The Other Side of the Desk
t occurred to me this past February that I had begun my teaching careerfifty years ago. When I translate fifty years into half a century, it seems almost impossible that so many years have elapsed, but the calendar doesn’t lie. Thinking of those years, my thoughts drifted back to the beginning, in February, 1956. Not quite 21 years old, I began teaching at Wilton Junior High School, also known as J.H.S. 30. While a senior in college, I had taken and passed the Board of Education tests as a substitute teacher of English in high school and junior high school. My only teaching experience had been one semester as a student teacher at James Monroe, where most of my time had been spent observing a veteran instructor.
Near the end of January of that year, I received my teaching license and almost immediately received phone calls from several Bronx junior high schools. At each of them, despite being licensed in English, I was asked to teach math or other subjects for which I felt unqualified. Then I was called by the school secretary from J.H.S. 30, located at Brook Avenue on the corner of 141st Street. Over the main doorway, the name Wilton Junior High School had been chiseled over the original name, Walton High School. The building had been the original site of Walton before it moved to its present location. I remembered that my mother had gone to the original Walton when she lived at nearby Brown Place as a girl.
The building seemed old even then, worn down by the thousands of students who had walked its halls, sat in its fastened, stationary rows of desks and written across its dusty chalkboards. I was ushered into the principal’s office for an interview which consisted of two or three cursory questions, after which I was immediately hired. I was told to come back a week later on February 1st and would be then given a program and the slotted, red Delaney Book and its cards to be used for taking attendance.
I had worked part time after high school and had worked at night in the post office all through college, but this was to be my first full-time job, and my apprehension mingled with excitement at the prospect of teaching English to classes of my own. Even now, I think of teaching English as an enlightened form of sharing, a desire to pass on to others the love of language, the excitement of books, the power of ideas to shape thoughts, and the continuation of valuable traditions. To say the least, my expectations were high as I awaited my first day in the classroom on the other side of the desk. I could hardly wait.
Living in the East Bronx, I had just a short subway ride from Whitlock Avenue to Brook Avenue, or, if I wished, could take the 7th Avenue Express at Freeman Street to Third Avenue and 149th Street and walk the few blocks to the school. I knew little about the neighborhood except that it was not far from St. Mary’s Park and the Hub, where my mother used to shop at Alexander’s or Hearn’s, and that I would often switch at that stop to take the Third Avenue El down to high school. Now that part of the Bronx would occupy my time and thoughts for much of the day, and often well into the night.
Something I learned immediately as a new teacher is that the newest, greenest teachers often begin their careers with the most difficult programs. I was no exception. Arriving early the first day, I received my first shock: the principal, Ray Krakauer, who had hired me, had retired as of February 1st. Then I received my program. I was scheduled to teach English, Reading, Social Studies and something called Group Guidance to Class 7-13. To my dismay, I would be teaching the same group of students all day long. Only later did I learn that the higher the exponent of the class, the less desirable was the program (i.e., classes 7-1 through 7-13 would represent the extremes of abilities and the difficulties of teaching those classes).
So, armed with my Delaney Book, attendance book and metal box of health records, I entered Room 305 to begin what would be a thirty-five year career. At eight o’clock, the students began noisily filing in. I wrote my name on the board and began calling the roll. There was Gladys Flores, a spitfire determined to make my life miserable with her constant shouting out. And Deloris Caldwell, who informed me at once, “I am bad, I was born bad and I will always be bad.” Nothing in my experience that semester disputed her assertion. I then asked where all the boys were. A roar of raucous laughter ensued, reaching a crescendo of hilarity. It was only then that I learned that Wilton was an all-girls junior high school. No one had told me.
Nothing can really prepare a new teacher for the first year in the classroom. By the end of the day I was exhausted from trying to impose my will on the class in an attempt to get a semblance of order. They shouted out, talked to each other, snapped gum with a sound that duplicated lightning strikes, and generally ignored anything I tried to teach them. Foolishly, I tried shouting over their shouting, only to be ignored while straining my voice in the process. My immediate supervisor, an assistant principal who had once taught French, was more of a problem than my students. She would reprimand me in front of my classes, and when she observed me would ignore the lesson in her criticism and complain about chalk dust on the ledges and the size of the window openings. Each week I spent hours typing up lesson plans to be submitted to her, which would then be stamped and returned to me. I later learned that a special ed student had the task in her office of stamping the plan books and sending them back without ever being looked at by my supervisor.
Halfway through my first term, desperate and already considering another career, I discovered my secret weapon. One Monday morning I stood before the class of wriggling, shouting girls and said...nothing. Not a word, not a syllable was uttered. Gradually, the customary roar diminished until it stopped completely. I remained silent, a sphinx in a crew cut and a Harris tweed jacket. Finally, one girl actually raised her hand and said, “Say something.” I maintained my mute pose for a few minutes longer and then began to whisper. The kids were so used to being yelled at in school, on the streets and at home that the one thing that bewildered them and caught their attention was the soundlessness of complete silence. We were finally ready to begin.
I can’t say that my career took off like a rocket once that insight occurred to me, but for the first time I had begun to instill a sense of order in the classroom after realizing that teaching is impossible during chaos. For the next four years, with time out for military service, as my students learned from me, so did I begin to learn how to teach, a process that never really stops. September of next year will mark fifty years since Wilton Junior High School came to an end and its successor, Alexander Burger J.H.S. 139, was opened directly across the street. In a kind of bucket brigade, we carried books and supplies from the old building into what was then a gleaning new structure, with blue panels outside the windows and a large, open schoolyard. The school was not only a new building, but for the first time was now co-ed, with neighboring Clark J.H.S., formerly all boys, now co-ed.
In February of 1961 my real teaching ambition was fulfilled when I began teaching at Evander, where I would be for the next fourteen years. I had passed the regular exam, consisting of a six-hour written exam, an oral exam, a teaching test and the only task missing was pulling the sword from the stone in order to gain my appointment. Coming in February, the midpoint in the school year, I again received the least desirable program, but I didn’t know it then and I didn’t care. It was where I had always wanted to be.