On my first day of teaching, all my classes were going well. Being a teacher was going to be cinch, I decided. Then came Period 7, the last class of the day. As I walked toward the room, I heard furniture crash. Rounding the corner, I saw one boy pinning another to the floor. “Listen, you retard!” yelled the one on the bottom. “I don’t give a damn about your sister!” “You keep your hands off her, you hear me?” the boy on top threatened. I drew up my short frame and asked them to stop fighting. Suddenly 14 pairs of eyes were riveted on my face. I knew I did not look convincing. Glaring at each other and me, the two boys slowly took their seats. At that moment, the teacher from across the hall stuck his head in the door and shouted at my students to sit down, shut up and do what I said. I was left feeling powerless. I tried to teach the lessons I had prepared, but was met with a sea of guarded faces. As the class was leaving, I detained the boy who had instigated the fight. I’ll call him Mark. “Lady, don’t waste your time,” he told me.
“We’re the retards.” Then Mark strolled out of the room. Dumbstruck, I slumped into my chair and wondered if I should have become a teacher. Was the only cure for problems like this to get out? I told myself I’d suffer for one year, and after my marriage that next summer I’d do something more rewarding. “They got to you, didn’t they?” It was the colleague who had come into my classroom earlier. I nodded. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I taught many of them in summer school. There are only 14 of them, and most won’t graduate anyway. Don’t waste your time with those kids.” “What do you mean?”
“They live in shacks in the fields. They’re migratory labor, pickers’ kids. They come to school only when they feel like it. The boy on the floor had pestered Mark’s sister while they were picking beans together. I had to tell them to shut up at lunch today. Just keep them busy and quiet. If they cause trouble, send them to me.” As I gathered my things to go home, I couldn’t forget the look on Mark’s face as he said, “We’re the retards.” Retards. That word clattered in my brain. I knew I had to do something drastic. The next afternoon I asked my colleague not to come into my class again. I needed to handle the kids my own way. I returned to my room and made eye contact with each student. Then I went to the board and wrote ECINAJ. “That’s my first name,” I said. “Can you tell me what it is?” They told me my name was “weird” and that they had never seen it before. I went to the board again and this time wrote: JANICE. Several of them blurted the word, then gave me a funny look. “You’re right, my name is Janice,” I said. “I’m learning-impaired something called dyslexia. When I began school I couldn’t write my own name correctly. I couldn’t spell words, and numbers swam in my head. I was labeled retarded. That’s right 1 was a ‘retard.’ I can still hear those awful voices and feel the shame.” “So how’d you become a teacher?” someone asked.
“Because I hate labels and I’m not stupid and I love to learn. That’s what this class is going to be about. If you like the label ‘retard,’ then you don’t belong here. Change classes. There are no retarded people in this room.” “I’m not going to be easy on you,” I continued. “We’re going to work and work until you catch up. You will graduate, and I hope some of you will go on to college. That’s not a joke it’s a promise. I don’t ever want to hear the word ‘retard’ in this room again. Do you understand?” They seemed to sit up a little straighter.
We did work hard, and I soon caught glimpses of promise. Mark, especially, was very bright. I heard him tell a boy in the hall, “This book’s real good. We don’t read baby books in there.” He was holding a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. Months flew by, and the improvement was wonderful. Then one day Mark said, “But people still think we’re stupid “cause we don’t talk right.” It was the moment 1 had been waiting for. Now we could begin an intensive study of grammar, because they wanted it. I was sorry to see the month of June approach; they wanted to learn so much. All my students knew I was getting married and moving out of state. The students in my last-period class were visibly agitated whenever I mentioned it. I was glad they had become fond of me, but what was wrong? Were they angry I was leaving the school? On my final day of classes, the principal greeted me as I entered the building. “Will you come with me, please?” he said sternly. “There’s a problem with your room.”
He looked straight ahead as he led me down the hall. What now? I wondered. There, standing outside my classroom, was my period 7 class, all smiles. “MissAnderson,” Mark said proudly, “Period 2 got you roses and Period 3 got you a corsage, we love you more.” He motioned to my door, and I looked inside. It was amazing! There were sprays of flowers in each corner, bouquets on the students’ desks and filing cabinets, and a huge blanket of flowers lying on my desk. How could they have done this? I wondered. Most of them came from families so poor that they relied on the school assistance program for warm clothing and decent meals. I started to cry, and they joined me.
Later I learned how they had pulled it off. Mark, who worked in the local flower shop on weekends, had seen orders from several of my other classes. He mentioned them to his classmates. Too proud to ever again wear an insulting label like “poor”, Mark had asked the florist for all the “tired ” flowers in the shop. Then he called funeral parlors and explained that his class needed flowers for a teacher who was leaving. They agreed to give him bouquets saved after each funeral. That was not the only tribute they paid me, though. Two years later, all 14 students graduated, and six earned college scholarships. Twenty-eight years later, I’m teaching in an academically strong school not too far from where I began my career. I learned that Mark married his college sweetheart and is a successful businessman. And coincidentally, three years ago Mark’s son was in my sophomore honors English class. Sometimes I laugh when I recall the end of my first day as a teacher. To think I considered quitting to do something rewarding!