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Hooked On Teaching

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I was 11 years old when the kindergarten teacher walked into my 6th grade classroom and whispered a long message into our teacher's ear. I could see the curve of Mrs. Samuel's neck as she cocked her head to listen. Like my classmates, I wondered what they were saying. Finally, Mrs. Samuel looked my way, smiled, and called me up to the front of the room.

Mrs. Samuel asked me to walk outside with the kindergarten teacher, who would explain everything to me. Then she turned back to the class. I left the room with Mrs. Green, a little proud and a little embarrassed to be selected for who knew what.

Both feelings dissolved into joy, however, when I learned that I was being offered a job. Would I like to begin each school day helping Mrs. Green prepare her room and greet her children? The decision, of course, was up to me. It meant missing the first half-hour of 6th grade each day for the rest of the year.

I accepted with alacrity. Lonely and bored, I was the kid they called "The Brain.'' I had few friends. I knew all the right answers, so the teacher rarely asked me any questions. Sometimes I would look out the window and pretend I wasn't listening in order to trick her into calling on me. What harm would it do to miss the first half-hour of that? As I agreed to become Mrs. Green's assistant, I had the distinct notion that my life was going to improve.

Through the eyes of this 6th grader, the world of kindergartners was magical. Yellow paper ducks labeled with each child's name floated in a shiny green pond on the bulletin board next to the door. A train of upper- and lowercase letters puffed its way across the blackboard. The children's vibrant paintings hung on a clothesline strung diagonally across the art area. The classroom was peppy and inviting--a sure-fire ticket to learning.

And I was a part of it. I knew which puzzles or games would be used each day because I helped set them out. I chose the colors for the easel each morning, so I felt I was contributing to the paintings' beauty. I loved the satisfying plop-plop-plop the paint made as I poured it into the plastic cups. But most of all, I loved being with the children.

Every day, I would help them off with their jackets and sweaters and say a few words to each of them. The girls looked so pretty and delicate in their little dresses, while the boys were smaller versions of their fathers in slacks and short-sleeve shirts. (This was 1959, before the era of Oshkosh jeans and sweat suits.)

As the children grew accustomed to me, they would chat about the previous evening or tell me a fresh piece of news. My favorite was Michael, whose homemade sweater was the same robin's egg blue as his eyes. I remember the feel of the thick, soft wool on my hands as I struggled with the sweater's buttons--difficult even for me, an 11-year-old.

More important, however, was my struggle to get Michael to loosen up. He never smiled in the morning; he seemed sad to leave his mother. After a few weeks of making jokes about the "silly buttons,'' I made some headway. As soon as his mother dropped him off, Michael would come straight to me with a big smile on his face. I felt all the pride of a first accomplishment.

One morning, I reported to the kindergarten room as usual but found myself alone. Assuming that Mrs. Green would appear shortly, I went about my work of preparing the classroom for another day.

Soon the children began to arrive, but they found only me. I reassured their parents: "There's no substitute here, and there's no message from the office, so Mrs. Green must be stuck in traffic or something. She'll be here soon; I'm sure.'' The parents nodded and left their kids with me. (Can you imagine this occurring anywhere in 1994? It was, as they say, a simpler time.)

As the children removed their jackets, I directed them to the rug at the other end of the room. When everyone was seated, I joined them and thought about what to do next.

I remembered that Mrs. Green always took attendance with the name cards sitting on the nearby piano. I reached over and began to hold them up one by one, as I had seen her do each morning. (I use name cards of similar size and shape in my classroom today.) The children called out, "Here,'' when they saw their names, just as they did for Mrs. Green. To my surprise, everyone was quiet and attentive. I remember thinking, "It's working!''

Only God knows what I would have done for the next activity. Fortunately, Mrs. Green walked in just as I finished attendance. Her shocked delight at the scene before her was obvious. She shook her head in wonderment. She had indeed been stuck in a traffic jam with no way to call the school.

Imagine her surprise to find her class running smoothly in the hands of a young girl. She thanked me over and over. I went upstairs to my classroom, beaming.

During the day, as I thought about my triumph, I felt the same emotions I feel today, 35 years later. I had handled a tough situation with confidence. Through my own good judgment, I had helped the children. I had added my small portion of good to the world.

Like a fish on a hook, I was caught, and any struggle would be useless. The lure of helping children grow had captured me forever: I would be a teacher.

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