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Twenty Years of Teaching

July 5, 2016

This school year marked by 20th as a teacher.  I estimate that in those two decades, I have taught between 1600-1700 students.  Many of them I remember, and some I do not (which is embarrassing when I cross paths with them at the grocery store).   Some have become teaching colleagues, at least one went on to win an Emmy Award for computer animation, and others turn up in a number of surprising places.  For instance, one that turned out to be a very helpful police dispatcher when my dog went missing, and another worked at my favorite ice cream stand and insisted my money was no good there.  It was a fat and happy summer.

I started my career in 1996, which was a very different world than the one we currently inhabit.  Bill Clinton was about to run for reelection, Hillary was First Lady and still four years removed from her election to the United States Senate.  A charming and talented rapper turned actor named Will Smith was just on the verge of becoming a bankable superstar.  This new invention called the internet was very exciting—or, we hoped it was, because to try to use it usually took three hours to log on via phone line.  And just as you were about to reach your first World Wide Web page, someone would pick up the phone and there went your connection.  Certainly, the idea that we would carry the internet in our pockets was a technological advance deemed unthinkable just twenty years ago.

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When I walked into a school for the first time in August 1996, it was not at the tiny, rural school I have taught at the last 19 years.  I was interning at an inner city school in New Haven.  This school had 900 students, and probably 800 were African-American.  Others were African immigrants, some were Hispanic, and maybe a half-dozen were white.  The school, like many underfunded schools in impoverished neighborhoods, had problems.  Certainly not “Joe Clark with a baseball bat” problems, but there were issues nonetheless.  The building was old and in decay.  Many of the classrooms were outdated.   A number of the teachers were burned out, and running out the clock to retirement.  There were students living in shelters, others haunted by broken families, some coping with the gunshot or stabbing deaths of family members.  One student was reportedly the local drug dealer—his rare presence in school and the fact that he drove a brand new Acura only fueled that speculation.

But there was hope as well.  There were a number of students who wanted to learn, and viewed education as (Jamie Escalante once put it) “The Great Equalizer.”  Some of them wanted to return to the neighborhood after graduation and make it better, to be good role models for the young.  There were a number of teachers who were not burned out—many worked very hard to give their best to their students, and the students knew it.  It was a great environment to learn to be a teacher, because students didn’t wait to see if you were worthy of respect—they presumed you were not and then you had to prove otherwise.  If you had failed to do so, they would let you know in no uncertain terms.  I had failures, of course, but I also had successes.  At the end of my year, I was certain I wanted to be a teacher.  It therefore may have been the most important year of my career.

I have stories and even a scar from my time in New Haven.  I once broke up a fight between two female students and one of the combatants’ fake fingernails ended up lodged in my arm.  The story I remember the most, though, involved an aspiring DJ named Laurence.  Laurence didn’t care much for school, but he was popular, and loved to make people laugh. He certainly had the passion for music and the personal charisma to be a good DJ.  He already had business cards at age 16, which he loved to share with his teachers.

My year in New Haven was a challenge in a number of ways.  I was going through a divorce, and the stress of that combined with learning a new career, taking night classes at a nearby university, and a two-hour daily commute began to wear on me.  I know it was starting to show, even though I was doing my best not to let it.  It was during one particularly bad day that Laurence sauntered up to me in the hallway.

“Hey, Mr. Brodie.  I gotta question for you.”

“Sure.  What’s up?”

“Hey, what does DNA stand for?”

I was very excited.  This was going to be one of the very first teachable moments of my young career, and I was ready with an answer.  “It stands for deoxyribonucleic acid.  It’s a molecule that carries all of our genetic information—“

“No, man,” he said, in mock impatience. “That’s not what it stands for. You want me to tell you what it really stands for?”

I wasn’t sure where he was going with this, but how else could I respond?  “Sure.  Tell me!”

“It stands for… Dis Nigga’s Attractive!!!”

Extremely pleased with himself, Laurence strolled away. I stood in the hallway, and could not stop laughing.  I did my best to stay focused the rest of the day, but I couldn’t.  Each time I thought about Laurence’s joke, I giggled.  And I couldn’t get it out of my head.  It kept me tickled all day.

I don’t know if Laurence perceived my mood, and thought I needed a laugh, or I was just conveniently in front of him, but it was just what I needed that day. It’s funny to think that he’s now in his mid-thirties.  I don’t know what happened to him—I’d like to think he made it as a DJ, but mostly I just hope he’s happy.  I doubt he remembers that day.

All I know is I’ll never forget it.  And when I think of the year I spent at the high school in New Haven, it’s still the first thing I think of.

 

 

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Patty Rankin permalink
    July 5, 2016 2:38 pm

    Thanks for sharing such an endearing piece of your life! Happy Anniversary, my friend!

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