Education Opinion

My Rookie Year

By R.W. Burniske — October 01, 1997 8 min read
A veteran teacher remembers why he got into the game.

I first drank scotch in Cairo. I also got my first teaching job there. And yes, there is a correlation. Students occasionally ask if I always wanted to be a teacher. “No,” I say, “I wanted to play left field for the Boston Red Sox.” They laugh, then ask when I realized teaching was my “vocation.” I shrug and reply that teaching never struck me as a mysterious calling--though kids continually amaze me. Yet having said that, I confess that my entry into the profession was a peculiar one, and the decision remains something of a mystery to me. As trite as it seems, the old adage is apropos: “You don’t choose the teaching profession, it chooses you.” I suppose my story supports that idea as well as any.

I began as a physical education teacher. It wasn’t the most natural role for an English major. In fact, I felt like an impostor as I stepped onto the playing field to teach my first class. At first, I thought it was the lack of four walls that made me uncomfortable. Then I blamed the fact that I would be playing games with kids all day, pretending I had something to “teach” them. Finally, I located the source of my discomfort in Woody Allen’s corollary to George Bernard Shaw’s celebrated slight: “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches. He who cannot teach, teaches PE.” Nonetheless, I probably learned more about teaching--and children--in that year of living dangerously outside my discipline than I would have learned within it.

It was the summer of 1982. I had graduated from college that May and married one month later. After backpacking through the Greek Dodecanese, Cyprus, and Israel, my wife and I spent three weeks in the dusty squalor of downtown Cairo, living on the seventh floor of the Hotel des Roses, which overlooked roof dumps infested with rats. We were just tiring of that honeymoon suite when fortune led us 10 kilometers south to the suburb of Ma’adi, an international school called Cairo American College, and an occupation that I had once said would never claim me.

We were initially hired to run the school’s student center and kiosk, purchasing candy and soda from Egyptian suppliers. One month into the school year, however, a member of the physical education department resigned. The administration looked hastily about for a replacement. I had played a number of organized sports while growing up and naively thought, “What is there to PE? You just go out and play games with kids all day, right?” So I offered my services. To my astonishment, the administration accepted and dubbed me “temporary replacement” in the PE program for 7th through 10th grade.

My department head, a macho sort from the Netherlands, informed me that my predecessor had just begun a unit on softball before his untimely departure. “You Americans can teach softball, eh?” he snickered.

I nodded, smiling, and told him of my boyhood ambition to play for the Boston Red Sox. He was not impressed. So I told him that I had played varsity baseball in high school and American Legion ball for two summers. He muttered something in Dutch and then heaved a sigh.

“Softball?” I shrugged. “It’ll be easier than a Saharan tan.” Softball, yes. The kids, no.

My first class was at 8 o’clock in the morning with 25 8th graders who carried more energy than the Aswan Dam delivered to the lower Nile. The moment they sprinted from the locker rooms, dispersing like bees released from a bell jar, they scooped up balls and started throwing them at each other. I blew on my shiny, newly issued whistle and directed them all to line up.

They reluctantly obeyed. I introduced myself and felt a creepy paranoia as several kids whispered and giggled. I paired them up to play catch for a few minutes, then called the group back together for batting drills. I demonstrated various stances and techniques, secretly congratulating myself as I punched a couple bloopers to the outfield. Then I gave the bat to one student, scattered the other 24 around the field, and said, “Each of you will get three cuts at the ball, and on the third swing, you can run out the hit.”

Kevin, the first batter, proceeded to hit three balls farther than any of mine, a feat that gave him as much pleasure as calling his classmates’ attention to it. To make matters worse, the scoundrel threw his bat after the final hit, sending the aluminum stick on a collision course with the trachea of a girl named Samantha, who had generously volunteered to be the catcher. Play was suspended while Samantha gasped for wind and wobbled off to the school nurse with a friend at either elbow.

That night I drank scotch for the first time.

The next day, Samantha returned to class sporting a neck brace and a one-week athletic exemption. I thought both were overstated but did not protest.

