HH Com Rd 2 - #26 (474)

Hook here

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.


A Paperback Writer said...

It's probably just me, but I soon grow bored with books that tell me everything and never let me be in on the action. You've got 750 words of telling. I might as well be reading Goodbye, Mr. Chips, as it does the same thing.
I'm a teacher, so naturally the subject interests me, but teaching is ACTIVE, not passive. Can't you write this so I can be there with you?

Anonymous said...

I was a teacher. Teachers are boring.

Karen said...

I am a teacher in a disadvantaged area ~ so every once in a while my students make an appearance in my stories (tweaked to protect the guilty, of course). The thing about teaching is that it is a hilarious job ~ I would never describe myself as having a 'servant's soul' ~ I'm far too evil for that, but I do get girls touching my hair a lot.

It's nice to see teachers as the main characters ~ a guilty pleasure maybe ~ but I think this rushes things a bit. One minute she's taking a job no one wants, the next minute she's completely accepted by her students and it's all good. Where's the first day angst? The terror at standing in front of a hostile audience while the repeater in the back row plots to throw marbles at you? Kids do not magically do what you tell them to do ~ trust and respect has to be built first. The dialogue that comes with it is what makes it funny. I'd like to see how this brand-new, very young teacher interacts with the kids ~ does she try to speak their ghetto slang and fail miserably? Does she try to set up a too-strict or too-lenient atmosphere? And why in the heck is she wearing a sports jacket with a wide-brimmed hat? Is this written in a different decade? If I wore something like that to school, I would get laughed out of the room and possibly jumped in the hallway.

If the author reads this, I hope you aren't offended by my comments. Just honest thoughts about something I've done everyday for the past ten years.

Fuchsia Groan said...

I second Karen's comments, though the narrator here is male (it's clear from the hook). This feels like an essay, and an old-fashioned one at that... except for the grand entry onto campus, the author's telling us everything and showing us little. For a full-length memoir, it needs to be slowed down, and the students' characters need to emerge through scenes and interactions. (Unless the real story is something else, and if so, there's no clue to it here.)

I'm definitely interested in this story, though. The New Yorker had an article a while ago about teachers at an inner city contract (?) school, and they had so many great stories that I wanted more.

Zany Mom said...

This is one of those 'personal taste' things. I'm not a huge fan of 'in the head' stuff and too much telling. Even if the writing is good, I want some action! Then again, this isn't a genre I usually read, so feel free to ignore me.

overdog said...

With all due respect, Miss Snark, in relation to what you've been telling us, how is this good writing? There's no action. It's all backstory. And perhaps you know the author's name, but I don't, so by the end of these 750 words, I have no indication of the speaker's gender except "sports coat," which isn't exactly definitive. I read it twice to see what I was missing. Whatever it is, it's still missing, and I'm not willing to read it a third time.

I guess it's a matter of taste. While this is well written for an essay, perhaps, it's not exactly zippy fiction.

MWT said...

I stopped reading after the third paragraph because it looked like a rundown of backstory setup. Then I skimmed past the rest of it, stopping every once in a while to read the first half-sentence of a random paragraph, noticed it still seemed to be in backstory exposition mode, and kept going. I was looking for the beginning of the actual story.

dancinghorse said...

This is a synopsis. The writing is static and the pacing feels slow even while you cover a lot of time and space in a few lines.

Write out the scenes you describe, take us into the action and get us inside the characters' hearts, not just the narrator's head. Give us sensory detail. Give us fully realized scenes with characters interacting and things happening rather than telling us they happened. Fifty or a hundred years ago, this leisurely, expository style was acceptable, but in these frenetic days, readers want a different kind of satisfaction.

I was a teacher, too, and I sure as hell wasn't boring.

McKoala said...

I'm with paperback writer I'm afraid. This was all telling, no showing and no action. I wound up skimming.

LadyBronco said...

I am generally a sci-fi, action, and romance kind of girl, but I am curiously drawn to this story.

Anonymous said...

The voting age is 18, not 21.

skybluepinkrose said...

It's all telling. I bailed early. And I loved UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE.

Anon., in 1965 the voting age was 21.

Anonymous said...

I really liked your paragraph that started "I was no treat," and the following, but the descriptions of students turned me right off--I was expecting a rundown of the first day when we, you know, meet them. I do agree that this is good writing. It's the first one I read carefully the whole way through. Good luck!

Ryan Field said...

I thought this was good writing, too.

merper said...

The voting age was 21 until Nixon lowered it.

writtenwyrdd said...

I loved the line, "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 have to take exception to the comment that the teacher wasn't provided iwth the students' diagnoses. Generally, they are provided with the students' problems so that they can design specific lesson plans for each student. Individual lesson plans are required for each special ed student (according to a couple of friends who are special ed teachers.)

The writing flowed easily and kept me reading. It's not my kind of book, though, so I doubt I'd read it.

Shannon said...

I think this was good writing - if it was in a synopsis (whoever said it read like one I think hit it right on). For a first page, it moves very slowly, and sounds like summary.

Comparing the hook to the first page, I thought the hook had a much fresher, vibrant voice. There were details here that indicated that voice - particularly the one about the car! - but it needs to be more consistent to be convincing. And I think that more showing and less telling (especially through dialogue) would bring out that voice further.

Anonymous said...

It's very good English, but I wouldn't say it's good story-telling. There's very nice style, but the suit is empty.

I'm the kind of reader who does not demand an immediate jump into the action and even I was bored.

charles said...

"The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice!" "A freckle-faced redhead, cocky Andy ..." "The girls were fascinated by my soft, curly Caucasian hair . . " these, miss snark, are examples of "good writing"? come on. don't go soft on us.

Anonymous said...

You had me riveted until the laundry list of students. IMO, right there's where the story smacked into the summary.

(Re: voting--It was an outrage that young men were sent to fight in Vietnam but couldn't vote.)

This is a subject I'd read, for sure, but it's curiously uneven. Some is beautifully written and some is limp. If the details come later...well, they should start coming right away. Between the insane administrators and the hormonal psycho kids, teaching makes your hair turn white and your guts turn inside out. Now that's drama! And comedy, and pathos, and irony...