Tuesday is for Teachers
My dear friend Emalie is my guest writer for today’s post. We became friends back in the 90s when we taught middle school together. Do we have stories!! Perhaps I’ll share them sometime. Though today’s story is longer than usual, you’ll find yourself caught up in the drama!
Mizzy marched up to my desk with her completed copy of the day’s workbook page and her chunky stack of other workbook pages. She placed her new work on the bottom of the stack, found the least stapled inch of acreage in the lumpy mound of copied pages, stood on her tiptoes to obtain better leverage on the stapler, and squinted her eyes. Joseph was sitting at the desk with me, identifying word families. He squinted in sympathy with Mizzy. The class squinted in sympathy with Joseph.
Mizzy gave the stapler a solid whack. She examined the underside to see if the staple had made it all the way through the mound of papers. Miraculously, it had. Joseph relaxed his face and released a breath. The class followed his lead. Mizzy smiled and turned.
I whispered. “Let me give you a workbook.”
When a child qualifies for free and reduced lunch, the school offers the family any required workbook. Anticipating that almost all families will accept the offer, the school orders plenty of workbooks to share. The cost of buying workbooks and school supplies for my two sons that year, 1987, was $76.35. Each. That’s a burden for most families, and Mizzy’s mom had just begun her first job.
The educational value of the workbooks is questionable, but this was my first year teaching. I had a split fourth and fifth grade class, and twelve reading levels. My two highest readers read on a fourth grade level, and only one was a fourth grader. My lowest reader was a fifteen year old fifth grader who did not always recognize his own name in print. Workbooks bought me time to sit at my desk with one or two struggling readers while the rest of the class circled the word that didn’t belong or filled in the blank.
I whispered again. “Mrs. Stevens is saving one for you. You could go to the main building and have one today.” Our portable classroom sat in the middle of the small playground of an inner city school. Walking to the main building was a treat and a badge of honor.
Mizzy answered my whisper with a loud, resounding, “No, thank you. My mama gets paid tomorrow, and we are going to the Dollar General and buy me a workbook. Me, my mama, my baby brother, and Aunt Bebe. We are going to buy it tomorrow. I’ll have it then. My own. No, thank you.”
I nodded. “Great. Good. Tomorrow then.”
Tomorrow came. No workbook. I offered the free workbook again.
“No thank you. My mama got paid last night. She has to cash her check today. No. Thank you. We will get it tonight. Me, my mama, my baby brother, and my Aunt Bebe. I’ll bring it tomorrow.”
“Nice.” I think I nodded confidently enough.
I was running out of staples. It took four whacks, but Mizzy was not discouraged. On the fourth whack, she realized that the stack was higher, and she would have to stand on point like a ballerina to achieve the proper angle of attack. The whole class held its collective breath when she balanced on the toes of her sneakers, reared back her clenched fist and slammed it into the prickly wad of busy work. She was quite satisfied with the final assault. The rest of the squadron relaxed, too, and bent their heads back to their tasks.
“Tomorrow, I’ll have my own workbook.”
“Yes. Tomorrow then.”
Tomorrow came. No workbook.
Mizzy explained that her mother had been paid, but had a little trouble cashing the check. She was going to have to go to a “real bank.”
“She is going to bring it to me. My mama, my baby brother, and my Aunt Bebe. They are going to buy my workbook and bring it to me. “
“I wouldn’t want them to make a special trip. You could just bring it tomorrow.”
“No. No ma’am. They will bring it. I’ll use it today.”
“Good. Today then! We will just do our workbook pages later.”
Mizzy lit up. “Yes! Today!”
We continued class. I postponed assigning the workbook. A short time later, in the middle of a lesson, Mizzy ran to the window, and strained to flatten her head against the glass to achieve a better view of the street. I heard the city bus pull away. Our portable was only about fifty feet from the bus stop. Mizzy returned to her desk. “They’ll be on the next bus.”
“Good. “ Thumbs up. “Next bus, then.”
This time, we all heard the bus. Mizzy ran to the window. I walked over, concerned that she would be disappointed. No Mama, no baby brother, no Aunt Bebe. Mizzy was not discouraged.
But the next bus came and left without leaving any important people or any gifts. Several classmates joined us at the window. They shared worried looks with me and with each other, but not with Mizzy.
We went to lunch. If Mizzy was the least bit concerned, I couldn’t detect it. I dropped them off and went to my mailbox, joined the teachers for lunch in the teachers’ alcove of the cafeteria. At the appointed time, I went to collect my class. They were gone. The lunchroom supervisor looked at me wide-eyed and shocked.
“I think I know where they are. “ I walked to the city bus stop. The bus was climbing the hill to the school. They stood on the sidewalk, technically truant.
“Friends. Please do not ever leave the cafeteria without permission.” Some students shifted their eyes to acknowledge me, but most eyes were glued to the bus. The bus stopped. The doors opened. We held our breaths.
No Mama, no baby brother, no Aunt Bebe. No workbook.
We had two hours and fifteen minutes left of school. It raced by. Two more busses announced their arrivals.
I was teaching a Social Studies lesson on the Panama Canal. It’s a really good canal, but nobody cared. The last bus strained to a stop. The brakes shushed the playground. Mizzy walked peacefully to the window alone, strained her neck to see the passengers disembark. The doors screeched open. Mizzy’s hands fluttered at her sides, and she shook the energy out her fingers. She turned around and dashed to her seat. Her feet whipped out straight ahead of her so that some of the excitement might leave through her toes.
The whole class watched the door. Mizzy watched me. Then she jumped out of her desk and ran to the chalk tray. She grabbed a piece of chalk and dashed to me. She slapped it into my hand, and raced back to her desk. She sat expectantly, the first worried look I had seen on her face all day.
“Teach something!” She pleaded with me, waving me to the chalkboard. I put down my Social Studies teachers’ manual, and then stepped to the board. I put a simple subtraction problem on the board, hoping Mizzy would be satisfied with it. She beamed. Footsteps fell on the metal steps to the portable. The door opened without a knock. Mizzy adopted a relaxed pose. Not the rest of us.
Ms. Jackson (Mama) stepped in. Then baby brother. Then Aunt Bebe.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Egan. I know you’re teaching, but I had to bring something to Mizzy.” She walked to Mizzy’s desk, pulled a workbook out of a Dollar General bag, and flipped it onto Mizzy’s desk.
“We got it, Baby. We got it.”
The class sat silent. Expectant. Breathless. Clearly suppressing their relief. I don’t remember when the applause began.
When it subsided, we all turned to page 24.