In 1998, when I was first hired as an English teacher/Yearbook Adviser at a Los Angeles area high school, I entered the profession with not even ten-seconds of teaching experience. I was hired during a desperate time in California education, not that things have changed, but in 1998, I slid into the classroom on an “Emergency Credential,” a temporary teaching license distributed to anyone with a heartbeat who expressed interest in teaching. As for me, there was nothing about my future that expressed a genuine interest in teaching. I began teaching because I needed the money.
My first-year schedule consisted of four periods of eleventh grade English and one period dedicated to the construction of the school’s yearbook.The very first period of the day was reserved as my “prep” period. Prep periods provide teachers solitary time to prepare their assignments for the day. I didn’t know it then, but having a prep period at the beginning of the day, at 8 a.m., isn’t too ideal, at least it wasn’t for me. Yeah, it meant my teaching day didn’t start until close to 9 a.m., but it also meant that I would go though the entire day without a break, except for lunch. This proved exhausting, as I quickly found out.
The kids were masters of sapping the life out of me. Answering the same, incessant question is one of the worst parts of teaching. “What’s the date?” “What page?” What’s the date?” “What page?” “Mr. C., can I go the bathroom?” “Can I go, too?” It wore me down and drained a good portion of the energy I reserved for myself, so that when I got home, I was nearly comatose. I think a prep period during the middle part of the day is bit more accommodating and relaxing because a teacher can replenish just enough energy to plow through the rest of the day. A sixth period prep would be would be nice, too, I guess. Anyway, that was my schedule, and it remained so for the four-years I was at Norwalk High.
My first year went well. The kids and I shared connections. I liked them. They liked me. Being the yearbook adviser, too, was nice because it provided me a needed transition from teaching English and writing to a more creative form of teaching and learning.
I was assigned an yearbook staff, and I delegated assignments and sorted through pictures and layouts. It was hands-on work, and I derived great deal joy from it. It also provided another form of relief, one definitely more comical.
There were these two kids, Eli and Carlos. They didn’t really have the yearbook’s interests at heart, but they needed a class to complete their schedule, so their counselors gave them Yearbook. When it came time to giving assignments, they immediately volunteered to cover girls’ volleyball, and when kids volunteered for assignments, I seldom said”no.” I gave them both newly purchased digital cameras and a game schedule and sent them on their way.
A few weeks later, when I reviewed the pictures they had taken, I almost slammed the camera on the floor. The majority of the pictures were zoomed in shots of girls’ asses and of girls bending over. Even the opposing girls got screen time. Some girl was alway picking up a ball or tying her shoe. Pictures of the girls huddling together as a team was a reoccurring shot, too. I said, “C’mon, guys! This isn’t Playboy Magazine! You guys are killing me. I can’t use these. I’ll get fired. You need to get some different shots. You need action shots of them actually playing volleyball.” They were snickering because they knew what they were doing. All in all, it was a fun time, though. I got to know a lot of students. My goal for the yearbook staff was simple: try to get a picture of every single student on this campus into the yearbook, one way or another. We got pretty close, too.
The year buzzed by, and as June rolled in, my introduction to a school’s last week was eye-opening. The students that choked in classes during most of the year had little choice but to ask their teachers for extra-credit. Then there were the students that were always asking to go to other classes to make up work for other teachers or they were asking you to not mark them absent while they took tests in other rooms. A lot of kids were in dire academic positions, and so there was a lot of scrambling and begging. Couple all of this with the fact that a good portion of the student body though has already tuned out and started summer vacation early. There was an issue at every turn, but like a kind-hearted teacher, I tried my best to help my students where ever I could.
Rather than help only a few students, however, I decided to try to help them all. In my English classes, I created an extra-credit assignment for them, a little something to help them earn the grade their parents would be proud of. It was a simple assignment. It had to be. There was no way I was going to read 175 essays with four-days left of school. No way!