Class that day began with a lecture on safety. Afterward, I split the remaining 24 students into two teams for a short, controlled scrimmage. I asked who would like to play catcher. No one volunteered. So I squatted behind home plate and announced I would be the “designated catcher"; anyone who threw the bat would automatically be called “out.” Some other rules: Anyone not paying attention would be removed from the game. The same would apply for throwing the ball at a runner. Meanwhile, all batters had to earn their passage; no walks would be issued. I waited for protests, but none came.

“Play ball!” I hollered.

I began as a physical education teacher. It wasn’t the most natural role for an English major.

Amazingly, the first two innings passed without trouble. Not a single player violated their new teacher’s rules. I was feeling quite proud of them, and myself, as the third inning began. I was new, you see, and young; I had never heard of the curse of the Pharaohs.

A big strapping kid named Moustapha was the leadoff batter. His team was trailing by two runs; Moustapha didn’t like this very much. He stood and watched 12 consecutive pitches without swinging, eliciting catcalls from classmates and prodding from the instructor.

“C’mon, Moustapha, take a cut at something,” I said.

“Tell her to gimme a good one then,” he said, gesturing to the pitcher.

“Whaddya want, one right down the pipe?” taunted the first baseman.

Moustapha shouted something unpleasant in Arabic, then stood with his bat resting upon his shoulder and watched another pitch. Finally, though, he got the pitch he’d been waiting for. As the ball floated in over the middle of the plate, Moustapha wound himself up, then unwound with a fierce swing, launching a white missile into the cloudless, blue sky. He stood momentarily at home plate admiring the ball’s flight beyond the left fielder, twice the distance of anything I had produced the day before. Then he dropped the bat and sprinted toward first.

By the time the left fielder, a tough guy named Jason, chased down the ball, Moustapha had already circled the bases and gone for a drink of water. Jason kicked the ball along the ground as Moustapha came back to his team’s bench, jeering at his opponents. The rest of the players grew impatient and shouted for Jason to throw the ball to the infield. He gave the ball one more kick and then picked it up and hurled it as hard and high as he could. It was a beautiful heave, really, a tremendous throw for an 8th grader, and I couldn’t help admiring the perfect parabola it described as it sailed over the head of the cut-off man toward the pitcher’s mound and the pitcher, a shy Egyptian girl named Fadia.

You should know that Fadia was no great athlete. In fact, when I’d asked her what position she wanted to play during the scrimmage, she had quickly replied, “Scorekeeper.” After I convinced her that was not an option, she proceeded to warm up with a left-handed mitt on her right hand. As if to complete the caricature, she threw her glove to the ground every time a ball came toward her.

Now, though, as Jason’s wondrous throw came hurtling in, she did not take off the glove. She just stood mesmerized, gangly arms at her side, watching the sphere approach. The rest of us watched too, as the ball descended in slow motion, suspending sound and breath before accelerating with awesome speed to plant a forceful kiss on Fadia’s nose.

What had been just a job, an occupation for a young newlywed, had suddenly become a vocation.

This time, I accompanied the wounded to the school nurse myself. Before departing, though, I turned to the class and issued a command shaped by the anger—and fear—coursing through my veins.

“Sit down, all of you, and wait quietly,” I stammered. “And don’t you dare move an inch until I return.” They bowed their heads, but I wondered how long my back would be turned before they were at each other. Poor Fadia, meanwhile, had finally discovered a use for her mitt. She pressed it to her face, her head back, trying to stanch the flow of blood from her squashed nose as we crossed the softball field. I trembled from head to foot, cursing Fate and wondering how anyone could actually “teach” PE without getting a kid impaled on a javelin, brained by a discus, or mutilated by softballs. I wondered if I could pull this off, or if I had not made a big mistake by accepting this job. I wondered, too, if I’d be an alcoholic by the end of that year.

None of this matched the wonder that came over me minutes later, though, when I stepped from the school nurse’s office and looked across the dusty playing field to see 24 hyperactive 8th graders still sitting, quietly waiting for their teacher to return.

What had been just a job, an occupation for a young newlywed, had suddenly become a vocation. For the first time, I realized, as every new teacher must, that I hadn’t been called upon to “teach physical education.” I had been called to teach children. And as I walked across that playing field beneath a blazing sun and met the humbled glance of 24 pairs of eyes, I knew it was time to accept that call.

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as My Rookie Year