running, screaming from the chaos that was Room 104. If I wasn’t so mean, and if I hadn’t made such a big deal out of wanting to return to the classroom, I would have run, too.
It was bad…really bad.
Anyhow, I somehow survived the group. As it turned out, it became much better when they realized that they couldn’t run me off. Every morning, I would tell them that we were together for the duration and that I cared about them and they were going to learn. (As an aside and an illustration of the difficulty experienced by these kids, in my group of 27 5th graders, 5 of the kids had experienced the death of a parent within that year that I taught them).
It was a nightmare.
The next year, I taught a mixed-age group of 4th and 5th graders, and was trained as the Literacy Coach on the campus. It was a wonderful year – full of learning and great teaching (if I do say so myself!). Great fun.
I decided that I would try to personify all of the qualities of the exemplary teacher that I had been touting as a principal and teacher- educator for all of those previous years. I will say, that, while it is possible to “do it by the book,” it ain’t easy!
I made my own curtains and painted a huge floor rug. I used only teacher-made, fabulous, interactive bulletin boards. The room was filled with student work and student interactive writing. I wore thematic clothing, which went along with my perfectly developed and executed lesson plans. I read aloud to my students at least 7 times each day – picture books, newspaper articles, chapter books, non-fiction, poetry. We sang, we danced, we did theatrical productions. We even worked in the school garden. Those kids made great strides in their education. More importantly, those kids began to love to learn.
I needed Geritol!
My final year in LAUSD is the year that I met Anthony. I was asked to open the first Early Childhood Special Education class there on that campus. My classroom was a portable building (no bathroom) in the middle of a black asphalt playground, surrounded by barbed wire fencing. Parents had to bring the kids in through metal detectors (and this was many, many years ago, when school security was not such an issue. I had certainly not seen anything like it in my rural Texas school, where we left the doors unlocked and parents roamed the halls, making teaching materials and reading to kids).
I would meet my students each morning in the courtyard (sounds much more romantic than it was…this was just an extension of the asphalt playground).
I had ten kids that year. All three and four years old, and each one with a disability – Down Syndrome, Autism, Language Delay, or a combination. It was a tough group – and I loved each of them!
If I were to have to pick a single year of my career that meant the most to me, this year would win, hands down.
I only had the kids for 3 hours each afternoon. In the mornings, I would serve as a Literacy Coordinator, working with young teachers and students with specific reading difficulties. It was a very fun, but intense year. Seriously, I would stumble home after school and take my place on the couch (a purple couch we named Barney) and wait for Mack to serve me dinner. He practically had to cut my meat and place it in my mouth. I was exhausted (and exhilarated).
The first time that I met my new little clan of students was a sunny, hot, San Fernando Valley morning in September. Not a touch of breeze. I had worn my primary-colored jeans and a bright polka dotted shirt, topped with one of the denim aprons that my mother had hand-painted for me to wear that year in the preschool classroom. That particular one had a painting of Humpty Dumpty on the front. I wore the cow-hide clogs that I had picked up in Sweden the year before. (The kids loved touching those shoes, and by the end of the year, they had worn a couple of bald spots on the shoes from rubbing them during our frequent story times on the rug!).
Anyhow, I was excited and ready for this challenge. I had spent the summer making my portable building into a home for my little ones; sewing beanbags and assembling sensory boxes; developing teacher-made books and charts. I had used my modest school budget to purchase teddy bear counters and blocks and multi-racial baby dolls. I had sewn new curtains and matching pillows. I was so excited. Not only was I back in the classroom – I was back with little kids; and little kids with disabilities to boot.
It was a dream come true for me.
With twenty five years experience, a doctorate in early childhood education, a year-long lesson plan, color coded and posted at the front door of the classroom, and a quick prayer, I headed to the courtyard.
Now I know that the prayer should have been a bit longer.
My part-time aide at my side, I strolled into what would be the most difficult teaching day of my life.
First came Krystal. The most precious little girl who had Downs Syndrome. She had been in school elsewhere, and knew the drill. She lined up in front of me, hugging my legs, and waved goodbye to her mother.
Then came Brandon. Brandon was severely impacted with Autism.
Then Sam, a beautiful boy with some Language Delay issues.
And Sarah and Maria and Christopher and Elijah and Alex and Jacob.
Then, I heard Anthony from all the way down the street, following his cries as his dad carried him into the school yard. This was not going to be pretty.
