The Darndest Things

“I can’t wait to grow up, get a job and make lots of money so I can get my dream car. You know what I want to be? A car salesman. That way, if I sell a car for $1000 or $2000, I would have a lot of money.”Matthew, age 7

Ahh … to be a kid again and have such dreams. I’m fresh out of college and still dreaming of the one job that will make me “a lot of money.” But for now, I’m an assistant first grade teacher at a local community charter school. And if you can’t tell from my kids’ quotes in this article (just keep reading … they get funnier and funnier), I spend most of my time laughing and enjoying the company of 26 kids who believe they already have the world figured out.

I graduated last December with a B.A. in English and a complete naïveté of the working world around me. I had done my time in Corporate Coffeehouse USA and made minimum wage in a fresh foods deli/bakery, but I kept wondering why my door wasn’t being knocked over by all the hot jobs promised to new college graduates in their commencement speech. (I will admit though, I was a typical grad … I played “hangman” during my commencement speaker’s words of wisdom … so I can’t say for sure that he promised me a hot job.) All the same, I was feeling pretty misled.

My charter school assistant teaching journey began in December 2002 when my husband came across the ad in a local newspaper. I faxed in my résumé, landed an interview and was hired all within a week’s span. I was to replace the current assistant who was heading to school to become a real teacher.

“These are drawings I did of my three fish: This is Ying, that one’s Yang and this last one is Gary.” Silas, age 7

Now, for those of you who don’t know (because I surely didn’t when I first started), a charter school isn’t a public school, but it isn’t really a private school either. We’re mainly for low-income families who don’t want to send their kids to the big public schools and who can’t afford private tuition. Many people and schools see charter schools as a waste, particularly because we’re partially funded by government money, but also because we supposedly steal kids (and money) from the public schools. To each his own, but even after spending only six and a half months in one local charter school, I experienced its advantages.

Take Lily, for example. Lily barely had an IQ over 60, had grown up learning to steal from others because she never knew when food would be around and didn’t speak in school the first six months she was there. When I arrived, she could barely read and didn’t recognize her numbers. Because she was in our small, all-inclusive classroom, I was able to work with her one-on-one every day while the regular teacher taught math and reading groups. Because she had two teachers in her classroom, she reached the end of her first grade career knowing how to read, knowing her alphabet and knowing how to count forward and backward.

“Even though we all try to act like we’re not scared, we’re really scared of something. Like dinosaurs or volcanoes.” Dylan, age 6

I was scared of something. I was scared of letting these kids down. My kids. Children who were already trying to be adults because of parental neglect were counting on me to teach them basic lessons that would carry them through the rest of their lives. They were relying on me to treat them with respect, but also to discipline them when they needed it. They expected to be loved, hugged and missed over the summer when we tearfully said goodbye. I was scared that they would leave first grade without seeing their potential, and that’s what I focused on, while trying to live up to their expectations.

My classroom, filled with 26 ripe minds, 26 desks and coat cubbies, two hard-working and sometimes frazzled teachers and one common goal of passing the proficiency tests in March, was colorful, and I’m not just speaking of our color chart and various alphabet and number posters. Each child walked into my life with a different story, a different home life and a different disorder, and I needed to learn to be able to reach each one. Because we are all-inclusive, we get the pre-schizophrenics, the stuttering kids, the low-IQs and more cases of OCD and ADD than I have ever seen. Then we had the other students (whose parents just wanted them to have more individual attention and who have no known conditions) who were mixed in, and it amazed me to see the understanding and the helpful, supportive nature of their hearts as they assisted everyone else when those kids were at their weakest.

“This is a list of things I need to do. This first one says, ‘Be punctual.’” (We ask him if he knows what that means.) “Um … I’m pretty sure it’s Chinese.” Aaron, age 7

My to-do list was rather extensive. While the other teacher taught reading all morning, I assisted the other students with their seatwork, took kids down for an emergency bathroom break, went over lessons with the lower reading groups and diagnosed aches, pains, boo-boos and loose tooth issues (who knew I went to college to be a part-time doctor?).

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I had Travis, who stuttered so much that reading a book overwhelmed him, so I would write each sentence of his reading lesson down on dry erase board to calm his anxieties. The smile he gave me at the end was worth its weight in gold because I knew that he was one step closer to believing in himself. Then I would get Natasha, who knew she wasn’t a good reader and would just give up immediately and want me to talk her through it. Over the months, as I coached her, she became more adept at sounding words out and ended first grade still not able to read all that fast, but more confidant in her own skills and determination.

We were also equipped at the school with a special education teacher, four speech teachers, an advanced reading teacher and a psychologist. Throughout the day, various children would be summoned to other classrooms for either more assistance with their studies, one-on-one tutoring in a subject they were struggling with or speech therapy to work on lisps, stuttering and mispronunciation. While the other teacher and I were their main teachers, these kids also had help on the side to further their education.

Now that the school year is over, the summer is filling their time with play and helping around the house, I hope that my students retained much more than just spelling words, fractions and editing paragraphs. I hope that they learned to believe in themselves, and I sincerely pray that each one of them knew how much I loved them and continue to do so. And is it too much to ask that they remember me for the rest of their lives? I really hope not.

“Is it cool to be a teacher? I think I want to be a teacher. I want to hurry up and become a grownup so I can. I’d like to teach gym.” Darla, age 7

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