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  • Writer's pictureSteven Cornelius

God Love A Teacher

As 1973 ground to an uncelebrated end, ushering in an uncertain 1974, I stood shivering outside a small two story apartment complex, back turned to a cold north wind sweeping down from Chicago. “The hawk” was born over Lake Michigan, gathered momentum as it passed over St. Louis, and followed the Mississippi River south before howling through Clarksdale, Mississippi. I was a new arrival; just beginning almost five months of living there in an old apartment complex situated smack in the middle of a downtown. There was a reason the apartments were so affordable; they had seen better days. The white frame, H-shaped complex that me and two other guys shared was situated very near a wide and shallow slough lined with towering Cyprus trees called the Sunflower River. That slow-moving brown river bisected the city and teemed with life, roiling just below its muddy surface. Once the weather warmed a bit, I picked handfuls of Catawba worms off leafy Mimosa trees growing near the river and used them as bait, occasionally catching good sized mud cat. Some days I wound up with enough to trade for newspaper wrapped fried fish at the local market. My time in Clarksdale was long before the Ground Zero Blues Club or Mississippi Delta Blues Museum came on the scene, though plenty of “juke joints” were scattered around Clarksdale and Coahoma County, if you were in the mood for some good blues music.

Why Clarksdale you might ask? The School of Education Student Teaching Coordinator at Ole Miss sent me to that small delta town. My mission was to teach social studies and art to thirty-one elementary students (4th through 6th grade) each morning and twenty-eight high school students (10th through 12th) in the afternoon. Student teaching was a necessary step to complete an undergraduate degree in education and earn a teachers’ certificate. Area schools sent the university a list of openings and students were placed based upon their major. The ten or twelve of us looking to fulfill student teaching requirements that semester were shot-gunned out to communities all over north Mississippi. I felt fortunate to land in Clarksdale. I vaguely knew the area and also appreciated that Clarksdale was only seventy miles of busy two-lane roads away from the Ole Miss campus. My academic advisor was kind enough to drive me over to Clarksdale and introduce me to the elementary and high school principals I’d work with.

Two weeks later, I reported to the high school. I’ll never forget my first day and a five minute meeting with the principal; a florid faced, overweight, man nearing retirement. He sat across from me sweating profusely, a pained expression on his face, as if he knew that the seconds were counting down and soon a prison van would arrive and take him down to Parchman. There was no invitation to sit and get comfortable; instead, he looked me up and down and didn’t mince words, “Let me be clear. If anything at all goes wrong while you are here, I will not support you. You are absolutely on your own. Make every decision as though it will be your last. Now get out of here!” On that sobering note, I nodded that I’d heard him loud and clear and quickly backed out of his office, closed the door and walked slowly down a long hallway, with a lot on my mind. I passed twenty closed classroom doors before stepping into the teachers’ lounge; my first face to face meeting with a group of professionals I aspired to join. As I would soon learn, some taught because they loved their job; others maybe because it was the path of least resistance. Regardless, I wasn’t ready for what happened next. I didn’t really dive into the deep end of the strange and murky pool called teaching, so much as sink to the bottom and flail around like a drowning man. I was a new fish set up at every turn by older more experienced teachers and I was clueless as to what they were doing or why…at least for the first week or so and then I caught up to speed.

Each morning, at least one of the older teachers had a sarcastic comment just for my benefit. On the Monday morning of my second week, I looked at one old, bitter woman who’d just made a hateful comment and asked, “Did you stay up all night thinking of that one? Anything else you’d like to add?” One old fossilized guy sat in the corner of our lounge, Styrofoam coffee cup in hand and Marlboro Gold cigarette hanging from his mouth, head obscured by a cloud of blue smoke and told all within earshot loud how much he hated teaching, as he marked another day off his “time left until retirement calendar.” I left the lounge confused and more than a little intimidated; I was on strange and shaky ground. After that kind of encouragement from my “peers,” I began bypassing the teacher’s lounge and heading straight to my classroom each morning. No matter how well I got along with the other teachers or didn’t…I still had to take that hundred yard walk and face my morning students, who were a handful. However, they were a cakewalk compared to my afternoon students, who set a new standard for sullen, sulky attitudes.

