From Beige to Brilliant

“...Our stories are the retelling of our personal journeys, our walks down steep hillsides into green valleys, our climbs over ridges into dry canyons, our ascents to summits and falls from rocky cliffs.” Grief Dancers by Susan Zimmerman.

I’ve heard many stories during my twenty­-seven years in Brookline. My colleagues recall childhood memories of school with delight. They reminisce with fondness their earliest yearnings to become a teacher.

Not me ­ I grew up hating school. My tiny Catholic School should have been a welcome refuge from my chaotic house, where I was the youngest with three rowdy older brothers, but it wasn’t. My school was stifling and strict. I wore a uniform and sat at a desk all day with fifty­four other girls and boys who looked just like me, dull beige, like the walls.

Because I was quiet and painfully shy, I was invisible for most of my elementary experience. I trembled when I had to do any oral reading. I was mortified when I was asked to recite the poem Trees by Joyce Kilmer in front of the class in fifth grade…”I think that I shall never see, a poem as lovely as a tree, a tree whose hungry mouth is pressed against the earth’s sweet flowing breast…” and further along, the line “upon whose bosom snow has lain…” Saying the words bosom and breast in front of the boys was humiliating.

My “all­-girls” High School brought more of the same, more uniforms, more stagnant learning, more beige. Students were conveniently arranged in homerooms in alphabetical order by last name. I sat in the middle of the same two students for all four years. I still had trouble finding my voice. The only time I remember asserting myself was when the guidance counselor encouraged me to follow the secretarial path, and I dug my heels in and insisted on being placed in the college track. I did not like typing.

My freshman year in college was a year of many transitions. I went to a public school for the first time. At UMass I was shocked to see students smoking cigarettes during lectures, using inappropriate language in class, and even challenging what was being taught. A turning point for me occurred during English 101 with Professor James Leland Grove. He was interesting, he chose wonderful literature for us to read and discuss, and even made exams fun! I remember one in particular that was four pages long. Each page was a different color, and shaped like the themes of the book that we were being tested on. It was with Mr Grove that my voice began to surface, first in my writing and then in my oral responses. He created a safe and comfortable environment for taking risks. He listened to everyone without judgement and praised ideas that were insightful. It is no surprise that I chose English as my major and registered for every class he taught. I gobbled up the poetry of Sylvia Plath, the remarkable plays of Shakespeare and literature of every genre.

Graduation from college was bittersweet because for the first time in my life, I loved learning. I had missed a lot and had a lot of gaps to fill.

After graduation, I got married, embarked on a cross­country road trip and traveled to Australia, Fiji and New Zealand before settling down to start a family. I had a variety of full and part time jobs. I worked for a phone company, sold furniture, and worked in a hospital emergency room. I had three children and started a catering business with two friends to have a more flexible schedule. I felt fulfilled in my family life, but my career path felt unsatisfying and unrewarding.

When my youngest child went to first grade, I took a job as a paraprofessional at our local middle school. I had worked for several summers at a day camp and enjoyed it a lot. I thought perhaps I would enjoy working with students in a school setting. I still harbored unpleasant memories of my own school experience, but began thinking that I could use those memories to make me a more sensitive teacher. I worked in special education settings with learning center students, pre­vocational students, and with the most disruptive boys in the school who lived in the Responsibility Development Center. These were the students many people had given up on. They were not successful in the mainstream, and spent little time outside the RDC. I worked with them one on one. They hated school and acted out frequently. The reasons for their problems were varied; learning issues, dysfunctional home lives and depression. They were difficult, but smart and funny. I bonded with them.

One student, Jimmy was especially endearing. Jimmy had low self esteem, lack of impulse control, learning issues, and lots of anger and frustration. One day Jimmy came storming back from his mainstream class. I learned that he had lost his temper and started swearing and throwing things in class. It was decided that Jimmy was going to be suspended. Later that day, after he had calmed down, I had the opportunity to talk with him. I shared that I had also been suspended in high school for drinking. He listened to my story, a story that I wasn’t proud of, but it became an effective tool for having him discuss his feelings. We discussed how good people sometimes make bad choices. He trusted me and knew that I understood what he was going through. Many teachers weren’t lucky enough to see Jimmy’s positive qualities.

I decided that it was time to get into a Master’s program to pursue a career in teaching. Lucky for me that I found the Brookline/Lesley collaborative and worked for two years as a SPED intern at Pierce and Baker. I worked with extraordinary teachers who served as skilled role models. I had found my niche. Brookline was “the lighthouse” and I was finding the light within me. I appreciated the diversity of students and cultures. When I was hired as a Brookline teacher I was both frightened and exhilarated. Was I really up to the task? Could I be the teacher that I wanted to be? Would I be able to stimulate my students intellectually, and foster their curiosity, while being understanding, kind and joyful? Could I love them and challenge them simultaneously? Could I help my quiet girls find their voice? I had many doubts.

My life skills came in handy. E.R. experience was invaluable in triaging students to the nurse, nudging out loose teeth, staying calm in the face of blood, and doling out bandaids. My parenting skills were helpful when I needed to have a tough conversation with a parent over a struggling student.

I used my catering experience and love of cooking to do many projects with my students. We made bear shaped biscuits for First Grade teddy bear breakfasts, “Stone Soup” following the readings of all the multicultural versions of Stone Soup, Ghanaian groundnut stew when we studied the West African country of Ghana and Prickly Pear cactus treats for our Hopi unit. We made Patricia Polacco’s thunder cake, Wampanoag corn bread and much more.

Over the years I’ve connected with my students over a mutual love of animals. My classroom once housed birds, guinea pigs, a turtle, an iguana, hamsters, and hissing cockroaches. When I was teaching first grade, it was Max, a brilliant but quiet waif of a child with big brown eyes, and a very dysfunctional family, who rarely spoke but told me everything I never knew about Trilobites. “Do you know that Trilobites are only an inch long, that they were extinct before the existance of dinosaurs, and they are the most diverse class of extinct organisms?” Last year in third grade, Sam informed me of the existence of Ligers. “A male lion and a female tiger mate on their own, they are not man­made.”

I am constantly learning from my students, and as much as I challenge them, they challenge me. One of my favorite learning moments took place several years ago while I was teaching the Second Grade digestion and nutrition unit. Danny was very engaged in all our activities, but wanted to know more about the spleen. I hadn’t mentioned the spleen. I tried to distract him, and said that we weren’t really going to get into a discussion about the spleen, but he wouldn’t let up. I relented by scheduling a lunch meeting with Danny to investigate the spleen. We both learned that this is a very misunderstood and underappreciated organ. More importantly, Danny needed some extra teacher time to talk about other issues that were happening in his life.

My teaching story is one of highs and lows, or in the words of Susan Zimmerman; “...ascents to summits and falls from rocky cliffs.” I became the teacher I wanted to be and created the bright classroom that I never had. I still love what I do, but schedules, time constraints, contract issues and administrative initiatives and demands can be draining. There is less time to cook and play. More time is spent assessing students than having meaningful conversations with them. I worry that my younger colleagues will lose their passion and enthusiasm for teaching before they have a chance to experience the awesome view at the end of the climb.

Our stories are the retelling of our personal journeys, but they don’t define who we are. They merely help to shape us. For years I was ashamed to tell my story, but now I’m proud of it. I’m proud that I was able to turn those beige walls to brilliant.