Sharing with Ninth Graders

Luci Largaespada

Writer’s comment: This essay was supposed to be a straightforward “observation paper” for English 104D (Writing in Education), but it ended up something more. I’d like to think of it as a tribute to three great teachers. First, to Mr. Seaney, ninth grade English teacher at Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High School, who amazed me with his creativity and patience. Next, to Susan Palo, English lecturer at UC Davis, who inspired me with her passion for the written word and who allowed me write in my own voice. And lastly, to Mr. Campbell, ninth grade English teacher at John Burroughs High School, whose discipline prepared me for the real world and whose commitment to education ultimately showed me how to share. Along with them, I’d like to thank my two “editors” who helped me revise this paper: Soraya Rondon and Matthew Bowers, thanks for helping me recall the ninth grade.
—Luci Largaespada

Instructor’s comment: One of the assignments in English 104D, Writing for Elementary and Secondary Teachers, asks students to observe a good teacher and to write a an analytical portrait of that teacher that sheds light on effective teaching. Since students often want to observe one of their former teachers, the assignment encourages the use of remembered experience of that teacher as well as current, first-hand observation. Students find it very challenging to organize the observational evidence, the recollected evidence, and the analysis into a coherent whole—as, perhaps, an essay, a case report, or a journalistic profile. Luci’s response to the assignment is creative and sophisticated. She remembers one teacher—who still influences her—and observes another very different teacher, weaving an essay that makes us reflect on how complex good teaching and learning are. She shows us how a teacher’s classroom style and personality can echo in a student’s mind for years.
—Susan Palo, English Department

My ninth grade English teacher, Mr. Campbell, was a regimented man. Walking through the door to room 217 was like stepping into boot camp, as our personal freedoms disappeared through our acceptance of the unalterable routine of his classroom. Without prompting we sat at our desks, removed our regulation three-ring binders from our backpacks, and began transcribing the daily set of vocabulary words from the white board into the section of our notebooks assigned to vocabulary, following Mr. Campbell’s stringent policy on classroom supplies and organization.
         Although we had five minutes assigned to this first task of the day, many students hurried to class and began before the bell rang, just to be sure they could finish in time. Ten minutes were then allocated to announcements: Mr. Campbell would go down the list with flamboyant flair, spicing up an otherwise bland segment of class with anecdotes and stories from his personal life. The ten minutes worth of announcements were the highlight of our daily instruction, as even Mr. Campbell laughed and acted a wee bit mischievously, allowing us to do so as well. But for only those brief moments. . . . The announcements were immediately followed by another ten minutes of honors vocabulary, then twenty-five minutes of in-class reading and discussion, and a five-minute wrap-up discussion. This system was like clockwork, and after we learned the way things worked in Mr. Campbell’s class, any deviation from the system threw us for a loop. On the rare occasion that Mr. Campbell was absent, his substitute would always find a group of ninth graders that they could not control, not because we were being troublesome, but because we wanted order. “Mr. Campbell never lets one of the students read the announcements!” “We’ve spent way too much time on vocab today!” “What do you mean we don’t have to turn in our homework?” If ninth-grade English was boot camp, then Mr. Campbell had turned us into good soldiers, and we were loyal to our commander-in-chief out of respect—and fear.
         And we adjusted to his rules, even the ones that we felt came out of Mr. Campbell’s sheer demented sadism. Our homework had to be in complete order and on time—and typed. At a time when computers were still hard to come by, this was no easy task. Some kids started “visiting” the houses of their friends lucky enough to have a personal computer at home; others had their parents type their homework at their office; still others went to a local copy shop and paid to use the ones there. And for us less-fortunate kids? Well, we used our parents’ old typewriters and word-processors, and tried to keep the words from spilling off the page. It was hard to do, especially when you had no spell-check to help you out. The first day of class, Mr. Campbell gave us clear rules about writing. If there were certain “demons” in your written assignment (which were his euphemism for the most common spelling errors such as writing “its” instead of “it’s,” “their” instead of “there,” etc.), no matter the content of your paper, you would lose a full grade per demon. And if your paper margins appeared to be more or less than exactly one inch and your indentations more or less than exactly five spaces, he would take out a ruler, measure them, and mark your paper down accordingly. And these were no idle threats. Several students in the classroom thought he was bluffing and paid the price when they were wrong. As for me, typing my papers on an old word-processor, this looming threat made me concentrate on every word, every detail of my writing as I was determined to make no mistake that would bring me into disfavor with Mr. Campbell.
         But his strict rules did not only apply to our in-class behavior and academic performance. In fact, even outside of the class, Mr. Campbell continued to regulate our behavior, demonstrating the extent of our respect, bordering on reverence, for him. I remember his lectures about students not saying “hello” to teachers in the hallway, about not sending teachers holiday cards, about not saying “I’m sorry your grandmother died.” He encouraged us to view our teachers as people by criticizing our callousness towards them, by forcibly breaking down the impersonal barrier between teacher and student.
         He forced us to be nice.
         I remember how ashamed I would feel every time a member of SHARE, our community service club, would come into our classroom and ask, “Do you have anything to share?”
         “This is a ninth grade classroom,” Mr. Campbell would say, letting out a horrible laugh. “Ninth graders don’t share.” The poor student who came by asking for food slunk out of 217 like a man who has just walked into the women’s restroom. All year long I dreaded the terrible laugh that inevitably accompanied SHARE, but for some reason I could never remember to bring in anything to give. But one day, a student actually did bring something for SHARE. There was no thunder, no laugh. Just a smile. I looked over at the student who had brought the red plastic toothbrush and I felt jealous and disappointed that I hadn’t been the first to learn to share. And when I was a senior and a SHARE officer, I was still afraid. We all drew straws for Mr. Campbell’s class, frightened of the laugh, even when we were on the other side of it.

