My father once said, “The more you think you know, the less you know.” I imagine he was trying to give me a little warning before sending me out into the cold world; he saw my self-assurance as a neon “kick me” sign, and he didn’t want to leave me entirely unprepared.
I said I agreed with him, but it was still easy to mock the misguided certainty of others while leaving my own misguided certainty firmly intact. Then I graduated from college, and this very same sense of certainty prompted me to join a national teacher-placement program. I moved halfway across the country from Massachusetts to a tiny town on the Texas-Mexico border, where I would teach 3rd grade and lose any shred of confidence in anything I’d ever presumed to know.
Texas was a shock to my system. I was a vegetarian in a land populated by cattle ranchers and barbecue cook-offs, a daughter of liberal New England Jews in the Bible Belt. Teaching elementary school in Texas was a double whammy. For the first few days, I showed up at school each morning before 7, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, detailed lesson plans in one hand and a healthy home-cooked lunch in the other. I was a train with a clear destination, the little educator that could.
By the second week of school, I’d derailed; my lesson plans sat forlorn and forgotten under a pile of paperwork, and my lunch became a bag of pretzels and a soda from the vending machine in the teacher’s lounge. This type of existence is a rite of passage for first-year teachers worldwide, but I felt very alone.
Worst of all was that one student, Enrique, sat in his seat staring straight up at the sky for seven hours a day. I simply could not get him to look at me. I’d heard of kids sleeping, talking, fighting during class, but not this. I made every effort to get Enrique’s attention, to no avail. I tried group work, Jeopardy games, timeouts, and parent phone calls. Enrique would look at the board for five seconds, then, as if a magnetic force was pulling on his eyeballs, he’d tilt his head upward. Is he praying? I wondered. Is he asking some higher power for a way out of this godforsaken classroom? For a moment, I considered doing the same thing. I imagined the tile ceiling opening up and some divine hand lifting my body right out of Texas, my cardigan sweater flapping goodbye in the warm breeze as Enrique winked knowingly.
I knew nothing. I was ready to teach.
Maybe he has a neck problem, I hypothesized. But Enrique never looked up during PE or lunch. Maybe I’m ugly? The way things were going, this seemed the most likely explanation, so I left it at that. Days passed. I let Enrique’s quirky habit slide as a Really Bad Kid got placed in my class and I found myself dodging flying paper clips and calling in sick a lot.
But one sunny day (it’s always sunny in Texas) in mid-October, the Really Bad Kid was absent. I imagined he’d done some irreparable damage to the bus driver or glued his front door shut because this kid was always the picture of physical health (the bad ones usually are). I breathed a sigh of relief and surveyed the classroom. Iris and Marlena were passing notes and José was tapping relentlessly on his chair with a pencil, but otherwise things were under control.
Suddenly, I stopped short. Engrossed in his work, Enrique was curved over his pencil and paper like a beautiful question mark.
“Enrique, what are you doing?” I stammered.
“I’m doing the assignment, Miss,” he said, like a perfect child in a training video.
“But—why aren’t you looking at the ceiling?” I blurted, all too conscious of the cavernous gulf between myself and that perfect teacher in the training video. I imagined Enrique’s responses—“They fixed my neck,” “You got a better haircut,” “The Lord has forsaken us all”—but nothing could have prepared me for the words that actually emerged from the kid’s cherubic mouth.
“The tarantula’s gone,” he said sweetly.
I was speechless.
“I used to look up at the tarantula in the air conditioning vent. Now it went away.”
“There was a tarantula in the air conditioning vent?”
All of the students began to chime in. “It was the biggest tarantula we’ve ever seen.”
“When the air conditioner was turned on, its legs would vibrate.”
I gulped. Suddenly my father’s words appeared in front of me as clearly as if they were written on the chalkboard. I smiled, chagrined, and popped a pretzel into my mouth. Like Enrique looking down at his paper for the first time, I finally turned away from my misguided certainty.
I knew nothing. I was ready to teach.
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2005 edition of Teacher as Learning To Crawl