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Virginia Journal of Education

True Confessions

by David R. Denny

Back-to-school day was always big in my churches. As the minister, I would stand in the pulpit and salute the brave educators celebrating (or dreading, as the case may be) the beginning of a new year. Holding my hands high in Mosaic fashion, I would call for all the hallowed teachers to stand. Encouraging applause by my congregants, I sanctified them for another year of memorable service to mankind.

Little did I know that I would one day be one of the sacrificial lambs led to the-well, I won't say slaughter---that sounds so permanent. So, my first true confession is this: I never thought I would be a teacher. Never. Never!

How this sleight-of-hand occurred in my life is a magician's trick too lengthy to tell. All I can say is that after nearly 25 years standing in front of octogenarians in fashionable Sunday hats smiling up at me with southern gentility, I made the leap from the sacred to the secular. One day I was parsing Greek verbs preparing for a Sunday sermon, and the next day I was sitting with a roomful of bemused and somewhat confused career switchers.

I will never forget that first day at Old Dominion University, holding a thick packet of information under one arm and finding a seat in the lecture hall. I did not know anyone there. I felt so overwhelmed. A thousand doubts tore at me. Was I doing the right thing? Could I actually be a teacher? Did I really want to be a teacher? What the hell was a teacher anyway?

I peered down my row. Jim, sitting next to me, was a retired pilot in his fifties. Beside him was Jane, a nurse who had grown weary of giving injections and working long hours. On my right was Bob, a plant manager, and next to him was Judy, a lawyer. I would come to know and appreciate the talents, desire and humor of these unusual and gifted people.|

All 50 of us were called to attention by a white-haired man who gingerly stood before us and stared with august approval at his flock. He had personally interviewed each of us. We had passed his test. We were hand-selected. We were teacher material.

"It will take you five years to learn this craft," he said solemnly. "Some of you will make it. Some of you won't." I twitched. He continued. "But if you do survive, you will find teaching to be a fulfilling and gratifying career."

With those simple words, a new future slowly unraveled before me-teaching. And now that I am at that five-year mark, I thought I'd stop, evaluate my progress and award myself a five-year survival pin.

During the career-switcher program, I had taught three lessons, each one to a class of pilots, lawyers and nurses who pretended to be middle school students. My students were so well-behaved. They were eager to learn. No one slept. No one asked to use the bathroom seven times. No one forgot his or her book. They all had paper and pencil. Their ears were clean, their eyes bright, their hair combed. They smelled nice. The boys all had belts that actually held their pants up. The girls wore modest attire. They politely raised their hands for questions. They laughed at my jokes and modestly applauded at the appropriate times. Their eyes were filled with encouragement, urging me on when I faltered a little or stumbled. They were forgiving and thoughtful.

I remember vividly, during my final lecture on "Developing Interesting Characters," thinking how delightful teaching kids was. I just knew that I had made the right decision. (I'm sure by now you've detected a high level of lunacy and self-delusion in my graduate performance. Don't worry. The honeymoon bubble would suffer a brutal dose of reality soon enough).

My lesson complete, I bowed with supreme accomplishment as I returned to my seat blushing with modesty. I knew it was good. If only my parishioners could see me here. I was now a teacher!

First Days on the Job
The ceremony was over. The graduation party was an echo now. The harsh reality of employment had set in. I had to get a job. After a few dead ends, I wandered into the office of Lynnhaven Middle School in Virginia Beach. It was the last week of August. Teachers were scurrying about making final room preparations. I was without a post.

I shook a few hands in the office, presented my credentials and was hired the next day. Five days later I was standing in front of a roomful of eighth-graders. I had never taught a single real lesson. I had never grappled with a curriculum. I had never made a novel test under pressure. I had never called the roll. I thought SOL meant shoe repair. I had never walked ravenous students to the lunchroom at 1:20 p.m. I had never been mocked by a purple-haired teenager. I had never sent a kid to the office. I had never written a referral. Well, you get the picture.

But I was here. In the class. The class was full, and I was petrified. This, I guess, is my second true confession: I was totally disoriented and frightened that first day in front of those kids.

