My very first teaching gig at 24 was at a parochial school in a wealthy residential suburb. I was making $19,000, and I was thrilled. My dad was horrified. “You have a master’s degree and that is what you are earning?¨ I guess you have to look at this long term,” he conceded. I was delighted to be teaching middle school English, oh, and social studies and library skills and anything else that was needed on a given day. In 1984, there was no curriculum; there were textbooks, and the textbook dictated the curriculum. The process of selecting literature for my classes was not by any method taught during my graduate studies at Indiana University. Rather, I scanned the closet shelves for enough copies of one title.
There were several first year teachers on the staff. Us first years were a conglomeration of artsy, nerdy, athletic and cheerleader. We shared one thing that bonded us- launching our careers at a small Catholic school with a mediocre principal and an unyielding secretary who ran the place. With our meager earnings, we marveled at the rest of the staff, some of whom had been teaching there for years. How did they afford to work here? So, we did a little investigation. Marie, self-appointed head teacher, married to her job, lived with her folks. Her best advice for dealing with sassy adolescents: “I just give them a look when they act up.¨ Marie had a teacher voice: whispery, low and lethal. She was both nurturing and condescending to the novice teacher. Sr. Margaret loved to laugh and join in the fun with “the young people.” Perhaps, Sr. Margaret was a young person herself; it was hard to tell beneath the habit. She loved children and administered the stereotypical nun discipline with good humor. There was no ruler slapping in her class. I was a public school girl, so this setting of uniforms, morning prayer, and stern discipline was foreign to me though I had heard stories. Patty, the lovely music teacher, was married to a public school teacher. Stan, one of the PE teachers- how did he manage? Well- we didn’t even consider that Stan’s wife may be supporting the family.
There was no budget for substitutes so minus a teacher’s union, we would be asked or told depending on the day by Jane, secretary/czar where we were to be during our beloved prep period. No amount of moaning and groaning, excuse-making would change the fact that you hit the ground running in the morning and could potentially not stop until the last bus pulled out of the circular drive. Yes, there was a lunch break but by the time you cleaned up from your last class; prepared for your after lunch class; went to the restroom and wove your way to the lunch room across the sprawling building, it was over.
On Monday afternoons we gathered in the classroom nearest to the office and had a weekly staff meeting. Most teachers loathe the staff meeting that takes them away from their main mission. Yet, this was my favorite part of that first year. I loved seeing adults after spending the day with adolescents. Adolescents-There was Tyrone,BMOC, who had recently given me the finger from the back of the bus when my car followed his bus from school one afternoon. “I don’t think he would do that,” replied Principal Desmond dismissively. And there was the daily challenge of Jackson, who devised clever ways to make it perfectly clear how much he hated me. It was difficult to ignore and hard to challenge an errant I hate Miss McCarthy “erased” on the back of his handwritten essay. Jackson was the student I chose as best 8th grade language arts student. It was an easy choice academically, harder choice because he was an unkind (perhaps unhappy) boy. He thanked me that graduation night. Lest I not forget Nicole who will not be forgotten. Her nastiness was professional, on par with only a few adults I have met. But then there were the girls who didn’t conform to the mold, who hung back, headed to lunch late so they could confide in what was really going on socially. There were my C students: Jim and Marcel, underachievers who asked daily, “And why do we need to know this?” I would always answer Jim’s rhetorical question with a smile and an explanation. Jim’s yearbook quotation was one of his own: “And why do we need to know this?” So, the staff meeting was a reprieve from the workday. I enjoyed the exchange of ideas, the camaraderie. Perhaps this replicated what I knew best- Liz, as student. Liz, as teacher, was still a very new and shaky concept. On the evenings that year, younger brother was across the hall playing Led Zeppelin while I was rereading chapters of Anne Frank. I loved my chosen career despite that fact that I lay on my bed for hours each night planning for the next day’s lessons
Yet, I loved it. I was teaching. When it all felt overwhelming, and it often did, I glanced around the classroom my eyes taking in my classroom. Back at the university, we all were so eager to have a classroom to call our own, and here was mine. I smiled as I glanced at my Paris and London photos from last summer under a bulletin board with the heading: Miss McCarthy’s European Vacation. How clever I was! A few years later the concept of our classroom would enter my consciousness, but I was 24- it was mine. I earned it.