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Stories from school and college

You Never Forget The Good Ones

, , , , , , , , | Learning | August 9, 2022

My grandmother retired as a kindergarten teacher back in the early 1980s, just before I was born. Now, she was ninety-four, and I was accompanying her to the neighbourhood doctor for a general check-up/visit. The doctor is also a family friend, thus the visit was more “friendly” than “medical” and without an appointment; hence, the doctor typically lets her sit in the waiting room until he’s free enough to have a long chat with her, while also checking her medical issues out.

This time around, there were quite a few people in the waiting room, so Grandma was just chilling, reading a magazine she’d brought along. A gentleman, probably in his mid-fifties, kept staring at her. He finally mustered the courage to speak to her.

Gentleman: “Are you [Grandma]?”

Grandma: “Yes, I am.”

The gentleman turned to his wife sitting next to him.

Gentleman: “[Grandma] was my schoolteacher!”

Grandma explained that she would have taught him in kindergarten. Everyone was pretty surprised at the recollection; it would have been nearly forty-five years, if not more, for the gent to have been in her class. Upon hearing his name, Grandma shocked everyone by recollecting his childhood nickname — one that he himself had forgotten!

A second gentleman walked into the clinic, and the first immediately pointed Grandma out to him; they were classmates, so he, too, would have been in her class. He was leaving the doctor’s cabin as Grandma was called in, so he happily pointed out to the doctor that she was his teacher. Even the doctor was surprised at the happy reunions.

Later, when we left, a third gentleman, younger than the previous two, entered the clinic. He saw Grandma and immediately bent down to touch her feet. Touching an elder’s feet is considered a mark of respect in Indian culture, a method of asking for and receiving their blessings. On inquiry, he revealed that he had been her student in the early 1980s, probably from the last batch she taught before retiring.

The school where Grandma taught, our old neighbourhood, and the doctor’s clinic are all on the same block, so whenever she’s visiting the doctor or any of our old friends and neighbours, we usually bump into a few of her kindergarten students on the road. All of them — many of them now grandparents themselves — walk up to her and spend a few minutes chatting with her.

I always marvel at such student-teacher relationships: relationships that began at the beginning of the students’ childhood, still as impactful decades later; relationships that transcend generations; relationships that are still in force even after your kids have grown up and their kids are in the same classroom where you were once. It’s heartening, giving me hope for the future.

Sometimes A Face Of Stone Hides A Heart Of Gold

, , , , , , , | Learning | August 7, 2022

When I was a child in the 1980s, I went to an all-white elementary school in Kentucky; I was one of about seven or eight black children — if that! — in the entire school of an estimated 600 children. 

I wasn’t directly mistreated or bullied by other children, but most of them were always short with me and avoided me, giving me an “I’m not supposed to talk to you” look when I said something to them. I did have a few friends here and there, but for the most part, I just learned to amuse myself alone.

Then, along came our new principal, a six-foot-five black woman with an iron face permanently cast into an angry expression. For the entire six years I was there, we only saw her laugh once, and that was after someone performed a hysterical comedy act at a talent show. She always wore a long coat and would silently make her rounds throughout the school campus, not saying anything to anyone. If she came across someone monkeying around and doing something they shouldn’t, she would stop and give this soul-piercing, heart-stopping stare that would make a hardened lifer in prison piss on himself.

We… were… terrified of this woman. Anytime she’d pass by us, voices would immediately quiet and everyone would freeze. Teachers would say to persistent class clowns:

Teacher: “Do you want me to send you to Dr. [Principal]’s office?”

Kid: “NO, NO, NO, NO, NO! I’LL BE GOOD!”

On one occasion, a child started throwing a tantrum and refused to accompany the teacher to the principal’s office. After what seemed like an eternity of the brat’s screaming and yelling and “GIVE ME ONE MORE CHANCE!”, the teacher finally left the room. Moments later, the teacher reappeared with the principal.

This kid’s infantile screaming and crying immediately ceased on the spot.

Principal: *In an icy, dark tone* “Get off the floor.”

The kid complied and stood at attention.

Principal: “Pick up all those papers, books, and pencils you threw everywhere.”