***          When I found out that the English Department Chair was across the hall from the room I tutored in at Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High, I decided to introduce myself. That was at about 3:30. I thought it was commendable that Mr. Seaney stayed in his classroom half an hour after school got out. I knocked on the door and there he was, sitting in the corner working on some papers lying on top of a scrambled pile on his desk. He looked nice enough: a beard, glasses, a colorful sweater with a button-up shirt popping out the neck. He sounded nice enough: soft, careful words, not a lot of jargon, not a lot of nonsense. Mr. Seaney told me that he had been teaching ninth grade English for many years now, and we had a great conversation about teaching at the junior high level.
         “Anyone can just sit here and translate the books,” he said, “but the students should be able to critically attack the text by themselves. I can’t force them to like the books. I can’t even force them to read. But I can make sure they enjoy the class. Class should be enjoyable: you shouldn’t leave the classroom feeling stressed.” My thoughts exactly, I wanted to say, but for some reason, I didn’t. Instead, I decided to ask him if I could observe him teach.
         “Sure, come in any time” he replied.
         “How about Friday?”
         I was excited.

***          When I walked into the A Building at 1:15 that Friday, I expected to knock on door A-1, hear a faint “come in,” and chat a bit with Mr. Seaney before he began his class. But the door was locked, and now I had to sit outside while his students gathered around the door, occasionally giving me a quick once-over and turning to their friends with quizzical faces. “I think she’s the sub,” one of the boys says, which makes me laugh because aside from the “college girl” glasses that I purposely put on for this observation, I don’t think I look any older than the students I’m standing with.
         As soon as the bell rings, the crowd of students part like the Red Sea for the teacher to get to the door. I expected to see Mr. Seaney’s bearded face apologizing for his tardiness, but instead it was a teacher I had never seen before. Unlike the kids, he did not pay me any attention.
         So I walked up to him and asked, “Are you the substitute teacher?”
         “No, I’m just opening the door and watching the class until Mr. Seaney arrives.”
         This person has no idea who I am, I suddenly realized.
         I introduced myself.
         “I’m supposed to observe the class today. . . .”
         But before I can finish, he interrupts.
         “Well, you can take a seat in the back and Mr. Seaney will be here soon.”

***          I was beginning to feel an urge to take control of the situation. Mr. Brothers, as I quickly learned, was not an English teacher. Aside from the obvious clue (he was holding a math workbook under his arm), I knew that he was not an English teacher because he did not know anything about A Tale of Two Cities. And the class either knew or could sense that this guy had no idea what two cities the tale is about. It began to get a little rowdy.
         I’ve read A Tale of Two Cities, and for a moment I thought I could get the kids to calm down a bit, but then I remembered: I’m just observing. Besides, how embarrassing would a failure be? What if I tried, and they kept talking about who’s dating who? In order to pass the time, I began writing some observations about the classroom. In my blue, UCD spiral notebook, I jot down, The room is decorated with posters about the Renaissance: Leonardo’s Paintings, Renaissance Women, The Nobility (four posters on the Black Death). I was so impressed. Look at all this creativity, look at the way history and language are coming together in these students’ minds, look at the way they are expressing their understanding of literature through photos, through statistics, through drawings. I was just about to speculate about why the Black Death is so fascinating to kids at this age when I suddenly hear something. Silence. The kind of silence that only a teacher walking into a room of kids not working can bring. Mr. Seaney is here.
         He began class without apologizing and I got the feeling that he had been late before.
         “How was the Limo-Lunch, Mr. Seaney?” one of the students asked.
         “It was great!” He smiled.
         But this was enough diversion. He announced that he would check the students’ “reflexive” essays, and walked around the room, browsing over the desks. The assignment centered on being “recalled to life,” taken from a message written at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities. The students were supposed to write an outline of an essay in which they would “recall” a certain event in their lives. Only one student didn’t have hers. Very gently, Mr. Seaney told her she would have to catch up over the weekend. He then walked directly to the overhead and began a lesson on creative writing, discussing narrative voice by using his own reflexive essay as an example:

Notice that the voice is sometimes childlike, with words like “lemon-drop yellow,” he says, pointing the words on the overhead projector. “Other times the voice is adult, using more complicated words and ideas. You can do that. You can switch voices to make the story more interesting.

