Thursday, April 10, 2014

Old School 101: Duty? That’s part of a Job. This … this is an Adventure!

A schoolhouse perk, desired by many, but generally reserved for department chairs, the outrageously tenured, and Bossman’s latest squeeze, was always to gain Oh-mission from the list of Homeroom Teachers.  Despite 4 or 5 years as a middle-school department chair (that’s a whole ‘nother journey down a whole ‘nother path), I always made the list; but in the balancing scales of hindsight and reflection, I was the winner.  What perk?

In my first public school gig, my bright eyes and bushy tail were assigned to teach primarily 7th graders (the babies of the school), but somehow wound up with a homeroom of 9th graders, the Royalty of this old-fashioned junior high school.  I must have appeared innocent, cuddly and / or desperately in need of help because a few of those kids all but adopted me, and as a group they made me feel comfortable – and on rare occasions even knowledgeable and helpful.  In the grand scheme of things, I believe it was beneficial to be only Homeroom- and not classroom-teacher for them.  This (and whatever Hands control Fate) allowed for development of a consistently positive rapport free of academic tension.  I was able to tap into this distinction more fully in Act II of my public school career.

‘Twas an even dozen years later that a mid-career crisis / decision (yet another path) placed me in front of a 10th grade Homeroom in a senior high school.  All the Whos down in Whoville welcomed Christmas never so heartily as they did me.  Turns out that my predecessor the previous spring semester, in the kids’ eyes, bore a striking resemblance to a pre-closed-heart-surgery Grinch, so even Snidely Whiplash would have been cool.  (Given my penchant for head-gear, I more fancy myself The Cat in the Hat.)  Since I was again assigned to teach the babies of the school, the freshmen – was somebody trying to tell me something? – a rapport similar to that with my Originals was able to develop.  Three years of hard work, laughs, and a few tears later, all but a couple of that group graduated from a challenging, college-prep, magnet program.  (It was the first time I personally had ascended a graduation stage in 23 years.  ‘Twas nice.)

Simple and convenient rotation positioned my name under Freshmen on the afore-mentioned “dreaded” list for the following year.  I’d experienced the teaching team / cluster concept in my prior pedagogic incarnation, so teaching my own Homeroom kids wasn’t unfamiliar to me.  But with all three of the subsequent Homerooms that I helped steer through commencement, I underwent, if only in my own mind, a subtle but significant transformation.  Now, in my interactions with all the kids in our program, when they put English I in their academic rear window, I would tend to morph from their every-day-in-class, gotta-get-a-grade-from-him teacher into a crazy uncle they’d see only sporadically.  Quadrennially, when there’d be Homeroomers going through the change, for them I’d become the absolutely insane big brother they loved to hate, and hated to love sometimes.  Pretty quickly, in the high school environment, I’d acquired the habit of hand-writing a comment to the student, expressed from the Homeroom Teacher / Big Brother persona, on each kid’s report card before I’d distribute them.  Once, only once, did a parent complain to me about this practice – though I fear in the “don’t sue us” bureaucratic mindset that permeates today’s schools, I’d be required to gain prior parental approval before pen could touch grade report.  The gist of her objection was that I was “rubbing salt” in her wounded son.  With regret – fearful about perhaps making him stand out in the eyes of his peers – I refrained from joking with this child for the remainder of his one-year stay in our program.  C’est la vie, and even Jesus couldn’t save ‘em all.

That guinea-pig, first freshman Homeroom included an interesting, industrious young man who faced his share of challenges as well as a set-back or two on his path to Grade 13.  The nicknames I’ve hung on students over the years have been many, but this particular kid gave me one, one that can be repeated in mixed company and that he was cool using with his absolutely insane big brother.  Actually, he took our “relationship” a step further.  He dubbed me Vince McMahon, the professional wrestling guru, and himself his (and therefore my) son Shane.  For over two years, we were Vince and Shane, and not just to each other.

The letter of recommendation I prepared for Shane wasn’t easy to compose.  Not a genius, his unique talents and varied interests didn’t truly reveal themselves on a transcript or resume.  My mind can still conjure a vision of the small but satisfied smile that came to his face as he read my final product.  Given the persona (and antics) for which I became notorious, I thought it important, in dealing with both Homeroom kids and others, to share a letter of recommendation with the student before submitting it.  If a parent had made the request on behalf of the kid, I’d often share it with Mom or Dad first.  My reasoning is that if I can’t allow such preview, then maybe I shouldn’t be the one writing the recommendation.  Aside from overlooked typos and an occasional factual error, complaints and suggestions were non-existent (as far as I know, anyway).

One morning Shane’s senior year, during one of those stretches where the nice little groove into which everyone’s worked themselves is threatening to become a rut, he was standing outside my classroom at his locker shortly after 1st  Period, long my “Free” Period, had begun.  In response to my inquiry after his wellness and his tardiness, he informed me he was merely “gathering his thoughts.”  With no hesitation, but with Spike Jones and His City Slickers mischievously playing “You Only Hurt the One You Love” on my mental stereo (talk about Playlists!!!), I responded, “That shouldn’t take long.”  Back off in his thoughts, Shane was oblivious to my wise-crack.  Not so the lone student passing by on the hallway.  He was smiling and shaking his head at his crazy uncle.

Maybe Snidely Whiplash did replace the Grinch.

And sure, I’ll take a Homeroom.