The kid complied. Then, the principal pulled up a seat next to the child’s desk.

Principal: *To the teacher* “Carry on.”

And for the rest of the day, she sat next to him. When it was time to do assignments, I would hear her quietly speaking to him as he worked, saying things such as:

Principal: “What aren’t you understanding?” *Explains the task* “Okay, excellent. Now let’s move on to this assignment.”

Kid: “I can’t!”

Principal: “I’m sorry, what?” *Explains the problems more simply for him* “Correct! See? You can do it. Move to the next one.”

Meanwhile, everyone else in the classroom was working on their own assignments as if our futures depended on it.

At the end of the day, the principal said to the kid:

Principal: “Don’t make me have to come back out of my office again to deal with you… because next time, you’ll be spending the rest of the day with me in my office!”

She didn’t have to tell him twice!

One day, I was sitting with a friend outside who was telling me about someone who was picking on him.

Me: “Too bad you aren’t in LA; you could get your boys and pop a cap in his butt!”

And that was when I felt a rough tap on my shoulder. I felt my heart stop when I turned around to see… her, burning a hole through me with that fierce stare.

Principal: “First of all, nobody is popping caps anywhere. Where are you from?”

Me: *In a choked voice* “My mom lives in California. My dad came here because of his job. I lived in New York City, too.”

The principal continued her stare and then looked down at a small bag of cassette tapes in my hands, including one with music by N.W.A., a hip-hop group.

Principal: “What is this? N.W.A.?! Your dad bought this for you?!”

Me: “No, I took it out of the car. I’ll put it back.”

Principal: “But he plays it around the house where you hear it.”

Me: “Yeah?”

Principal: *With a cold stare* “Tell him he can come to pick it up from my office.” *Walks away*

I decided to just let my pissed dad think the tape had gotten lost.

A few days later, my teacher quietly informed me that the principal wanted to see me after school. Thinking I was about to be seriously punished for my foolish comment and for bringing that N.W.A. tape to school, I dragged myself to her office and walked in, shaking like a leaf.

She motioned for me to sit, but then she began asking me questions like, “How are you doing with your schoolwork?” and, “How are things at home?” and, “I notice you are usually by yourself. How are the other kids treating you?” It was much like what you’d expect from a school counselor.

The following day in the cafeteria, I was eating by myself when the principal walked over, picked up my tray, and motioned for me to come with her. She walked over to a table where several white students were sitting, sharply rapped on the surface, and ordered:

Principal: “Let him eat here!”

Kids: “Yes, ma’am!”

They scooted over to make room.

Principal: “What are you talking about over here?”

Kids: “Nintendo and stuff.”

The principal glanced at my shirt with Super Mario’s face imprinted on it.

Principal: “Seems like you have something in common with him already. Find what else you have in common!”

Kids: “Yes, ma’am!”

And just like that, I ended up with about four new friends.

Every week, I would be summoned to her office, where I would update her on everything going on with me and she would give me motivational talks about excelling in school, as well as other issues such as building stronger self-esteem, handling teasing from other kids, etc. Many of these talks would end with things like, “I expect to see no lower than an A on that science test, you hear?”

This continued every year all the way until I left for middle school.

Fast forward to ten years later when I ran into her while out and about.

Principal: “So, which is it, Harvard or Yale?”

Me: *Laughing* “We don’t have that kind of money. Just a community college. Hey, what made you pick me out of all those children to mentor all throughout grade school?”

Principal: “Many years ago, I had a son that was taken because of drugs and alcohol. He lived with my sister in Chicago and just let him have the free run of the city. He got involved with gangs and violence and ultimately lost his life at the age of eleven after being shot by a rival gang member. It was my wake-up call to get clean and devote my life to seeing that no other child goes down that road — not on my watch. I couldn’t help but see him when I saw your face, and when you were out there, first grade, talking about LA, gangs, and shooting people, and had that gangster rap tape in your hands… all I could think about was the cycle repeating. And I thought if I could save at least one child from my son’s fate, then the work I did to get myself where I was wasn’t all for nothing. And… it seems like it worked! Don’t prove me wrong.”

