If perchance you, too, married a teacher, you might help me understand some of the questions and mysteries of middle school teachers, some of which I partially understand. With others I but see through a glass dimly. A few I comprehend not at all. After 40 plus years, I’m still wandering in the wilderness, and like Moses, I may have to be content just to gaze at the Promised Land from afar concerning most teacher mysteries.
Before trying to analyze them, let’s start with something I am certain of concerning my teacher wife. Charis is quite good at what she does, truly excellent, having her Master’s Degree and over 50 years of experience teaching most anything you care to name in middle school, especially English. Her parents, too, were full-time professional teachers.
Over the years she has taught in environments as disparate as a rough Houston minority school in Denver Harbor, parochial school, River Oaks Baptist and Kinkaid, a private, tony, upscale west Houston middle school, where some parents are likely to suffer a superiority complex. But if someone says to Charis Smith, “You’re on tomorrow morning to teach grammar or English literature or what ever,” if she can and chooses to, she will go and do a superb job.
The kids will attest to having learned.
She has ostensibly retired several times, but again this year she covers for some young thing who was surprised to find herself pregnant.
Lets at least analyze some teacher mysteries even if we can’t solve them.
Question / Mystery No. 1: Why do teachers go into teaching in the first place?
If anyone thinks it’s because of the money, they’re plumb crazy, although remote towns where opportunities are few, and some out of the county, may be an exception. Teachers’ salaries are punk to moderate at best, but keep improving slightly as school options increase. Our former housekeeper made more per diem than Charis did. Thankfully, paychecks have inched slightly over recent years. Still, there has to be a factor other than money that causes a person to stay in the teaching business more than a year or two, especially when the economy is strong, like in Houston usually.
In El Paso in the ’60s there was a tired saying about farmers and ranchers: “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” We’re talking about “good ol’ boys” like Bubba or Jake that you wouldn’t want to change even if you could. But I do proffer this about teachers. You can take the teacher out of the classroom but you can’t take the teacher out of the teacher. I posit this opinion having arrived at it after years of mulling over and living with my teacher wife, Charis Wedgeworth Smith. Teaching is demanding work that is often or nearly always frustrating, except for dedicated teachers.
So why do teachers teach and teach?
Answer: Ninety percent of middle school teachers teach for one compelling reason; it is because they love the kids.
And how is that possible?
I, don’t, know.
Let’s move on.
Question / Mystery No. 2: How do teachers, at least female teachers, see through the back of their heads?
It is the proverbial question, wrapped in an enigma and shrouded in mystery… or however it was that Winston Churchill so eloquently phrased it.
For me this goes back even further to the time when I was in the sixth grade at Dudley School in El Paso. A Mrs. Harvill more than once caught me involved in mischief while she faced the blackboard.
Charis can do the same thing. Facing a blackboard and without breaking stride or shouting, she might firmly order, “Stephen Wells, you get back in your seat right now,” which he promptly does. Another day, facing the same blackboard, she might be diagramming how a dangling participle differs from an ablative absolute, when she stops!
Neither turning around nor raising her voice, she’ll order, “Robert Ketchand, quit making spitballs this instant and put your slingshot on my desk, where it stays for a week.” The class giggles. Robert is dumbfounded.
The Mystery persists. “Do teachers have eyes in the back of their heads?” Is this some form of extrasensory perception, or could it be that a teacher gains a sixth sense after teaching the sixth grade for so many years? I also know this “gift” grows, reaching fruition in older female teachers, especially near and after 50. Some employ this sixth sense on other adults, even their husbands, which is an unfair advantage.
Question / Mystery No. 3: More than a rhetorical question, this is an awesome mystery—how do caterpillars turn into butterflies?
One day when Charis was teaching at Kinkaid, I came home to find six mason jars full of leaves, closed with cellophane and a bunch of pupa or larva (I don’t know the difference) crawling around inside. The biology teacher had convinced Charis she should become midwife to offspring orphan monarch butterflies.
For over a week she ensured that there were plenty of leaves of the right kind for the little worms to devour. Ultimately each became a black cocoon and attached to whatever it could find to form a “J.” This is akin to “bearing down pains” for human mother, I suppose. The real excitement occurred after a few days when the black “J” began to open and minutes later a large orange butterfly would emerge. Beautiful!
