Back to School Night

My lesson on Native Americans allowed us to make ceremonial masks.

“. . . and now I would like to introduce our newest teacher, Mr. Murph . . .”

Dr. T pauses to laugh.  A few amused smiles dance across the faces of my fellow teachers.  I politely offer a grin, grateful for a few extra minutes to map out my introduction.

“Actually, our second Mr. Murph . . . as you can see we’ve hired not only another Jess, but another Murph as well this year.  As many of you know, we already have a Mr. Murph teaching gym,” she gestured toward the grizzled man in grey sweats, two seats down; Mr Murph nodded.  “For the sake of the kids, we probably won’t change his name.  So we’ll have to think of another nickname for you, Murph.  Have you thought up anything yet?  Mr. Murphey, maybe?”

“Um . . .” I momentarily falter.  “Well, the kids have dubbed me MK . . . uh, using my first and last initials.”

“Ooo . . . I like that . . . Mr. MK,” Ms P, the drama teacher, interjected with a deep British accent.  “Kinda rolls off the tongue.”

A frown lingers on Dr. T’s face for a second or two, yet just as quickly, she returns to her sales-pitch, all smiles and gratitude.  Two weeks into my teaching post at Unity, and I still felt rather guarded toward the school principal. Though impressions varied among the staff, I treated my employer with polite respect and mild indifference.

A mass of contradictions, the woman made me somewhat uncomfortable.  Outwardly Dr. T exuded a happy optimistic enthusiasm, so much so that I had difficulty taking her seriously.  She rarely arrived to school earlier than 2PM, if at all, leaving most of the day-to-day operation of the school to the teachers; she praised my work with the children regularly, yet to my knowledge had never witnessed me teaching.  Around parents and dignitaries, she cultivated an aura of excitement, pride and love, which to this day I cannot believe as false.  Still amidst conversations and lectures, I had the distinct impression that she was always trying to sell me something.

“And we probably shouldn’t use MF, right Mr. Murph?”  Dr. T smiled motioning to the gym teacher.  A few of the parents laughed.  Others tensed at the joke.

“Anyway, Mr. MK will taking over Ms. Melissa’s position as science and social studies teacher . . . oh and study skills.  Here at Unity, our aim is to prepare your children for life without their tutors.  That’s why we created these classes for middle school students and . . . well, I’ll let Mr. MK explain.”

I stood and introduced myself, explaining the general purpose and intent of the study skills program, one which I had neither created nor felt entirely comfortable to teach.  One of the general misconceptions about studious-type people is their mastery of organization, note-taking, and deadlines.  Nearly all of my research papers were inspired by early-morning caffeine highs, hours before their impending due dates.  Unless a child powers his mind through sleep-deprivation and dry Capt. Crunch, I really had little to teach anyone.

Still, I knew the spiel, citing everything from word webs to compare-contrast bubbles to ambient noise (mostly waterfalls, jazz music and the soundtrack to Ocarina of Time – my 8th graders loved it).  My parent audience seemed impressed or at least conducive to the general philosophy.

“Murph also attended Orton-Gillingham training this past summer,” Dr. T continued as I sat down again.  “He also tutors his siblings, many of whom are dyslexic as well, right Murph . . . er, MK?  I’ll have to get used that now.”

“Yes,” I performed a mental headcount.  “Nearly four or five of my younger brothers and . . .”

“And you’re the oldest?”

“Uh . . . yes,” I nodded.

“I just want to say,” Dr. T smiled to audience.  “We don’t really do things like other schools.  We’re an odd bunch.  I personally look for teachers outside the normal work-pool.  When I learned about Murph and his family, I knew that he was perfect for this school and this program.  He’s been doing fantastic work so far, really!”

I smiled at the half-compliment, half-justification, wondering at the post-script.  Did I fail to sell my qualifications?  Were there concerns about my credentials?

Miss Jane seemed to feel my anxiety afterwards, assuring me as we walked to our classrooms that Dr. T has accrued a penchant for the oversell. Subtlety just is not in her repertoire.