Anthony’s dad was a gangbanger. Covered from the neck down in tattoos, baggy pants down past his hiney, and $200 sneakers, this guy was a little scary looking (even in a public place in broad daylight). But, (or really, I should say AND) he loved Anthony with all of his heart. He turned out to be one of the best dads I have ever seen in action.
So much for first impressions.
Anthony did not want to come to school. And, that is the understatement of the century!
Because I am DOCTOR Wallace – and I know all about little kids (yeah, right!) I told Anthony’s father that the best thing to do was to let Anthony come to me, and for him, the dad, to walk away.
Anthony would be just fine.
So, I peeled Anthony from his father’s arms. He was kicking and screaming and wiggling and trying to head-butt me. I spoke gently to him, telling him that Dad would return soon and that we were going to have lots of fun.
It appeared that Anthony did not believe me!
We headed back to the middle of the asphalt playground, to the portable, to begin our day.
Anthony cried for the entire three hours of our class. Several times, he worked himself up to the point of throwing up. The aide and I took turns standing near him, so that he would not harm himself as he thrashed and threw things and cried. Man, could that kid cry.
“It will be better tomorrow,” I told myself.
I was wrong.
As we worked to acclimate the other students to their school day, Anthony continued to cry and throw up…for three weeks.
I conferenced frequently with his parents, assuring them that Anthony would eventually come to love school, and that it was a good place for him. These parents were grasping at straws.
At the age of four years and three months, Anthony had never spoken a word.
His parents had taken him to the pediatrician many times, and he always told them the same thing.
“Nothing to worry about.”
These parents, like so many others living in poverty, had no place to turn but the public school. While I am all about developmental differences, a kid who had never spoken by age four is not ok.
Three weeks passed, with no improvement at all. Anthony was still miserable and I was in a quandary.
How could I help this kid?
What was it going to take?
We continued to read stories, sing, do center work, play on the playground.
And Anthony continued to cry.
And throw up.
Every morning, I would peel him from his father’s arms and lead the group of little tykes back to the classroom.
One morning, three weeks in, Anthony was particularly agitated. He was already screaming when they cleared the metal detector, and I said a little prayer for my patience and for this little guy, who was so distraught.
As I write this tale this morning, I am embarrassed to tell you that this is the first time that I have made the connection between that prayer and the rest of this tale that I am going to tell.
Of course…it was the prayer!
I peeled Anthony from his father’s arms that morning, as he screamed and kicked and tried to head-butt me yet again.
Remember, now, that Anthony had never uttered a single word in all of his four years on earth.
He kicked some more, and as I started to lead the line to the classroom, Anthony lifted his head, looked straight at me and said…..
(wait for it! are you ready? this is his first word in his whole life!…..)
Anthony called me PUNTA!
When I tell this tale to teachers from a hispanic background, there is usually a corporate gasp from the audience. It looses a little something if you are not up on your Spanish ‘cuss words. When I Iooked it up on Wikipedia for this story, it said,
“Punta is Spanish derogatory word for a woman’s butt. It is usually a term used disrespectfully or as a curse word. Punta is not a good word to use if you plan to get on someone’s good side.”
I’m pretty sure that it means something even worse than that, but I won’t write it here. Look it up…it’s not nice.
However, I have never been so happy in my whole, entire life!
And it was just his first word.
He had been holding out on all of us. From that ground-breaking moment, when I inspired the little tyke to speak, he never stopped.
Much like Leo the Late Bloomer, Anthony was on his way.
He spoke – in complete sentences.
He played nicely with the other kids.
He became the teacher’s helper – passing out snacks and supplies, and even helping to clean up the centers after play.
I couldn’t wait to tell Anthony’s dad about this breakthrough when he picked Anthony up that afternoon. I didn’t have to say much, because Anthony met his dad with an excited narrative about playing on the slide during recess.
Huge tears came to the eyes of that big ol’ gangbanger. He reached over and hugged me as he sobbed, thanking me for unlocking the box to Andrew’s language.
I hugged him back and we both cried a little more, clinging to each other on that hot asphalt playground.
It doesn’t always happen that way.
We don’t always succeed with our students.
But, we sow the seeds, and it may happen down the road – or it may never happen at all.
As teachers, though, these are the moments that we live for.
I am happy to report that Anthony went on that next year to regular education Kindergarten. He was eventually enrolled in the Gifted-magnet program on that campus. He did well throughout his public school years, and I hear that he’s enrolled in Community College this year.
PUNTA – it’s a beautiful word.