She passed away recently, which is what motivated me to write this. I’m eternally grateful for her caring that much to help motivate me to learn, make the right decisions, and try hard in my studies.

“Higher, Further, Faster, Baby!”

, , , , , , | Learning | August 5, 2022

I used to have a classmate whose first name was Marvel. I’m not kidding. Her sister was named Wonder.

Marvel hated her name, especially all the jokes and teasing we made at her expense. In fact, I’m the one who coined the nickname “Marvellous Misfits,” which our old teacher found so funny that he referred to our class that way for an entire year.

Many moons and years later, I bring my daughter for her first day at school — my old elementary school, to be precise. And guess who is her Homeroom teacher? It’s Marvel, dressed up as Captain Marvel.

Marvel: “Hi, kids! My name is Marvel [Surname], and I’m the Marvellous Homeroom teacher of you Marvellous Misfits!”

Later…

Me: “Hi, Marvel. I don’t suppose you remember me? I’m—”

Marvel: “Ah, [My Name]? Wow, it’s been a while.”

Me: “Yeah. I must say, I didn’t expect this of you.”

Marvel: “The teaching or the Marvellous puns?”

Me: “Both. But let’s focus on the jokes. You used to hate them so much.”

Marvel: “Well, I figured that if I couldn’t avoid them, I’d just have to own them. Just go with the flow, you know? It’s what my sister Wonder does, and she’s the life of every party.”

Me: “Wonderful.”

Marvel: “Exactly.”

Marvel was a great teacher. She made school fun and enjoyable for her students, really stimulated their interests, and encouraged their hobbies.

She also got every single student of hers hooked on the Marvel Cinematic Universe — some to an exasperating degree — but that’s another story.

Philosophy Is Cool, But Does It Pay?

, , , , , | Learning | August 3, 2022

I went to college at a small school where I was able to get an engineering degree and compete in track and field. Once a year, all the student athletes were required to help set up, serve, or take down a fundraising banquet.

In my senior year, one of my engineering classmates happened to be the facilities employee in charge of the student athletes disassembling and storing away the tables, chairs, speakers, and so on. My classmate gave me a friendly nod, gave us instructions as part of a rapid-fire set of directions to the general throng of young adults packing furniture away, and then hustled away to continue doing his job.

My freshman teammate made a face that could have been offended or annoyed. In fairness, he was probably tired and cranky after a long day. We were breaking the banquet down because we’d been at a track meet all day. I know I was tired, but I also had years of experience being a young woman working in customer service and a few more years of brain development under my belt.

Freshman: “Well, I’m glad I’m smart enough to get a degree so I won’t have to do a job like that forever.”

I was briefly speechless.

Me: “He’s in the engineering program with me, and he’s a veteran. He gets better grades than I do. He’s probably one of the smartest people in there.”

The freshman had the good sense to be embarrassed.

Me: “Let’s move the chairs to where he said. We’re almost done here.”

The degree the young man was so proud to be pursuing? A philosophy degree.

Like A Baby Bird Falling Out Of The Nest

, , , , , , | Learning | August 1, 2022

I was working on a dance production at university. One of the choreographers was an insufferable snob; however, he was also the publicity manager for this production.

For the production logo, he designed a small circular sun with some graceful curves in front of it, each pair of which intersected. To the entire production team, they looked like abstract birds; however, the ar-TISTE scoffed down his nose at us uncultured Philistines as these were OBVIOUSLY hills (an image which coincidentally matched the theme of his personal dance piece).

The production director was completely oblivious to the drama this guy was creating, which made this particular production meeting that much more memorable.

Me: “Okay. Next on the agenda is publicity.”

Choreographer: “The mural on the Performing Arts Center wall is being painted as we speak. The department website has been updated, and the posters are due to go to the printer this afternoon.”

Production Director: “Perfect. You know, I’ve said it before, but I love the simplicity of your design this year.”

Choreographer: “Thank you!”

Production Director: “The simplicity of those birds flying against the blank canvas of the sky is so moving.”

We could feel the rage seething within our high and mighty artist while the entire production team at the table desperately tried to suppress our laughter. He continued to insist they were hills, just outside of [Production Director]’s hearing, and with much less frequency than before.