Columns

2006.12.20 Rile 'em up and leave

on . Posted in By The Way

By DAVID GREEN

On the last day of vacation, we went to school. We wanted to visit the kindergarten classroom where Ben’s girlfriend, Sarah, teaches on the north side of Miami.

Sarah had no trouble lining up a job when she attended a “teacher fair” last summer. For one thing, she graduated from Michigan State University which currently enjoys the reputation for having one of the top teacher-training programs in the country. For another thing, it was Florida.

Florida needs teachers like Michigan needs jobs. A vast shortage in each location. In Florida, you don’t need that MSU education degree to be considered valuable. That’s just a bonus. A college degree in anything will do.

When Sarah attended the job fair, the media specialist from Hubert O. Sibley Elementary School made her acquaintance and Sarah was sort of kidnapped. “Come meet my principal.” She was soon signing the contract.

We knew Sarah would be a valuable candidate in Miami since she had a minor in Spanish. As it turned out, Sibley is in a neighborhood of Haitians.

We made our final visiting arrangements by cell phone as our plans for the day were changing due to rain. Sarah asked what we wanted her to plan for when we arrived. I said not to worry; we’d take care of it—and didn’t give it another thought. Something would happen.

We stopped at the visitors’ table and were told that Ms. Morrison was expecting us. We stood out as the rare white-skinned people in a hallway of children rushing here and there.

When we entered the classroom, all the kids were in the story area with Sarah seated in front. Within a minute, it was Mr. Green in the hot seat, interviewing the residents—Starsha, Zajah, Jovan, Shanieka, Manasseh, Ziyanna and the rest.

It took me back a few years to when I worked in inner city Saginaw. This was 1973 when Saginaw had the “honor” of being known as Michigan’s murder capital.

I was the rare white face there, too, as I served as a classroom aide in a large Head Start preschool class. Mr. David, I was called.

It was a heart-breaking experience at times. The poverty showed through quite clearly. I was from another culture and clearly the odd man in the crowd. It wasn’t just the grits served for breakfast; the discipline techniques used by some aides didn’t fit my understanding of how the world should work.

Irene was a kind soul who made a great grandmother figure for many of the kids. Big Lucille, on the other hand, was another story. If one of her kids misbehaved, she would grab a hand and bend a finger back to gain submission. She was good at meting out her punishment. As far as I know, she never broke a bone or did any permanent damage.

There was a lot of spanking that went on, too. Finger bending was more appropriate for the meal table.

I never adapted the others’ techniques, except once. Anthony was constantly running off wildly, but it really didn’t bother me all that much. The problem was that it bothered people like Lucille and showed off my lack of control. He got a little spanking once, not that it really did that much good.

I needed Ms. Morrison with her “crisscross, applesauce” command. That put the kids into place every time. Cross legs, arms folded on laps, no problem.

Applesauce was soon needed in her classroom the day of our visit. The interview went smoothly. Each student said his or her name and I responded with some silly comment.

But then it was Ms. Leddy’s turn to read a book and while she looked through the collection, I was left there at the front to entertain.

“Hey, let me show you how my thumb comes off.” It’s the old trick my father taught me years ago and it turned a behaved class into a boisterous crowd. I have that problem with youngsters. I usually rile them up somehow.

Ms. Leddy read a duck story and at the end of it, she made the mistake of saying, “Now Mr. Green will show you how to waddle like a duck.” I did, and soon there were 25 ducklings waddling after me around the classroom.

It took Ms. Morrison to restore order. No thumb bending, Lucille, just a few magic words.

We said “Good luck” to Ms. Morrison and headed for the door. Our work was finished.

    - Dec. 20, 2006 

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