On my blackboard, written in white chalk, was the saying, “The life you save may be your own.” The students saw it as they filed in for each period. I had them write it down, and then I said to them, “Your assignment is to write one paragraph about what you think this saying means. Just one paragraph! I don’t want an essay! I don’t want two paragraphs! Just one! It’s due tomorrow. You guys understand? Do you guys understand?” I had to ask twice to make sure it registered. The fair number of “yeahs,” and head nods signaled to me that they got it, and so they stuffed the assignment into their pockets or backpacks and left my room.
The next day, I collected about five paragraphs from second period, fifteen from third period, eight from fifth period (yearbook is fourth period), and twenty from sixth period. Virginia was in my sixth period. She came up to my desk, grabbed the stapler, and crunched together a set of hand-written pages in blue ink. It wasn’t a paragraph. It wasn’t even two paragraphs. Virginia submitted six, full pages of writing, front and back! Her penmanship was alarming, frantic and nervous, even scary. The run-on sentences and jumbled words seemed to be buzzing on the pages, as if they were sliding left and right, edging towards the edges of the pages, ready to jump off to die like lemmings. My only thought was, “Fuck! I have to read all this shit! But I gave her kind look and nicely said, “Thank you, Virginia. I’ll get it back to you tomorrow.” “Ok, Mr. C. Thank you,” she said.
I didn’t look forward to reading Virginia’s paper. I didn’t look forward to reading any of them, but I did. In my students’ defense, it was a strange assignment. I made it up without really thinking it through. It took me years to figure out what the saying meant, and I probably still haven’t nailed it. The answer, I think, comes with experience and maturity, two things most high school student hardly possess. As it turned out, most kids simply took a wild punch at what they thought it meant, and it was ok. I read them all. Some were funny. Some were scary. Some were straight up stupid. Nevertheless, I finished reading them all.
I saved Virginia’s for last because it was the longest one, and after a few beers, I dove in:
“I think what the saying means is that only us can save our own lifes. We are the only ones who can help us. Sometimes others could help but they don’t know what they are doing so they can’t really help. So we have to do it. Like my step-dad. He raped me all the time. I have to help myself. No once can help me and my baby. My best friend doesn’t even know I have a baby because I hided everything with big clothes. My mom thinks I’m not a good girl because she think I have sex with alot of boys. I got pregnant from my step-dad my mom doesn’t know.
And it went on like this, more or less, for six, agonizing, heart wrenching pages. What little energy I had left in the tank had been exhausted. This essay provided the tipping point for my emotional breakdown as a first-year teacher. Virginia was one of my favorite students. She was a sweet girl with a beautiful heart and soul. She had a great personality, and she was incredibly kind and caring. If what she wrote was true, she did not deserve it.
Of course, per Education Code, I had to report this to my superiors. I contacted the one counselor I had gotten to know pretty well. I handed Mrs. Rico the essay. She took it to her office and read it. I saw her again during my sixth period when she called me out to talk to me. She had the essay in her hand. I leaned against the brick wall out side my room and listened to her go on about protocol and about protecting Virginia and getting her help. I cried while she spoke, but it was more like a surrendering.
After school let out, I asked Virginia to stay behind for a few minutes. She did. “Hi, Virginia. How are you?” I said. “I’m good,” she said. I continued. “I read your letter. It’s pretty heavy, man. Is it true?” “Yeah, it’a all true, Mr. C.” “Damn. I’m sorry. I really am.” I said. “You know I had to report it to the counselor or else I get in trouble. Whenever teachers hear something like this, we have to report it. It’s the law.” “I know, Mr. C. I actually wrote it to you because I know that you were going to help me. I knew that you were going to get me help.” She was crying. I held strong.
Virginia saw a therapist the next day or a day after. I’m not sure. Then summer came and I never saw her again. She didn’t return for her senior year. To this day, I have not heard one word concerning her existence. I hope she’s ok, though.
This is how my first year of teaching came to a close. It ended in a gut check. I think I did well to handle the pressure. I’m still in the game, going on my 19th year. I may even be reaching “veteran” status. There are a slew of other incidents that have taken place in-between Virginia’s episode and my 19th year, but those will come, soon. This tale marks the beginning of this new blog series. It will deal with my experiences as a teacher at the high school and college levels. I hope you enjoyed it. Stay tuned for more.