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Queens Chronicle

BACK TO SCHOOL Tales from the front of the class

Not only did I teach my students in Queens, I learned from them too

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Posted: Thursday, August 29, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 4:58 pm, Thu Aug 29, 2013.

As the new school year rolls around, I am reminded of the words sung by the young English schoolteacher to her royal pupils in the classic musical, “The King and I.”

“It’s a very ancient saying, but a true and honest thought, that if you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught,” she tells them. As a teacher, I have come to understand how true those words actually are.

Each year around this time I experience a strange combination of emotions: excitement, anticipation, and, yes, anxiety. And the last night before the first day back I typically sleep restlessly, a phenomenon which, I learned long ago, is common among teaching colleagues, much like the more widely recognized actor’s nightmare of going blank while on stage.

Over the years, I have had one recurring nightmare all my own. It stems from my obsession with keeping meticulous attendance records. Perhaps half a dozen times I’ve dreamed that my students were leaving my classroom before I had had a chance to take attendance.

But my careful record-keeping has actually come in handy at least twice.

On one occasion, a former student of mine was accused of committing a crime that occurred while he should have been in school. Even though several years had passed, I still had my roll book (to this day, I have every single one since I started my career) and was able to provide definitive proof that he was, indeed, in my classroom at the time. He was found not guilty of the charges.

A second incident was of a more serious nature, a federal offense. Again, I was contacted and able to provide precise information about the student involved. Again, all charges against him were dropped.

But I digress. It seems no matter how long one has been teaching, the approach of a new school year raises the same questions: Will any of my favorite students be in any of my classes again? Will I have to deal with that one certain kid who can upset the classroom dynamic merely by appearing in the doorway? Will I actually get to teach the particular subjects I requested at the end of the previous year?

Strange that all this should still come to mind, as I retired four years ago — as a New York City high school English teacher.

In reality, what I’ve felt these past few years in place of the anxiety is a yearning, a longing to be there when the faculty meets up for the first time since June. And what I miss most of all is seeing the students when they return, filled with a renewed sense of optimism.

That’s a big part of why even though I’m officially retired, I still teach part time at a private school in Queens.

I had wanted to become a schoolteacher since I was a child. I can recall playing school with many a friend, always with myself at the blackboard. It seemed at every birthday party, my friends, aware of my passion, used to bring me presents of notebooks, pencils, and other school-related trappings.

I think it might have been my interest in teaching that indirectly got me hooked on my avocational passion, the theater.

I was 9 years old when I first saw a production of the show that has meant so much to me throughout my life. I was taken not only, as one might expect, by the other children I saw on stage but by the role Anna, the young schoolteacher, played in the history of Siam, where she taught the king’s many children. And, of course, I still marvel at the words she sang, as I too continue to learn from my students, many of whom I remain in touch with after all these years.

As a student at Queens College, I took all the necessary courses to set me on the path to becoming a teacher. Unfortunately, at the time, a hiring freeze was in effect in the city, and it took four years before I was finally appointed to my first full-time teaching job.

I reported to August Martin High School in Jamaica, where, due to circumstances, I was fortunate enough to be able to get my feet wet before being thrust into a full program all my own. I team-taught with four experienced teachers, each of whom taught me many lessons. The fifth class was all mine.

The first time I stood in front of that room, as I turned to write my name on the blackboard, I felt a coin being tossed in my direction ... and then another ... and yet another. I knew not what to do, but I realized at some point I would have to turn around and face those who were testing me. In the meantime, I kept writing ... and writing ... and writing.

Finally, I looked at the class and said, “If you’re going to throw coins, at least make them quarters. What’s with all these pennies?” or something to that effect. They laughed, we hit it off, and my teaching personality was born.

My love of theater played a large role in my teaching career. Of the thousands of students I have taught, I remember best those with whom I worked on various school productions.

One year, I was directing a play in which I cast a sophomore in the lead role, a responsibility ordinarily entrusted to upperclassmen. But this young man was outstanding. I saw him as the next James Earl Jones, with whom he shared a resonant voice and larger-than-life stage presence.

A couple of days before opening, rehearsal was about to get under way when he approached me about leaving for a while to visit with his father, whom he had not seen in years. At that moment, all I cared about was pulling the show together and, I’m ashamed to admit, I went into a rant about how he, the leading man, could even think of leaving at such a time. He said he understood and without another word took his place on stage. A moment later I came to my senses and apologized, and told him certainly he could go to see his dad.

By that pupil I was taught ... about respect, discipline and the need to put things in perspective. We remain friends to this day.

For several years I had arranged for professional actors to participate in an in-school residency program with my theater classes. One day, my class was up on stage in the auditorium. The teaching artist, as the actors were known, asked each student to share a personal story with the class. Among the first up was a young man, a football player, who happened to be in the class because, as I recall, an error was made in his program. He decided to remain.

He related a story about a friend who had been killed and, in the middle of the telling, burst into tears and darted up the aisle to the exit.

Little did he know how the incident would affect the rest of the class. If it was okay for someone like him to show that kind of emotion, it was perfectly all right for others in the class to bare their innermost souls. And each of them did.

By that pupil I was taught, too ... about the importance of giving everyone, particularly young people, a place to be themselves without being judged. I wish I knew where I could find him today to let him know how much that moment meant to me.

After 14 years at Martin, it was time to move on. I transferred to Robert F. Kennedy Community High School in Flushing, where I was to remain for the next 15 years until my retirement.

There I met a young man in my leadership-training class who was so afraid of speaking in public that he refused to make a required oral presentation. I was forced to fail him but, to my great surprise, he showed up in my drama class the next year, telling me of his interest in becoming an actor. That was all I had to hear. He not only passed but got involved in school productions and after that, community theater.

And then there was the robust-looking young man who, to my shock, was suffering from a life-threatening illness. He had to take a semester off and be home-schooled. I spoke to him one day on the telephone and told him I would like to visit him. I asked him what he’d like me to bring him. He wanted some books to read, he said, and added that he couldn’t wait to get back to school. If only every student could appreciate that!

It was working with young people like those I’m remembering that made my nearly three decade career so rewarding. And so, as the days of summer wane, and the back-to-school sales become ever more intrusive, I’m reminded about how much I miss being in a classroom full time.

The point was driven home just a day or two ago, when I saw online a picture of a proud-looking young man as he stood in his empty classroom, anticipating the first day of his teaching career. Not too long ago, that young man was a student of mine. I can only imagine what lessons his pupils — as yet unmet — have in store for him.

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