A Year Teaching: Prelude

Honestly, I am a liar. This needs to be perfectly clear before we begin ere any misconceptions should occur. Throughout the last three years, many – if not all – of my tales, blog posts, have been . . . enhanced in some manner: names altered, timelines rearranged, conversations modified – by which I mean plucked from thin air. Mostly I do this in order to retain the humor or feelings of the situation which can never be recreated if I simply recite the events as they occurred.

Pat went to the bathroom. He brushed his teeth, noticing a bit of asparagus left from last night’s dinner. He was considering that the chef undercooked the steak before noticing the fly on the mirror. If it buzzed his ears, he would probably swat at it, but if not . . . it was too early to bother with it. And then aliens attack. Alien dinosaurs from the planet . . . um 51, Planet 51 in the Galaxy of Magni-Awesome Excitement, which is probably where the story should have begun. Not with Pat, who just between us, perishes along with much of Earth’s population when the alien dinos invade.

Anyway, this past year at Unity Middle School for Dyslexia has proved interesting enough that most of my narratives will feature little to no exaggeration of any kind – or aliens. This is how it happened, all of it. Starting at the beginning . . .

As I briefly mentioned before, last summer my sister Katie and I attended a 60-hour, lecture intensive training course for tutoring and teaching children with dyslexia. The class was taught at Kevin’s old middle school, Unity Middle, by a Miss Marsha, who lectured us for six grueling hours each day about techniques to implement multisensory learning. Sight, sound, touch, taste, and even smell could build missing neuronal pathways in learning-impaired students. Marsha chose to relay this information through hour-long lectures and lengthy commentaries concerning the pitfalls of the modern educational system.

As the only guy in a class full of women, Marsha dubbed me “The Man,” which made me feel more freakish than respected; moreover, this affection did little to dissolve the daily tedium, the constant drone of a single solitary voice broken only by the bored flip of looseleaf paper and scratch of pencils doodling.  By the third day, I began imagining myself in a comic book, my go-to daydream when I feel my brain dying: Cyclops would blast through walls, Joker would giggle behind greenish smoke, the Hulk would lift Ms. Marsha by her chair and hurl her beyond the Moon and into Mar’s Southern Pole. This would of course provide a few precious minutes of imagined silence before my senses kicked back in and I realized that she had only paused to take a drink.

Kate and I did manage to meet some wonderful people though: cheery Ms. Ellen, whose advice and kindness would prove indispensible in the months to come; Ms. Lisa, who I learned faced a bear while hiking that summer; Ms. Liz, who would help procure me a job; and the beautiful Jess, who we learned had interned at the school last semester and was a huge Jurassic Park fan.

My dinosaur collection

(Katie insisted that this was a sign from God and that I should immediately ask for her hand in marriage since “No one on Earth loves dinosaurs as much as you do.” I should mention by way of an apology to Jess that my family imagines my interests as the most outlandish and curious on Earth. It is a sad fact that any young lady, who shares even a marginal interest in comics, dinosaurs, fantasy, video games, books, or writing, is instantly nominated as a potential soul-mate. As Sean brilliantly put it once, “Murph, I think we all know that there can’t be another creature like you on the entire planet. Ergo, it’s best that you keep your expectations for marital happiness relatively low.”)

Halfway through the class, Ms. Liz and Ms. Marsha relayed to Dr. T, Unity Middle’s principal, that I was a former biochem major looking for a teaching position and that I tutored my siblings, who were also diagnosed as dyslexics. This of course procured me an interview, where I learned that the school’s current science teacher would shortly be transferred to a position in the administration offices. The school would hire me as a full-time employee, teaching science, social studies, and a course known as study skills.

Now, I readily accepted science and social studies – high school and college had planted a provincial but persistent devotion to etymologies and histories of all kinds, non-fictional and fictional alike – however, I had some concerns about these study skills classes and honestly told Dr. T so. I was allowed to give the matter some thought and return with a reply later the next morning. That night between my mother and younger sister’s reaction, you would have thought I had drowned a kitten:

“ . . . in all my years, Murph, I have never found reason to be disappointed in you. Never. Until this night . . .”

“. . . Murph, in this economy, you can’t afford to be picky or honest. If they want you to teach brain surgery to ten-year-olds, then you say ‘Okay! Where can I plug in my saw?’ . . .”

“ . . . Study skills is teaching ten-year-olds how to take notes and tests. You have a chemistry degree and a Masters in libraries and organizing stuff. Hon, I think you’re more than qualified to show eighth grades how to highlight textbooks . . .”

Once again I believe my family had mistaken genuine concern for the trepidations of a long-time student returning to the working world, much like an injured eagles released from captivity have difficulty mating because they reek of man sweat or maybe Purell . . . something like that. Honestly, I considered study skills as a much higher challenge than either science or history. To a dyslexic, study skills combine all of the most difficult skills mastered in their tutoring classes: reading, organizing, researching, comparing and contrasting ideas. Heck, most thirty-year olds still cannot manage to organize their own rooms or research anything longer than Facebook status.

Marsha frequently reminded us that good-intentions among kind-hearted but ignorant teachers often instilled more harm than good. Was it enough to simply practice copying notes from a chalkboard or should there be some multisensory component to it all? Should we begin our classes sniffing highlighters and chewing Staples’ best three-line rule? Mentioning these minor concerns to my future employer somehow seemed pertinent.
Still after much consideration and even greater parental pressure, I arrived to class the following morning ready and willing to teach science, history, study skills and . . . yes even brain surgery if anyone should ask. If any questions or concerns came to mind, it was suggested that I should ‘suck it up’ until after my first paycheck.

Note: The last time Mom disowned me occurred on November 11, 2004 after announcing I had voted for independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader. That December, Santa strangely ignored most of the video games on my list, choosing instead to bestow several tomes from Glenn Beck, Anne Coulter, and Ayn Rand.

Melissa the former science/social studies teacher dumped three large binders, full of lesson plans, into my arms and showed me to my classrooms. Melissa reminded me a lot of my sister-in-law, Tiffany: stern, organized, but very kind with a blunt sarcastic humor. I liked her instantly. After giving me the grand tour of classrooms and lab, Melissa informed me that study skills was actually incorporated into science and social studies class, thus double periods for middle school students, a full hour and a half for eighth, seventh and sixth graders each day.

“I suggest you start with science the first half of the year. The boys usually enjoy the experiments a lot, and as a new teacher, you can accrue some respect before diving into history. That’s when it gets hard as you’ll have to figure out what to do in place of the experiments. If you get stuck, crafts and videos have worked well in the past to fill in the time. Otherwise, that’s about it, any questions?” she asked.

I shook my head, unsure whether my eyes revealed any cowardice or uncertainty. Of course, my mind rattled with questions, but no one could really help me with that. I needed to stand before a room full of children and figure it all out. Frankly, I felt terrified with the responsibilities so casually tossed my way. I should mention that half the time, my siblings openly admit to ignoring 90% of what I attempted to tutor them. I desperately craved an iced tea and long afternoon at the bookstore.

Still I can’t say that I wasn’t a little excited as well. Experiments and projects began bubbling in my head. I would have a chance, an opportunity to really astound and amaze these kids, to show them some honest-to-goodness magic. And I would need every one if I was going to keep three classes of eight hyperactive pre-teens occupied for an hour and a half.

School began the following week: September 7th 2011.

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