         His story was interesting. I enjoyed it and the entire class seemed to enjoy it as well. One would have expected to see them passing notes or rolling their eyes as he read, but they were attentive, paying close attention to the words on the overhead. After they discussed creative writing, Mr. Seaney walked around the room to individually discuss each student’s topic, encouraging and guiding them through the creative process. He concluded with a reminder that their 300-word essay is due on Monday. Then he grabbed a seat in the middle of the spacious classroom and began to discuss A Tale of Two Cities. He joked with the students and they teased him. He asked questions of the group and most of the students participated freely. No one raised their hand. They just talked.
         In the last five minutes of class, Mr. Seaney looked over their weekend homework and decided it was a bit much. “You only have to read Part II for Monday, not Part II and III like the assignment calendar says. Part II plus your essay. That’s a lot of work for one weekend.”
         It was 2:15. The class was over and Mr. Seaney sat at his desk strewn with papers. The entire desk was covered, and I wondered if he could make any sense of it all. Looking at the clock, I realized that he had stayed after school about two hours the last time I saw him. And I was impressed with a half-hour!
         “Actually, it was more like four hours,” he said, and I was conscious of the face I was making. I tried not to let his words phase me. But four hours.
         “Plus the time it takes to prepare and grade.”
         He looked at my face. I couldn’t control it anymore. Four hours. Plus. I knew I looked shocked, dismayed. And I was already tired just thinking about it. Mr. Seaney sat at his desk. I wondered how much time I would set him back with my prattle about becoming a teacher. I knew Mr. Campbell would have made it obvious that I was taking his time and I wouldn’t have stayed talking with him as long - at least, not unless I had something to say. I would have respected his time as a way of respecting him. But with Mr. Seaney, it seemed disrespectful to leave the room without chatting. He motioned me to take a seat. We talked for half an hour before I finally had to leave.

***          A couple of years back, I saw Mr. Campbell at the supermarket down the street from my parents’ house. He was buying some coffee to get him through the first day of class. I was buying some pantyhose.
         “For work,” I said, knowing that the ever-observant Mr. Campbell would notice what I was purchasing.
         “Where do you work?” he asked, and I felt like I was taking a quiz I was completely unprepared for.
         “At a credit union,” I answered, smiling. He’s not your teacher any more, I kept reminding myself. You’re in college. You’re independent. You’re an honor student. You’re 21, not 14. Why are you afraid?
         I can tell this isn’t going well. Mr. Campbell looks almost disappointed.
         Suddenly, I realized what was wrong.
         “It’s a summer job. Something to help me pay for school.”
         I did it. I justified my existence in this world. No, Mr. Campbell, I wasn’t a waste of time. You didn’t teach me Shakespeare so that I could hand out twenty-dollar bills like a human ATM machine. I’m in college.
         “Where do you go to school?”
         “UC Davis.”
         “Good school. What are you studying?”
         “English. I want to teach.”
         Mr. Campbell smiled at me the same way he smiled at the kid with the toothbrush.
         “What level?”
         “Ninth grade.” I looked at him, the ninth grade teacher everyone dreaded, the man with the vocabulary and the demons and the ruler. The man who made me love literature. And then I said something I never thought I would say in my entire life.
         “I guess I want to be like you, Mr. Campbell.”
         Even though I was laughing, both of us knew I was not really joking.
         The check-out lady looked at me, annoyed. So I paid, waved goodbye to Mr. Campbell, and drove home to put on my pantyhose before work. Seven years after leaving his classroom, I was still in awe of that man, and all he does.
         And I was proud of myself.
         I had finally learned to share.

***          I learned. Even though the organization of Mr. Campbell’s class introduced me to a nemesis I would fight against the rest of my educational career—stress—I did learn and I think I came out better for it. What Mr. Campbell gave me was a sense of confidence and pride in my work. No matter what, I know that my writing may not always be profound, but at least it’s on time, without many grammatical or spelling errors, and professional. Just like Mr. Campbell.
         But Mr. Seaney’s students learn, too. Not in the disciplined environment that I learned in, but in one that is relaxed and open, where they can share their ideas and feelings. And although their papers may not always be on time, or without many grammatical or spelling errors, they will probably be more genuine, more heartfelt, and more creative. Just like Mr. Seaney.
         Just like Mr. Campbell.
         Just like Mr. Seaney.
         Just like me.