Sunday, May 03, 2009

State Memories Project: Louisiana

I was as exhausted as any teacher approaching the end of his first year teaching. In fact, I’d say more so; in addition to being in the first year teaching, I felt terribly isolated in Leesville, Louisiana and was working through a dificult breakup. I worked hard to become a good teacher, however, particularly in Math, which was tougher for me to teach, and at the end of the year, I got an unexpected payoff.

My technique for getting kids ready for The Big Chapter Tests (that they had to pass in order to pass to the next level) was to precede the chapter test with an even more difficult test on the same topic. I called it a Math Olympic Event. I’d gear the kids up for it, and then, as I passed out the test, I’d play John Williams’ Olympic Fanfare on my boom box, gradually turning it down as the kids got to work. The payoff? If a kid got an A (on either the original test or a retake) on every single one of the Olympic Events all year long, I bought them pizza.

So it came to be that Pam, Jason, and Latasha joined me at the Leesville Pizza Hut one May afternoon in 1993. Pam was a great kid who liked my sense of humor. Jason was a troublemaker who never made trouble for me, and he was great at math. Latasha was a very, very quiet kid who busted her butt at English, where she struggled, and cleaned up at math. Latasha had brought along a friend from class, Kendra, who had NOT earned pizza, but I think she wanted to feel comfortable. Her stepdad had brought both of them. And while the four of them chowed down and talked, I chatted with the stepdad.

Artemis had had a very different life from mine. He was born in a tough part of Cincinnati and had escaped through the military. He also was one of my favorite parents that year. He was a regular at parent nights, totally supportive, and insisted on his stepdaughter trying her hardest.

Between slices of pizza, he and I wound up BS-ing about sports (my plans for my first really big baseball trip that summer), movies, our quick biographies...the stuff that people who don’t know each other will talk about. He eventually asked me how I wound up teaching in Leesville. When I answered, he said something wonderful.

I don’t remember the exact words. I wish to hell I had the transcript, because it completely made my year; indeed, it made my entire two years in Louisiana (as this entry indicates), and perhaps my whole teaching career. But I know he said how happy he was that I was there to teach Latasha. I recall him saying something about how my efforts to work with Latasha had given him hope in our educational system and—imagine my shock—hope for the future of U.S. race relations.

Wow. Who gets to hear a compliment like that--ever, in their lives?

“You have a great trip!” he said to me in the parking lot. “I’ll look for you dancing in the bleachers on SportsCenter!” We laughed and smiled, and that was the last time I saw him.

Nobody who teaches plans on having that kind of moment. We’d all go insane trying to make it happen. But at the end of such a difficult year, it made a hell of a lot of difference to my mindset. It remains the best compliment I’ve ever received as a teacher. I wish I could tell him how important it was. I only hope I fumbled my way to adequate thanks at the time.

What do you all remember from Louisiana?

1 comment:

Melissa said...

My Louisiana memory is not nearly as touching as yours. I severely injured my foot on the first day in town and spent the remainder of the week hobbling around and hopped up on pain meds. The best part? Touring the National World War II Museum being wheeled around by my husband. Yep. The octogenarian veterans walked themselves through to look at the exhibits while this youngun' had to use a wheelchair.