I didn’t learn until much later that the collection of twenty-eight afternoon bad attitudes were in my class because the older teachers decided to transfer every student who’d been a disciplinary problem into my class. Not a single day went by for almost five months without a tense confrontation with an oversized, hormone driven teenager, equipped with a permanent bad attitude. Each confrontation almost always resulted in my ejecting the punk from class, sending the young man straight to my favorite principal’s office. Mercifully for me, the elementary school students I taught across town may have been hyperactive, but they were eager to learn and listened to what I had to say…most times. Those little guys and girls couldn’t have been more wound up if they’d been given a strong cup of coffee and a Hershey bar to start their day. Half my energy was expended keeping the little turds in their seats, hands to themselves and somewhat quiet. About fifteen percent of my energy and focus went to actually teaching them new things.

Still, there was no point in giving up. Eventually, the high school situation got better. Once my afternoon students realized that I wouldn’t take any crap from them, they kinda sorta settled down. However, let’s get back to my morning class, because that’s where this story is going; there was one young teacher with a couple of years teaching under her belt, and coincidentally who had the classroom adjacent to mine, who offered me encouragement and practical tips on handling my rowdy band of elementary school students. I had completed Army Basic Training and my initial approach was to treat the little guys like basic trainees. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t work. Every day that went by this young woman showed me why she was a really good elementary school teacher. She had a bottomless well of patience and tolerance for stupid behavior, even from me. A couple of times each week, we would sit in her classroom eating sack lunches and talk about how to handle problem students or refine our lesson plans. I listened to her relate a few “I learned from that” stories, but the underlying message she was trying to communicate bounced off my noggin like peas off rawhide. I’m sure she thought I was a thickhead dolt and often wondered why bother.

She repeatedly told me to take it slow, that teaching was a marathon, not a sprint. She might as well have been talking to her dog. I kept telling her that in addition to teaching them the basics, I also wanted to “shake things up” and make class fun. As she talked, I nodded a lot and said, “uh huh” but always finished up any discussion by rearing back in my chair and declaring, “I want to get creative and make class fun. I think the kids would like that.” She was a sweet young woman who never confronted or challenged me about such idiotic ideas. Instead, when she realized her message went right over my head, she’d grow very quiet, looking down, suddenly finding her hands very interesting. What she knew came from hard experience…and despite her best efforts, I had to learn the same hard way. My fundamentally flawed views on teaching came from that inexhaustible well of youthful confidence that sprang from an equally deep well of ignorance that the young and naïve mostly possess.

After a few weeks, I learned that it was an act of hopeless optimism to believe that I could keep an eye on all those little rascals and control what each of them did one hundred percent of the time. A couple of kind-hearted colleagues down the hall and the teacher next door who befriended me, asked a few leading questions about my lesson plan development and approach to conducting class, trying to hide their shock and alarm when I told them of my bold plan to “shake things up.” Each one offered gentle suggestions to the contrary, trying to save me a truck load of grief. Because I was young and arrogant, I turned a deaf ear to all the well-meaning advice offered by others who’d taught for years. I had to learn the hard way and boy, did I. About a week later, the pretty young teacher next door noticed me walking down the hall with an armload of powdered paint jars and other materials, straight from the school supply closet. Her jaw dropped, unable to hide that “oh no” look every experienced teacher has. As I approached her open doorway she asked, “Uh, do you think they are ready to mix paints and do an art project? Maybe that’s not a good idea. No one has taught them that yet.” I grinned, “Well, today’s the day.”

Today was the day in more ways than one. Because I am stubborn and thickheaded, it took a lot of bad experiences to learn that sometimes you should stop and listen when a person with more mileage under their belt than you questions what you are about to do. I walked into the classroom brimming with confidence and smiled broadly at my thirty-one students, who smiled back at me and then gave me questioning looks. My classroom was old school in more ways than one. The desks were large and seated two students, side by side. A couple of the fourth grade girls sitting on the front row; I called each of them Miss Bossy Pants. They occupied one of those double desks and when they saw my armload of goodies, offered to help, so I handed each one an empty quart pitcher and asked them to go fill them with water. Five minutes later, we were ready to get started. I walked up and down the aisles between desks, placing three small cups on each desktop, along with wooden popsicle sticks and bendable plastic straws. I only had enough paint brushes to give one to each duo of students. They would have an opportunity to share.

