My youth began on June 28, 1965 when I graduated from high school and started college
on the same day. Three years later, the State College at New Paltz cut me loose at age 20 with a BA in English and a 6" x 8" provisional teaching certificate not quite as impressive-looking as a toaster warranty.
When I began interviewing for teaching positions, my baby face bore witness that I wasn't old enough to vote. I hadn't gotten a job by graduation, so I lowered my standards and applied for a private school position at the Greer Children's Community at Hope Farm, New York, a social services agency about which I knew nothing. The job paid $5,000 plus room and board.
Founded as a private charitable boarding school for children from broken homes, Greer now served inner city victims of abuse and neglect, wards of the courts with severe learning disabilities and emotional problems, pawns of the welfare system.
Public school teachers scorned Greer as an outpost of the Foreign Legion: you went there to forget, so happy people need not apply. Greer School had such a chronic need for teachers because of its poor reputation that it hired the willing, including failed public school teachers, amateurs, drunks, and adolescents like me. Not wishing to scare me away during my
interview, Principal Thomas was not exactly forthcoming about the nature of the school's clientele, the unlikelihood that a teacher lacking special education training had the slightest chance of bringing about the slightest improvement in any of the Greer kids, that I'd have no resources or supplies for my self-contained seventh grade class, or that my being subjected to
violence was a certainty.
I was no treat, either: if I was, why was I at Greer, the last place God made? At age 20, I was green as goose turd and Greer had no guarantee that part way through the school year I wouldn't just up and move back with Mother or slather my body with woad and run howling into the woods.
I accepted the position that was offered, having no other offers, but permitted myself one last spasm of irresponsibility by giving no thought to the duties I'd be taking up. Instead of arriving on campus early and preparing something for the beginning of school, I dawdled until after dark on Labor Day before driving to Greer and moving into my furnished apartment.
By evil happenstance, my exhaust pipe blew out somewhere along Camby Road, so, with a majestic rumble that would have done a B-17 proud, Gleaming White Beauty dragged her muffler past Director Morrison's residence and into the Staff House parking lot after midnight, and we made our grand entrance together in a glorious shower of sparks.
Unexpectedly, I discovered that, like all teachers, I had a servant's heart. I quickly grew to love my seventh-graders. Gloria-- Big G-- towered over everybody though she probably weighed less than eighty pounds. Born at the state psych center at Wassaic, she was limited mentally, but her jokey nature made her the class leader. The neatly-dressed Rose with the ramrod-straight posture was my most intelligent pupil but didn't tolerate a fool and was often sarcastic. Shy Roslyn needed to see a speech therapist but Greer didn't provide one. Big G's best friend, heavyset Lorraine, was unfailingly even-tempered.
Nearly 16, Lorraine's brother Sherman was the oldest in the class. His goofiness made everyone laugh. Sherman collected arcana that he said would come in handy when he went to prison, such as how to fashion the New York Times into a lethal weapon. Ricky fouled the air with his gases whenever the dining hall served eggs for breakfast. When teased about his
aubergine-colored skin, he'd flash his Howdy Doody grin and chant, "The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice!" (Sherman, who, unlike his sister, had what was called good skin, would reply, "But you so black, you ain't no use!") A freckle-faced redhead, cocky Andy frequently reminded the others that he was a Class A pupil, as he came to Greer by private placement
instead of through Family Court. Richard, a blond boy from Connecticut, was probably autistic, though Greer's psychiatrist never provided us with our pupils' diagnoses.
The girls were fascinated by my soft, curly Caucasian hair and gave themselves permission to touch it while conferencing at my desk. By some contrivance that I never understood, Big G and Rose divided me, the spoils, between them: in the unofficial class photo I took on Rapallo Path that October day, I see that Big G is wearing my sports coat while my fancy wide-brimmed hat is perched on Rose's head.
This is really good writing. Sadly, it's a topic that I can't summon much enthusiasm for, so it would get a dreaded form rejection but "not right for me" really would mean, it's not right for me.
I read Up the Down Staircase, and To Sir with Love, and a few other "teacher" memoir and I just don't have a taste for them. I blame this on Miss Periwinkle my finishing school teacher who made us put books on our head and march about to The Ride of the Valkyries for posture lessons.