When the school is examined, or all must go through some exercise in the public hearing or view, you must not be absent, in any event, without first procuring the teacher’s consent; if you should, you are out, and out you’ll remain till the Superintendent admits you again.
—from “Rules for Scholars,” issued by the Public Schools of Atlanta, 1871
It's the last day of school and everybody who gets an award for something gets a certificate that says what all they all did so well. It’s signed by Lurlene and the teacher they did it for. This definitely ain’t the day where you wear coconut bras.
I think I just said it was the LAST DAY OF SCHOOL. Give me a moment … to feel sad and excited. I’m mixed. I really am.
Anyhow, after we hand out the awards for the seventh and eighth graders in our great room, with the seventh and eighth graders on one side of the room and the parents on the other, we all head up to the gym for speeches and music and more awards and then you can go home at noon.
Lurlene had all the teachers lined up in the front of the great room in chairs, facing the kids, and it’s fun to watch their expressions while they’re looking over to the their right at Lurlene while she’s talking. Even from four or five feet away you feel like you’re spying and come to find out when Lurlene speaks they listen and don’t mess around. They’re all gawking at her and if they’re twitching and squirming they’re not twitching and squirming so much.
I gave my awards out after Billy, Gary, Mamie, and Sally. I had five awards to give out. While Mamie was handing out an award she said about the recipient that this was somewhat of a miracle.
Good naturedly, everybody laughed, including the student, because we all know the student and he knows himself. But I didn’t know Huckleberry was good at science work until that very moment. I know he hardly ever uttered a word in the ten months I had him in class. In his own way he’s as amazing as the most articulate students in the building. Just the opposite way. I did see him smile a few times and I was always fascinated with it when it happened. It made me happy to see him smile.
When it was my turn I said it was an honor to teach every one of you and I’m proud of every one of you. I said it because I meant it. Not that it was the thing to say after all was done. I mean it. Kids have no idea how they make teachers better and I’ll bet, with all due respect, once you started to tell them they’d throw up.
I gave Hap my Academic Achievement award. I told everybody the way he performed during the spring semester was breathtaking. Every day Hap would come see me privately to see how he was doing and what he should be doing and if he was doing it right. That’s one of the reasons he made an A. It’s not easy to make an A, but Hap made it look easy. Of course, he looked nervous about it for ten dag months, but that’s Hap.
I gave my Most Improved award to Irving. If you made a documentary about Irving’s eighth grade experience in Georgia History class and you watched a little bit of the beginning and then fast forwarded to the last month you would say the kid looks like Irving but he sure don’t act and talk and ask questions and answer questions and offer up wonderful discussion items and bring in awesome show-and-tell stuff like that other Irving. Lurlene wouldn’t let me name the award Complete Transformation of a Human Being, but that’s what it is and that’s what happened. I never kept statistics on who got the chicken the most during the year but my memory says it was Irving. I’ll ask the chickens and see what they say.
My Most Diligent award went to Johnny. In my mind I have a vision of a tank that’s moving along at a steady pace and no matter what explodes around the tank it just keeps moving along with a sense of humor and responsibility and respect that I’ve never seen in a kid who could have given up and every one would have understood. Every Monday of the school year I’d ask the classes how their weekend went and it was always Johnny who told me everything he did during the weekend and even how his sister and his parents were doing. Every Monday. I never got tired of waiting for Johnny to grind through his stories in his halting delivery, and no one else did either, really, because Johnny always had great weekends and was a deep-down nice guy. I don’t believe Johnny was afraid of anybody or anything.
My last award went to two kids who wrote well five times each. I had planned on giving the award for Essay Writing Achievement to just one student, but Snap and Montene both deserved it. No one else was close to their quality of writing and choice of pictures and breadth of research. The essay assignments lasted the whole year and went along with the five reasons we determined as teacher and students about why we study history.
Even as a rookie teacher you instantly know with the first essay of kids like Snap and Montene that this is exactly what they enjoy and what they’re good at. Five hundred words or more is nothing to them. They’re just getting warmed up. And Dixie, you’ve heard those stories about teachers spending their own money for classroom business … well, I know that kids like Snap and Montene like to read, too, so I went to Barnes & Noble and got them a gift certificate each to go along with their award. Money damn well spent. Late in the year I asked Snap and Montene to give me back their essays. I didn’t tell them why. But before I gave them their certificates I held their essays in my hands and waved them around for the parents and other kids to see. I said these are what good essays look like. I glanced at Montene’s mom a few times while I was up there. I thought any moment she was going to bust out crying. I know I felt like it.
After it was all over Lurlene told everybody except the seventh graders to head up to the gym for the event for the whole school. As I was walking out I turned around to see Lurlene gathering the seventh graders around her in the two front rows. Lurlene was smiling a good smile. I know she lives for those moments.
Up in the gym I was standing in the back behind Elmo who was writing a text … Are you coming soon?
A few minutes later his mother walked into the gym.
The band played and a kid said a prayer and Skip the headmaster said a few things and then Montene started to sign a solo. She had a wireless microphone and she was walking in front of the crowd and then she’d walk up an aisle for a while and then back to the front while she sang the song. I knew she loved to sing and I had heard she was a great singer. She sang a song I had never heard before and I’m pretty good at flipping through the radio on my way to school and back every day. She sang a song called Finally. You could tell Montene was a little nervous, but I was still stunned at how good she is. She’s just an eighth grader. Fourteen years old. The song had a haunting quality to it, and her voice, when Montene hit the notes hard and true, was mesmerizing. As professional and competent as a fourteen year old singer can be. I’m glad it was a long song. After Montene finished I turned to an art teacher to my left and said, Damn … that was good.
He said … I know.
We were clapping as hard as we could.
We went back to our school houses and to our classrooms to neaten up for the summer. The last day of school for the kids officially ended at noon and with fourteen minutes to go Flavio and his mom and dad walk in. Flavio had that extra credit essay he’d been working on. It was about the history of the M-60 machine gun. Flavio’s mother wondered aloud why boys are so interested in guns. Flavio’s father said thanks for keeping him in the game this year.
I accepted the thanks but it took a few of us to keep Flavio in the game, and I thanked them for all they’ve done. They were visible parents this year. Not intrusive, but visible at the right moments. There’s an enormous difference.
After they left, Lurlene honked at me on the speaker phone. She asked me how I was doing.
I said I’m having a hard time keeping it together. I’m sentimental, you know.
We know, Lurlene said.
I asked her why she kept the seventh graders behind this morning.
Lurlene said she does it every year after the awards ceremony so she can give them a talking to about being good … chill-ren … next year.
Thanks, I said.
We’ll know when they come back, Lurlene said with a touch of extreme knowing in her voice.
She’s been at this a long time.
I neatened up The Cozy Room of Learning and went home. When I got home I refreshed my school e-mail and there was a one-sentence message from Lurlene … You did good today!!
Two exclamation marks from Lurlene. Two. Not one. Two.
I stared at the message for a long time, and then I put my hands over the keyboard and started to reply … Mail me back my dang chicken you stole … And did you know that every day after you stole him somebody asked about the chicken? About how he was and how they could get it by being a good class participater?
I started to reply with those words. But didn’t. I was hoping I'd get a contract for next year and didn't want to blow it.
Next Entry ... May 27: What's A Teacher Workday? Really