After getting them started by walking around filling each cup half full of water, I then asked the little guys (and girls) to stir the powder until it was a thick, well-mixed liquid that could be dropped or spread on the thick sheets of construction paper I’d also given them. The idea was that each student would suck a little bit of paint into the straw and drop it, making a random pattern on paper, creating a magnificent piece of art. Well, after five minutes of roving around the classroom, I looked up from helping a pair of students on the other side of the room just in time to see one little guy in the back of the classroom suck about two ounces of royal blue paint into his straw, put his thumb over the straw end to create a vacuum holding the paint inside just like I’d shown them. The young man used his other hand to carefully place the tip of the straw about three inches from his desk mate’s right ear and blow with all his might. I swear, I could see everything unfold in slow motion from twenty feet away. The blue paint erupted outward, a wobbly blob moving like a water balloon dropped from two hundred feet. Less than a second later the paint splattered all over the side of his desk mate’s head, neck and shirt. Naturally, the kid who’d been freshly painted was really upset. He pushed our young Jackson Pollack out of their shared desk, fell on top of him and began pummeling him with both fists. They were rolling around on the floor pounding the crap out of each other like two racoons fighting over a bag of nuts.

Most of the girls in the class gasped and put their hands over their mouths when I yelled, “Shit…stop that!.” I raced across the room, grabbing each little guy by the shirt, pulling them apart. I put the twin Miss Bossy Pants in charge until I returned and marched the little guys down to the principal’ office, not even bothering to clean the blue paint off the victim. The principal’s eyes got wide as I pushed the two fourth graders into her office, moving her right hand up stifling a smile as she saw an early example of a junior member of the blue man group. While the two kids squirmed under my firm grip, I quickly explained what happened. The principal nodded and wound up our office visit by giving me a lecture on how not to teach a class. While she was dressing me down, the two juveniles warily eyed each other, silently communicating that their fight wasn’t over. I slunk out of her office with the two boys in tow, briefly stopping by the bathroom so the one kid could get most of the paint off his head and out of his ear hole. As Mr. Air Pollack washed his hands, he occasionally glanced up at me, wondering what would happen next. What happened next was the little turd helped me gather up all the paint supplies and stow them in a box under my desk. As I‘d learned during Army Basic, I informed the class that because of our painter’s bad behavior, there would be no more working with liquid paint for the rest of that month. I also told them they could thank him later. For the rest of that week, we read from very safe paper books and any coloring was with crayons. I caught a goodly amount of ribbing from my fellow teaches for a few days and tried to be good natured about it. After all, I had ignored every suggestion and hint from them that would have saved me that embarrassment and pressed ahead. I still ate lunch one a week with my next door neighbor and she didn’t tease or poke at me about my huge mistake. Instead, she offered other suggestions on what to do with the hyperactive thirty-one, as I’d begun calling my class. I surprised her by listening for a change.

After almost five months of student teaching, on the last day of school, the elementary school principal offered me a job for the upcoming school year. I was flattered and seriously considered the offer until she told me what my starting salary would be, not counting deductions for health insurance and taxes. I’m sure she noticed the shocked look on my face. Before I caught myself, I blurted out, “I make more than that doing tune-ups on campus two weekends each month”…and I did. The whole time I worked toward my undergraduate degree and once admitted to graduate school, I operated an “open air garage” on Saturdays and half-days on Sunday earning about thirty percent more than what the Coahoma County, Mississippi School District was going to pay me to teach full time. I said my goodbyes to a few good people and new friends, returned to Ole Miss and promptly completed my graduate school application. Once I had an acceptance letter, I applied for Air Force ROTC and transferred from the Army Guard to the Air Force. Eighteen months later, I earned my commission and entered active duty as an Air Force officer. Despite my decision not to teach in Clarksdale, I never forgot my elementary school students. In fact, I have a framed crayon drawing on construction paper hanging in my home office done by one of my students. It is a nice likeness of me wearing shades, a beret and sporting a goatee and mustache. He asked if adding those things would be alright, because otherwise the work was too boring. I happily agree. As for my high school students, I’m sure they were as glad to be rid of me as I was to be free of them.

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