It was my first year of teaching. I was married to a man from New York City, starting our life together in his hometown. I knew that the only way I, with only one semester of student teaching under my belt, would make it as a high school English teacher in the New York public school system was to be ready for a job in a neighborhood where it might be hard to get teachers.
In preparation for this reality, I persuaded the education department at Washington University to allow me to student-teach at a rough-and-tough “alternative” school in downtown St. Louis.
As it turned out, there were very few high school job openings in New York, and no one wanted a newcomer. So I dug deep into my storehouse of Plan B’s, and, through a connection with my new father-in-law, I contacted Lorraine Adelston at Eleanor Roosevelt Junior High. She hired me, sight unseen.
This distance hiring might surprise you, but she wasn’t concerned. Mrs. Adelston ran the tightest ship in Manhattan, with a staff of experienced teachers, an excellent relationship with the invincible Teachers Union, and enough self-confidence to take on the challenges of seething community unrest.
It was the perfect lab in which I could learn how to be a true educator, and I soon found a cadre of mentors and friends.
A colleague, Hope, got me involved in student productions and crazy projects. I led activities for special students on both ends of the academic arc and organized off-site trips (20 teens on the subway).
In other words, I threw myself into my job and worked hard to broaden the experiences of my students. I felt that they were as fond of me as I was of them.
We all looked forward to winter break. Even though at least half the teachers at Eleanor Roosevelt were Jewish, Christmas was the time at which we were rewarded for our efforts. The atmosphere in the teachers’ workroom was heady with anticipation.
Math teacher Olga took me aside the day before winter break began.
“Let me tell you about tomorrow,” she advised. “Bring in lots of shopping bags because every one of your students, no matter how poor, will bring you a Christmas present. Come prepared.”
The next day I put a bunch of Waldbaum’s grocery bags under my desk. I rehearsed the proper response to the gifts I was about to receive, even though, given the economy of the community in which I worked, the presents would be small. I was eager to see what kinds of things the different personalities would give me.
I had two classes before my lunch break, but, to my surprise and disappointment, both groups came and left, only wishing me “Merry Christmas!”
In the teachers’ workroom, I ate my tuna sandwich as I watched other teachers opening their gifts. Perfume and costume jewelry prevailed. My colleagues, of course, noticed that I had come in empty-handed, but they were decent enough to say nothing.
I had four more classes to teach that day, with one break in between. Again, my students were actively participating in my fun pre-holiday lessons, cheerfully wishing me “Merry Christmas!” The grocery bags remained empty.
During the break the other teachers were kind enough not to ask what I had received. It was now clear to one and all not only that I was the least popular teacher in the school, but that my students didn’t even care enough to pretend to like me.
I was a self-deluding failure. I decided to apply for an opening at the Waldbaum’s near our apartment.
At the end of the day, ninth-grader Marvin Rudolph ran in (without permission), followed by dozens of my students. Cesar Brito carried a gigantic box adorned with about a hundred ribbons.
“Open it! Open it!” everyone shouted. I did. It was a hamster, in a cage, with a running wheel.
“We had to get you something different because you’re different!” Marvin explained. “We all chipped in! We knew you’d love it!”
They were very proud of themselves, and I decided right then and there to scrap my plan to apply for a job at Waldbaum’s.