Every now and then all teachers need to remember why they became teachers. Sometimes these reasons raise a smile on all of our faces. Also, we all need a break from the stresses of the election and its results.
Autumn is one of those magical times of the year when everything seems to be changing for the better.
Our gardens are yielding up their delicious bounty, the heavy summer air has been replaced by an invigorating freshness and kids everywhere have been dragged kicking and screaming back to school. As a schoolteacher I approach each new school year with fresh hope and enthusiasm until something happens to remind me that this wasn’t always the case. This happened to me the other day as I was welcoming a new batch of young students to my class. I noticed a particular young man, sitting in the front row, who looked absolutely terrified. A small, clean cut young fellow in a crisp white shirt and neatly pressed black pants I guessed he was the apple of his mother’s eye. Hoping to put him at his ease I asked him if there was any particular problem that was bothering him on his first day in my class.
"Yes", he said, nervously.
"And what would that be?" I asked in my most sympathetic tone.
He hesitated a moment then answered: "You."
Somewhat perplexed I asked him: "Why?"
He then went on to tell me that ever since he was in the sixth grade, he had heard stories about what a difficult a teacher I was, how strict I was and how he had better not get on the wrong side of me. There were a few muffled giggles from other students in the class and I told the young man to relax and make his own decisions about me. Little did he know how his candid response took me back to the time I sat in my third grade classroom waiting for the teacher to arrive? Back then we weren’t told who our new teacher would be so the ultimate shock or pleasant surprise was saved until the last minute when the classroom door opened and our teacher for the year walked in.
Living in New York at the time it was a big school and there were many third grade classrooms. At the time I prayed I would be lucky and not have the dreaded Miss Solomon for my teacher. I knew she was big and scary because I had seen her passing in the hall but my older friends had also told me she was mean. During that first day of the new school year I sat quietly in my chair waiting for my teacher to arrive, my hands clenched tightly together on the desk. I remember looking down at them and seeing they had turned white because I had them clenched so tightly all the blood had been pushed out of them. Looking around the room I was struck by how quiet it was and how the other children weren’t talking, or doing much of anything. It actually appeared that some of them had stopped breathing out of fear that it would be Miss Solomon who would walk through the door. Together, we sat in silent apprehension, and prayed en masse that when the door opened it wouldn’t be the dreaded Miss Solomon.
To this day I remember everything about that classroom. How it smelled like polish and chalk, the kind of room a teacher like Miss Solomon would teach in. How the walls were yellowed with age and the lights were encased in big glass balls that had darkened with time so the room was filled with a perpetual twilight. There wasn’t a single picture or poster on the walls because that would have added a splash of color to the room and a teacher like Miss Solomon would never have allowed anything like that. Looking down at my desk I noticed it was impeccably clean. Reaching underneath I could not find a single solitary particle of gum. I couldn’t imagine what it would mean to get caught chewing gum in Miss Solomon’s class. Some teachers would make the guilty student put the gum on the tip of their nose. I just knew that that Miss Solomon would have even more humiliating punishments in her repertoire. Then it happened. The door opened and in walked Miss Solomon!
There was actually a gasp of disbelief from every one of us at how unlucky we were. The whole room seemed to shudder because every one of us started to shake at the same time. I remember all eyes were focused on the giant black mole on the side of Miss Solomon’s face. It seemed to take up her entire left cheek. Her stringy black hair was pulled tightly back so that we could appreciate every one of her facial characteristics. The only feature that was bigger than Miss Solomon’s mole was her nose. She had the largest nostrils I had ever seen on a human being. Looking up at her from the perspective of a third grader was like looking up at a great angry draft horse.
Just the thought of her having a cold made me cringe. Miss Solomon wore only one dress, shapeless and drably brown. Either that or she had many that looked exactly alike. I am not even sure if they were dresses. They looked more like army surplus tents covering up a rather large body. I don’t remember her being fat but I do remember she had the largest breasts I had ever seen. To this day I don’t believe I have seen any that were bigger or less appealing. She also wore black shoes that had very high thick heels so she looked like some kind of giantess, towering over us all, able to snuff out our insignificant little lives with a dismissive wave of her hand. Not that it would have been necessary for her to go to the trouble of raising her hand.
Miss Solomon’s breath was known to be almost fatal. When she talked to you directly the best you could hope for was to hold your breath and try to remain conscious. Later on in life I found out that the unforgettable odor could only come from the freshest of garlic. She tried to mask the ghastly stench of her breath by covering herself with the cheapest smelling perfume known to the entire universe. I was convinced at the time, and still am, that if she was ever to run out of gasoline all she would have to do was pour some of her perfume into the gas tank of her car. Needless to say I was as terrified.
The moral of the story, of course, is that Miss Solomon turned out to be one of the best teachers I ever had. She taught me to love books and she taught me to love good writing. She taught me the importance of good grammar and sentence structure. She showed me how the written word carried within it the magical ability to become power. To move men and women to tears or to action. After the first month of her class I absolutely adored coming to school because every one of Miss Solomon’s classes was an adventure in discovery and self-realization. Before Miss Solomon’s class I came to school only because I had to. After Miss Solomon’s class I had a whole new appreciation of learning for its own sake. It was Miss Solomon who taught me the importance of education, or in her words, the importance of discovering what it was that made us human.
Ever since Miss Solomon, autumn has been one of those magical times of the year, when I look forward to going back to school, and I try to bring to my students the same hope and enthusiasm Miss Solomon brought to me.
Memories keep on bouncing back in my head when I try and eliminate them in case I need some room for new memories. I started to laugh when I thought about my first job.
Jim Fabiano is a retired teacher and writer living in York, Maine