I had spoken before hundreds of people every week for over 20 years. I had led countless funerals and weddings. I had soothed thousands of grieving souls at hospital beds from Chicago to New Orleans. I had led tour groups on treks through Greece, Italy and Turkey. But that was all irrelevant now. Because at this precise place and time, I was locked inside a small room with 30 eighth-graders who stared at me as if I was the visiting ape from China in a D.C. zoo.

My first class was what the school system calls Advanced English. I learned quickly that this meant they could read and write. They were good at this. They liked it. I learned the next day that Core English meant that I had better come up with something pretty darn fascinating or these kids would be planning their next skateboard moves and putting on make-up.

And this leads me to my third true confession: I didn't have a clue what to do with either group. In all honesty, they all looked about the same to me-jeans, tee shirts, long hair, ennui. My career-switching program had done an admirable job of teaching me instructional basics. But it was all theoretical until this nail-biting moment. After all, Jim, Jane, Bob and my other switcher friends were all Advanced. None of them wore jeans, fell asleep in class or threw textbooks on the floor.

Over the years, this first impression of teenage monotony has changed dramatically. I have come to see each child as unique. Each student, I have found, has a distinct personality, a surprising way of challenging the teacher, a mood stamped with the originality of snowflakes. And here I must make a fourth true confession: I love this aspect of teaching. Every day, every class, every moment in the daily lesson leads to unexplored adventures as I walk hand-in-hand with kids on the brink of adulthood.

That first month of teaching nearly swamped me. Each night I poured over the thick curriculum guide. I couldn't figure it out! And the more I couldn't figure it out the more the panic swelled in my chest. The second night of teaching I broke out into a cold sweat while pacing back and forth in my bedroom at 3 a.m. It was not a pretty sight. A grown man sweating in the predawn hours is an ugly fresco better never seen at all.

This leads me to my fifth true confession: I nearly quit before the month was out. Honestly. I didn't think I could handle the heart palpitations, the rivulets of anguish endured each night alone, the feelings of failure that cooked my mind and tore at my self-esteem.

But somehow I slowly figured out what to do and slowly I gained confidence and peace. As the first few years have passed, I have learned to acknowledge my weaknesses and insufficiencies. At the same time, I have utilized my strengths and natural talents. And this leads me to something all teachers share-an innovative resilience that says if this won't work, I'll try this or this.

I have learned that there are very few Mt. Everest moments in teaching. Educators thrive at the lower elevations where student smiles and thank you's abound. Little student advances can be so fulfilling. I have watched clumsy writers become more and more adept at stringing nouns and verbs together into miniature works of art, often amazing themselves. I have seen dull imaginations stirred in playful discussions of novels. I have ridden yellow buses with energetic students on field trips of discovery. These are the little successes I have enjoyed. Each one is a peg on the steep route to the Everest peak.

Final Thoughts
Five years have passed since I first stood in that little room with two windows, a sink, a tiny television mounted in the corner, and 30 kids waiting for me to say hello. I think I can honestly say, now, I am a teacher. Maybe not the best or the most talented or the most likely to succeed. But I have touched many lives-about 500! That's a congregation.

Just this week one of the girls in my first class, now a senior in high school, came back and visited me. She sat beside my desk and told me all about her progression through the upper grades. While she talked I couldn't help but see her as she was five years earlier. She told me I was her favorite teacher of all and that I had influenced her career choice. She wanted to be a writer like me. I didn't let her see my tears: I coughed and turned for a minute. But as she left I hugged her and knew then that something real and lasting was happening in my classrooms. I was shaping lives. One at a time.

By the way, several days after this student visited me, her mother showed up at my door during third bell. She asked if she could do her practicum in my class. She was training to be an English teacher! I stood speechless for a second, my eyes bugging out. I was leaping across generations at light speed here. I welcomed her in with a huge grin and immediately put her to work. I watched her passing out my papers for a quiz. I handed her the red pens when it came time for the grading. She called out the answers. I saw her daughter in her eyes and stood nonplussed over the whole twilight zone scene.

And this leads me to my final true confession: I love teaching. It's not about the money. We don't make much. It's not about the recognition-there isn't much, really. But there is an inner satisfaction in this career. Each student is a spring bulb planted with care and high aspirations. They don't all bloom, but when they do it's a better than a Bourbon Street party.

Denny, a member of the Virginia Beach Education Association, teaches at Lynnhaven Middle School.



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