St. Margaret’s (a pseudonym) was a middle-sized private school in a middle-sized city in the middle of the country. It was housed in a hundred year old three-story traditional brick and stone schoolhouse with marble staircases, wooden floors, high ceilings, extra wide hallways, transoms above the doors, and eight-foot high windows that were adjusted with a long wooden pole. The rooms were heated in the winter with iron radiators that ran wall to wall underneath the windows. In the early fall and late spring, the building’s thick walls and good ventilation kept the rooms cool.

I had taught junior high and high school reading in the city’s urban school district, and had signed on to teach for a year at St. Margaret’s to round out my teaching experience while I completed the coursework for my doctoral degree in Reading Education. I was to be homeroom teacher for a 6th grade class, and teach 5th grade reading. The 5th and 6th grades were departmentalized: I would be teaching my homeroom class’s Language Arts, Reading, and Social Studies classes, and Mrs. Pine would teach their Math and Science classes. I was a little nervous about teaching Social Studies, which I had never taught. For some reason, through some quirk in the system, the state automatically certified me to teach that subject in grades 6-12 based on my graduate coursework in statistics. I never even liked Social Studies much, at least not as a subject in school.

The big first day came, and I thought I was ready. Well,” I thought, let’s see what the roll call turns up.” It turned up quite a bit, because it was a talkative group who, for the most part, had been together since preschool. Some of the students had seen one another now and then over the summer, but even those had a lot to catch up on. Dawn, a spritely cutie with curly red hair and freckles, was back after two years’ living with her single mom in a rural commune and being home schooled. Brian’s mom taught fourth grade downstairs. He and Patrick were the unofficial leaders of the boys. Gretel looked as Dutch as her name, with long, thick blonde hair and blue eyes. She and Ashley, and now Dawn, it seemed, were the leaders of the girls. I called Miles’ name, and a quiet young man gave me two thumbs up. “Miles doesn’t talk much,” Gretel told me. After roll call, we played a clapping/chanting game to help me learn their names, and then got down to business. Miles opted not to play.

I poured my heart into my Social Studies preparations. I made overheads to simplify note-taking, (no computers or PowerPoint programs at that time!) gathered realia, planned small group activities and role-plays. I made up a board game based on the French Revolution. We used the clapping/chanted game to memorize facts and details. I learned a lot about World History. Deep down, though, I didn’t feel that I could speak confidently about the events we were learning, and that got communicated. I probably even said something of the sort to them on more than one occasion.

I applied to the school board for funding to participate in an enrichment Economics unit. With funding approved, we spent a month preparing for a “Town for a Day” program that culminated in a day in a downtown facility set up with booths for a city hall, a jail, and a variety of shops and businesses. We named our town, elected a mayor from the class, and other job roles were assigned by a random drawing: Gretel was the policeman, Patrick was the jailer, Dawn was a jewelry shop owner, and Ashley was the banker. Miles and Patrick were nominated for mayor. Miles the loner philosopher – who silently, nonjudgmentally, observed us all.

Miles was tall and slightly overweight, with close-cropped hair and large gray eyes. Even at first glance you knew that he was not athletic. He was a loner by nature, though, not by exclusion.

Every day, instead of joining the kickball game at recess, he sat on the steps. The odd thing was that almost every day, someone would call over to ask him to come and play. Miles just shrugged, and shook his head. Miles was elected mayor. His decrees were brief and to the point. Town Day went all right, but it kind of became a game of intentionally getting caught in some “crime” in order to be hauled off to a ten-minute “jail” sentence by the “policeman.”

One rainy day we were staying inside for recess, and everyone was kind of listless and bored. I had just heard news of one of my college friends, Kate, and had been thinking of her, so it came into my head to tell the students Kate’s story, as if it were mine, and even to exaggerate it a bit. I have no idea why I did this. I had never done anything remotely like it, nor have I done so since.

“Hey, do you guys want to hear a funny story about me,” I asked — to which they answered a half-hearted, “Sure.” “Well, when I started high school I was really shy, and not very happy. I was tall and skinny and didn’t have many friends. Eating made me feel better, so I started eating more and more. By the time I got to 12th grade I was enormous, and kids started calling me “Muu-Muu” because my dresses were enormous too. They looked like those big Hawaiian muu-muus.” They were listening now. “It was awful, and I swore to myself that I would be skinny again before I went to college. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, but I did it. The kids still called me Muu-Muu, but when I got to college, no one knew that I hadn’t always been skinny. My roommate became my best friend, and we joined the yearbook club, and took the bus into town on Saturdays, and it was like high school never happened.” They were stunned. Their jaws literally dropped. There was silence. Then came the barrage. The more they thought about it the funnier they thought it was.

“Did you still have your big clothes after you lost weight?”

“Did you ever tell your roommate?”

“Do you have to be on a diet all the time now?”

“I just can’t picture you so fat!”

“What was your favorite thing to eat?”

I strung them on for a couple of days, and they just kept pondering it. Finally though, I told them the truth. The thing was, they WOULD NOT BELIEVE ME. They never did. They probably still think it was true. They probably tell their families and friends about it. Sometimes they would grin and call me “Muu-Muu”. After a while it sounded like “Mama.”

The last day of school was almost over, and I had landed an Assistant Professor position in a nearby University. I was sitting at my desk having a good-bye talk with my class. When it was almost time to go, they offered me some advice.

“Don’t get fat again.”

“Keep using the clapping game.”“Don’t ever stop being a teacher.”

And after a few quiet moments, from Miles the philosopher – “Probably not Social Studies.” That brought down the house.

 

UPDATE:

Gretel has three children and is a leader in her church. She is on St. Margaret’s Board of Directors. Brian teaches middle school science, Patrick is a veterinarian. Dawn is a kindergarten teacher, and Ashley is an executive at a major greeting card company. Miles is a Hollywood movie producer. My friend Kate is still slim and trim. I taught my grandchildren to call me “Muu-muu” though I’m not overweight, but I never told them Kate’s story as if it were my own.

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