Charis would let the butterfly crawl onto her finger, and then she would take it outside where it would dry its wings before flying off into God’s world. Awesome!
School kids and adults alike can explore this mystery of butterflies. Years ago at our first home in Houston we had an unbelievable saturation of butterflies, millions of fully grown monarch butterflies in all the trees. What a glorious event! The life of a butterfly is but three to five weeks. It seems that annually Monarchs wing their way to some place in Southern Mexico where their display of color is so impressive that it’s now a tourist attraction.
Question / Mystery No. 4: Why do teachers save toilet paper rolls?
The best answer I can give you is but a partial explanation but still does not explain. I have come to refer to this phenomenon by the code name “tissue issue.”
When we were first married and Charis taught at Elliott Elementary on east side (an older part of Houston), she saved toilet paper rolls, no questions asked, no reasons given. From time to time I would discover a cache of them in unusual places. For years I believed they must multiply in dark closets. But as our family grew so did the number of toilet paper rolls. Rarely used drawers would fill with them. Then of a sudden they would disappear. In life we have things I call “twilight issues,” ones that really don’t matter enough to argue about or even discuss. So, when I would discover another lode of toilet paper rolls in a hard to reach drawer, or under the sink, I didn’t sweat it.
We all agree that using toilet paper is a personal, sometimes awkward business that we don’t talk about in polite company. Having little knowledge of biochemical phenomena particular to females and having had no sisters in our mucho macho family growing up, I assumed in early married life that the tissue issue was one of those things in which time would deliver an adequate answer.
One morning when I caught Charis headed out to her car with a load of toilet paper rolls, I thought it the opportunity to resolve the tissue issue.
My inquiry got a short, all business, no nonsense teacher answer. “They’re for the art department,” to which she might have added “of course,” like any sixth grader would understand that.
Knowing that Charis’ teacher network would be at our house in a couple of weeks, I decided to bide my time till the day of the teachers’ cookie push. When the Greater Teachers Network arrived, I cornered two art teachers and politely tried to frame an adequate question that got me nothing but horse laughs, giving no satisfactory answer to my question of “Why!”
I’m serious. I want something better than embarrassing laughter in my face. No one likes to be framed as a fool. Unless we’re apt to step on a landmine, please, somebody tell me why teacher spouses have to save toilet paper rolls all their lives, even many years past normal retirement age.
Question / Mystery No. 5: Where do teachers get such unbelievable patience?
Over the decades, hearing teachers talk shop, it comes home to me that teachers have this unbelievable patience, primarily with the kids but also with their parents. I’m making a very broad statement when I say that parents in higher income brackets are apt to fault the teacher rather than the child; their child, their wonderful, unique, spec-ially gifted, extraordinarily bright child has every right to be tutored.
I recall one night during her early years teaching in Denver Harbor when Charis had a phone conversation with the father of a Hispanic boy whose older sister served quite ably as translator. The Hispanic father’s response translated essentially, “Teacher, whatever this problem is with my son, just tell me what you want me to do and it shall be done.” Charis told him and he did it, solving the problem. (Cultural difference: Anglo friends, let me tell you emphatically, our Hispanic fellow citizens have Gringos beaten “hands down” when it comes to family discipline and the readiness plus ability to hold young men accountable.)
Today, an affluent WASP parent with a condescending tone might say something like this: “You will have to understand, teacher, that my child has been tested psychologically, and having as he/she does such a unique combination of talent, it is important, indeed imperative, that you give my child the special time and personal attention necessary for him/her to get the straight A’s he/she so manifestly deserves.
“You see, my spouse and I are both professionals and we have a history of seeing that our children have the best because we are the best, and of course we expect only the best for this child inasmuch as we are entitled to the best and always get the best of everything as… blah… blah…… blah… blah… blah.”
I call variations on this theme River Oaks syndrome.
Back in the 20th century, my reaction would have been SPANK ‘EM!
Not the kids, the parents!
If that doesn’t work, run ‘em out of town on a rail.
(For more by David Smith and “Texas Spirit” go to www.totalrecallpress.com or www.amazon.com.)