The Memoir of a Reluctant Teacher


I started teaching in 2001. This year was marked by two tragedies: 9/11 and my mother’s death from cancer. They say the worst time to begin a teaching career is when something else is going on in your personal life. Well, that is all well and good when you live in a bubble. Real life comes at you quick and hard. There is no timeout. I started teaching because I felt I had no other options. My wealthy father had died in a bull mating accident on his farm, so my mother paid for the final two years of my college and for living in my sorority house. By the way, being Greek is beyond lame. It is like that club in high school that takes itself way too seriously for what amounts to a group of girls trying to instill a sense of order in their first stab at adulthood.
I rode the bus to get to temp jobs as my mother lay dying in the hospital. There was no more pretending to be an adult; this was the real deal. Mama, as I called her because while my father was Latin my mother was the strictest Irish woman ever to exist. She drove me to school every day. I went without complaint because it was what I had to do as a child: remain silent and do what I was told. Otherwise, my mother’s washerwoman hands of death would correct me. So faced with a bachelor’s degree in Honors English and a minor in History, I had doomed myself to become not the writer I wanted to be, but the teacher I had always dreaded. I chose teaching at the time because it was what was available to me.
Little Stars Academy was my first school. I went to the job interview apologizing for the chicken pox marks I was just getting over. One of my temping jobs was working in a children’s hospital and I must have picked it up in the hallways or riding on the bus. After much reassuring I was no longer contagious, the staff looked at me as if I was trouble already. My interview was brief, I had been out of school was almost a year and I had been temping during that time as I took care of my mother. If Mama needed to go to the hospital, I stayed with her. No regular job at the time would have been understanding to the degree that I never knew if I could come in or not. Temping was a sound solution for the time. I hopped on the public bus and went about my day trying to forget my once strong mother incapacitated with cancer drugs and chemo.
None of this was mentioned in the interview. Tears would come out any time I talked about her illness. Not the best way to make a good first impression. My best friend in high school had gone to this school and loved it, so I mentioned her. The principal lit up illustrating her passion for education. Her assistant principal, on the other hand, tore into me. She reiterated that teaching was not a temp job and I had to be here every day. As she said this she eyes the nastiness of the pox on my face. It was in the stages where if I moved around too much, scabs would fall off. Unfortunately, this was the greatest tortures of chicken pox, you would give anything to scratch the bejesus out of yourself, but the thought of having a crater face stops you. When I reassured her that I was responsible, I watched as her eyes fixated on the mother lode pock on my nose. Anyone that has had chicken pox can vouch that there is always one huge one that is is a visible place and takes the longest to go away. She stared at it in what I interpreted as a form of intimidation. You come into my school with this disease on your face and want me to respect you? Forget it. I smiled at her because I had no idea what else to do. Upon leaving they offered me the opportunity to teach 1st grade. My hand was not shaken for fear of touching me in any way, but I did a little bow as a sign of respect.
I had been an Honors English major and not an Education major, so I had no idea what first grade even entailed. My first grade teacher in Alabama was named Mrs. Diamond; she was the only teacher I ever truly loved. She treated me with such kindness and love. In the South, they do not take to half Latin half Irish kids so much. Many, adults included, reminded me as much as possible that I was not white. This was despite the fact I am so white I am almost see through, my green eyes and auburn hair would mark me as whiter than the same classmates with olive skin, black hair and eyes. It was a sense of not belonging, but while I was with Ms. Diamond I was her little darling and I could not have loved going to school more.
One incident stands out the most to illustrate the crazy discrimination possible in the South. There is a drink called Malta in Latin cultures. It is a bitter malt drink that if you do not grow up with, will taste like straight up ass. I could drink several at a time. Not knowing that this was an odd drink to have in Alabama, I brought it to school. I packed my lunches so I wanted to include one during the second week of school. I twisted the little cap and drank in the brown tar yumminess. Well, one of my schoolmates who did not consider me white enough ran and told Ms. Diamond that I was drinking beer. I still recall his threat to tell on me and my response was to stare blankly at him. I did not know what beer was. The teachers grew alarmed and walked over to me confiscating the drink. They were scandalized and wanted to know from where I got the drink. As they crowded around me, I began to cry, I was not being a bad girl with my favorite drink. Ms. Diamond reassured me and told me not to bring the drink to school every again. I watched as she walked to the bin to throw it out. This was the only thing I could recall from 1st grade: the Malta incident and the love I had for Mrs. Diamond, hardly enough to get through the school year.
I went to the library and looked up books appropriate for 1st graders. My strong point was always reading and writing, but now I would be teaching all subjects. Math, Phonics, Science and very little History, more Civics than anything else. How was I going to take my big brain and shove into the 1st grade level? I read more and went to the school several times to look at the textbooks. It was a concern of the Vice Principal that I did not know 1st grade level. This was a reality, I did not know and was taking steps to ameliorate the situation. Calm down, I thought, I have a week to figure this all out. Vice Principal stood outside my door with her death stare eyes that bore straight into my head. She was letting me know she was on to me and my filthy temping ways. Okay, I thought, let me ask her some questions to show I had been researching. My questions seemed to insult her. Every answer began with “ I can’t believe you don’t know this”; I gave her a weak smile each time. She lectured me on knowing the curriculum and how I had to know it or the parents would eat me alive. My only thought was how was I going to learn when she was acting like a brick wall. To make matters worse, the other first grade teacher was her darling. She was a nerdy girl who loved rubber stamping so much it was all over her license plate and was engaged to a boy who had gone to the school from kindergarten. Everything she did was dazzling. Vice Principal made sure I knew I was second class.
Fine, I thought, my mother is dying and you want me to feel insignificant. I felt that way every time I went to the hospital understanding that no matter how much I prayed my mother was going to die. Tears tried to come out every second of the day, but you lady want me to feel second class. Fine. All with all administrators, she was not making this personal though I did not know it at the time. She felt overly entitled to belittle new teachers because I was new and the truth was that she could. In a funny twist of events, I was the only non-Latin teacher at the school. After the Malta incident, I never claimed Latin heritage again. Spanish did not come from my lips. I just proclaimed myself to be Irish American, but mostly American.
Whereas I was not white enough in my others schools, here I was obscenely white. People would stop speaking Spanish for my benefit, but it was clear they were annoyed by it. I was in America, but they had set up a Spanish outpost and wanted me to bend to their ways. It was all about tossing around their weight. I appreciated it when they spoke English, but had no patience for their attempts to dominate me. They wanted to know why I had a Latin last name, but did not speak the tribal language. I explained to them that I grew up in different parts of America and did not want to be different. It was if I had used the floor as a restroom. They took this to mean I thought it was shameful to be Spanish. I shrugged it off, after all this was just a job and I was not interested in having a daily pissing contest over what language was spoken in my head. Maybe these people had experienced discrimination because of their looks or the language they had spoken when they came to America. Most look glamorously ancient in a way only Italian, French and Cuban women can pull off in their twilight years. I had been called a spic numerous times in the South and just thought it was funny. Inevitably, I was always whiter than the person trying to insult me, but here it was different. In some ways, I do think they banded together to teach me some lesson about ethnicity. I was too white to be one of them and they were offended I did not seek their cultural blessing.

Comments are closed.