Homemade fossils

We hastened down to our classrooms to await our ‘class’ of parents who were following their child’s daily schedule for the evening.  I sucked down a box of Tic-tacs, trying to keep the queasy feeling in my stomach at bay.

Several years ago a buddy of mine had warned me about parents, pointing to the whole group as his reason for leaving education (actually matches and his collection of ceremonial samurai swords were involved as well, but that’s another story).  Most he had encountered ranted and raved about their child’s poor Spanish grades and nearly demanded that he either change their midterm grade or resign.  In the end, the school board pressured by the well-to-do families decided that my buddy resign his position (remember fire and sharp weaponry were involved; although, the way he tells it, the parents were mostly at fault).  Thus, I’ve been a little apprehensive about this night, somewhat nervous and excited to hear how the kids and their parents responded to my lessons.

You see, teaching two classes back-to-back for each class had proven a little trying — some may say terrifying and anxiety-ridden, but then I’m an optimist.  Too often I would finish fifteen minutes early with no planned activities and a room full of restless pre-teens.  A classroom can devolve into a war-zone when not properly prepared: children begin to bicker, scream at one another, and even storm angrily from the classroom.   I spent nearly three months adjusting my schedule,  building a reservoir of extra lessons . . . just in case.  When in doubt, I discussed comic books and Zelda lore.  They seemed shocked and amazed that a teacher regularly played video games.

Yet despite the initial chaos, I was determined to make science and history interesting for the kids.  Too often, my siblings would return home from class complaining about the stupidity of their teachers and the pointlessness of subjects like English, algebra, European history, and chemistry.  Most teachers/parents — very few at Unity thankfully — approached education as a necessary evil like dentist appointments or taxes; kids grew up learning the school is something to be endured not enjoyed, and then everyone shudders, surprised at low test scores, the percentages of high school drop outs, illiteracy, and Jersey Shore.

We teach indifference to our children, because as educators, we lose that enthusiasm, that excitement for the world.  With the right teacher, even trigonometry can become enthralling.

Honestly — and this is purely my own theory — most learning originates within the realm of entertainment.  And teaching in part necessitates a certain degree of theater, showmanship if you will.  You may balk at the notion, as I am essentially deluding centuries of knowledge, theorems, and experimentation into one-act play, but consider the early man staring at the flashes of thunder and lightning dancing across the sky one balmy summer evening.  The wonder, fear and amazement that fueled the epics of Zeus, Thor, and Thunderbirds planted the seed for Franklin, Edison, and Tesla.  Their discoveries originated from this primordial fascination, a child’s sense of wonder.

Somewhere along the line, we’ve come to assume that children become scientists because they read something out of a book, listened intently to the teachers lectures or got straight A’s (rubbish).  I mean can you imagine your child even fabricating such a lie?

  • “Yeah, I want to be a chemist when I grow up.  That lecture on thermodynamics made it seem really cool.”
  • “I don’t understand anything Shakespeare’s sayin’ but my teacher said it was important so I think I’ll want to be a playwright one day.”

However, if you pass around a heating pad — the ones with supersaturated sodium acetate — and feel the sudden change in temperature when they pop the bag, allowing the chemicals to mix and release energy . . . then perhaps, they’ll enjoy science enough to study and experiment on their own, to let their fascination and wonder lead them to Merck or Pfizer, where they’ll craft the latest super-drug. That was my hope at least.

“I want kids to get excited about science and history,” I told the parents that night.  “Not necessary remember facts like some quiz show wunderkind.  Most of the details, with which we’re presented in middle school, is lost, forgotten.   However, the kids remember the excitement of mixing chemicals, the fascination of building Columbus’ ships.  I want my students to eventually visit the bookstore or library of their own free will and pick up a National Geographic instead of the latest swimsuit mag – brace yourselves moms, it’s coming.  If that happens, well then . . . I’ve succeeded to some extent.”

That’s it.  Then for the sake of time, I blew something up for the parents — a little catalyst reaction I’ve been saving for the eighth graders.  And for my part, everyone seemed rather impressed . . . or at least said nothing particularly horrible to me, which gave me just enough confidence to suffer through another week, when all Hell broke loose.

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