Below, find an excerpt from a chapter of one of my writing projects, “Zen and the Art of Teaching”. “My First Day” takes place in January of 1974. I offer this brief look at the beginning of my teaching career to my daughter Kate who will be student teaching this Fall, and to all aspiring educators who will someday step forward to lead their students on the incredible journey of learning.
If you enter the profession realizing that you are not just teaching a subject; but you are also teaching students; if you can grasp that you have as much to learn as your students do; if you can persevere through days like my first day, which was pretty much a blueprint for the rest of my horrible first year…
…then you will have taken the first, and maybe the most difficult, step on the path to professional mastery. There will be many lessons to learn as you progress through your career; but remember, you are not alone; many of us have shared your pain. If you open to self-reflection and learning; things will get better.
My First Day
From “Zen and the Art of Teaching”
I remember vividly the forest of adolescent hands in the air, waving urgently at me, trying to get my attention during my first day in the classroom. It was mid-year and they had completely routed the young, female teacher who had preceded me. She had quit over the Christmas break.
I stood looking out at the class, pleased to be in charge, pleased to be in the front of the room, with all the authority. I called on one particularly harmless looking kid with jet-black hair that swung down to cover one eye and the side of his face.
He smiled nicely and asked, “Can I go to the bathroom?”
I knew this was a ruse. “No.” I replied.
“But I really have to go!” he said plaintively, clearly playing to his audience of peers.
“No” I repeated. “You had time to go between classes.” I was no fool. I knew the rules.
“But I Mrs. Rogers kept us after for a few minutes and my locker was stuck. I didn’t have time to go!”
I remained tough, “Not my problem. Just hold it for the rest of class!”
The class was clearly happy and entertained. I was not savvy enough to see that the longer this conversation went on, the more foolish I looked.
“Well, I have to go and I don’t think I can make it to the end of class!”
Now, how the Hell did I get myself into this, I thought to myself. There were giggles in the back of the class. This seemingly harmless student now pressed his advantage, effortlessly making an ass out of me.
“I have to go number one!”
Outright laughter from the class. I didn’t like being laughed at, “I said No, that’s enough! I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
I moved to call on one of the other hands that were waving to get my attention. I had gotten myself in a bit of a mess and it was time to get out; only I wasn’t really in control.
“Well if I go in my pants, then it’ll be your fault. You’re the one that’s gonna have to explain it to the Principal and my mother!”
Was it possible that I was making a mistake? What if he really did have to go? There truly wasn’t much time between classes. Why would he be so persistent about this if it wasn’t a real issue for him? Was it worth taking the risk with this student? This bathroom pass thing really was a bunch of bull anyway. There was silence in the classroom as I pondered Solomon-like in the front of the class. And then I broke down and blurted out in an exasperated tone,
“Okay! Go to the bathroom; but hurry up and get back here! No stopping anywhere.”
There, I had shown magnanimity and mercy, even though I didn’t have to. I looked into the face of my nemesis (what I could see of it) and I knew immediately I had been had. He had a vicious grin on his face, not the thankful look of one who had been saved from an embarrassing accident in class. He stood up, looked at the class victoriously, almost as if saying,
“Piece of cake! Too easy! We’re going to feed this guy to the dogs!”
He sauntered to the classroom door, opened it, and just before exiting smiled and waved to the class; who, for just a moment, were embarrassed for me. The door slammed shut behind him; a final insulting flourish.
I stood there breathless. I was aware that I had just been shown up, and humiliated, in front of the entire class. I gulped hard. Suddenly, a dozen hands shot up. The owner of one of the hands didn’t wait to be called on and shouted out,
“Can I go to the bathroom, too? I have to go! Real bad!”
Order had broken down. “Quiet! I shouted.
I was clearly frustrated. “No one else is going to the bathroom!”
“Why not? You let Tim go! How come he got to go and I can’t? I was in Mrs. Roger’s class too, and I got out late, too! It’s not fair!”
“Fairness has nothing to do with it! You’re supposed to go to the bathroom between classes, not during classes!” I spoke with all the authority I could muster.
“Well, I can’t help it if I have to go! My body doesn’t work on a bell schedule! When I need to go, I need to go!”
Actually, I had to hand it to this kid; he had a good point. “You didn’t have your hand up to go before I let Tim go. You can hold it.”
He shook his head, “Yeah, I guess I can hold it; but only for about 10 minutes or so. I ain’t gonna make it to the end of class. I know it.”
“That’s too bad!” I replied.
“Well you gotta explain to Mr. Ellis, (the Principal) why you let Tim go; but you made me stay and pee my pants!”
“No, problem! I’ll do that.” I said angrily.
“Yes, problem.” he replied. “You’ve got a double standard. Some kids can…”
“Stop it!” I shouted.
“I can’t help it. I gotta go!”
“I said, No. I mean, No!”
“Why? Why are you mad at me? I didn’t do anything. All I asked for was to…”
Suddenly, I cracked, “Go! Go! Get out of here! Hurry up!”
He jumped out of his seat and quickly left the room without any of the antics that Tim had displayed. I was definitely out played, out gunned, out smarted; and for the rest of the year I would pay the price.
Another student shouted out, “Can I go to my locker?”
Another, “What’s for lunch today?”
I felt like a surge of water swirling around the shiny porcelain before being swept down the toilet bowl. This may have been the high point of my first year of teaching. It got far worse, as the class continued to entertain themselves by torturing me, the way a cat toys with its prey, before killing it.