The day I joined as a teacher at P.S 18 (Public School 18) in New York was a decisive day for me. I came from a small town in Buffalo and New York really awed me. My friend, who was teaching at a nearby institute, had warned me about the big bad city and the kids at my school.
They were a hearty bunch of future hoodlums, he warned me. I laughed away his warning. My heart was full of hope at the thought of shaping the minds of tomorrow.
Brought up on the classic, E.R Braithwaite’s ‘To Sir with Love’, I had always felt that “us-American” – which included “us Indian Americans” as well – were far better than the British brats that the black teacher had had to deal with.
First day. I entered room 9A. It was so quiet that I wondered if I was too early or if it was the wrong room. No. The number was all right. I stepped in cheerfully.
A duster flew by nearly knocking my head off. Chalk dust lightly dusted my face. I back peddled fast. Picking up courage after a long minute I stepped in less confidently this time. Hesitantly I asked, ‘is this 9A?’
Having confirmed my suspicion, I walk to the board and write my name in block letters – A-N-I-T-A N-A-Y-A-R.
“Who’re you?” this from an angelic face.
“Are you Mr George? We’re supposed to have a Mr George.”
“I’m Miss Anita. Good morning.”
Suddenly a hand shot up. “I don’t belong here. My mom told me I should be taught things by a man.”
I was pushed from behind by a tornado in checked shirt and denim jeans. “Hey, who stole my chair?” and looking at me, “What’s your name?”
Controlling my indignation I replied as politely as I could, “Its on the board.”
“I can’t read your writing. If I could, would I be here?”
“Okay, stop shoving at the back. Class, I am your new English teach…”
“No wonder! You speak differently.”
“..cher. And, perhaps, for history as well. (‘God forbid!’ this from the back of the class). Please come to order while I take your attendance. Please fill out these forms with an ink pen for submission to the administration. I will collect them at the end of the class. Any questions?”
“I got no ink. Can I use pencil?”
“I don’t remember my address!”
“Someone stole my pen!”
“Should we fill it right now? My lawyers say never give out any information and always take the Fifth (amendment).”
Suddenly, there was a commotion. “Hey, teach! Johnny just wet his pants.”
Ha, ha, ha! Roared the class. Poor Johnny was looking murderously at Jeff Blaum. Jeff had poured a glass of water over Johnny.
“Johnny, take this pass and go to Nurse for a change of clothes.”
Then the bell rang. The mad rush nearly knocked me down. The older ones sauntered out at the end, giving me a once over to freeze me.
What had I let myself in for?
In the melee a tiny voice perked up. “Hey Miss! The bell is not for us.”
I was torn between correcting ‘shaddup’ and hauling the boy for saying it.
How did I get into this mess? Suddenly a hand went up. “Can I be given a toilet pass, please?” The ‘please’ did me in. It was a tall girl in pigtails.
Back to class. “This week, we will do a small test on creative writing. Write on anything you feel like.”
“Can I write about my brother who is in jail?”
“Yes, you can, you can even write a letter to him, if you want.”
“But teach! How he gonna read? He never went to no school.”
“How is he going to read it? He has never been to school,” I corrected.
This time the bell really rang. Thank God!! One hundred and ninety one
more days to go! Would I make it?
“Hey teach! Abyssinia!”
“What did you say?” I asked. I couldn’t believe my ears. Did this person really name an African country? Had I underestimated them?
“I said ‘I’ll be seeing ya. You see? It’s the same as bye bye or Adios.”
I rubbed my forehead to ease the pain as I slowly walked down the hall to my room. Thank god it was the end of the day. And what an appalling day it had been! I tried to imagine what it would be like day in and day out. It was too awful to imagine.
At home, after kicking off my shoes and switching on the remote, I opened my bag to take out the class assignments to read. And the first one I read went something like this:
“If you want to know something, why don’t you look it up at the library instead of asking it of us? After all, you are the teacher!"
I had to laugh at this one: “I have a Serb teacher for History, an Englishman to teach French and an Indian-American to teach English. If only you all knew your subjects well and what you were talking about, I could get some education."
“You are the best looking English teacher we have had in a long time. It’s my heart saying it, not my mouth.”
“I always get low marks because teachers test me when I am unprepared. Tests are spiteful and given to keep the class quite I think.”
And the best for the last:
“dear bro’, howse youse man? School be fine. Am learning my R’s. Grrrrrrr! Mr George didn’ come today. A nice looking lady took class. She was real cool, man. Don’t know if she be lasting long. Not after today, am sure. Otherwise school’s dull. See my English be improving allready? Dunked ten baskets at the court. Ma’s fine. She wants to know what you be wanting coz she come visiting Saturday. Have Mr Cooper read this man. He be nice guy. He teach me tricks last time. Miss you around. ‘dios."
I knew immediately that the class act was a show to keep their tough fronts up. So I was “cool”, was I? I closed my eyes. Perhaps I was jumping the gun. Didn’t Braithwaite struggle to establish himself for years before he was accepted? And what an uphill task it was for him, added to the fact that he was a black man!
What was I crying about after one day of school when these little hoodlums were only ragging me? I decided I would show the kids that I could last it out with them if I had to.
I would do all the things mentioned in the self-help books: count till ten, take deep breaths and even have a screaming tree at home to take out my frustration, but I would make it my business to learn how to teach. The least they deserved was to gain something in school that would give them the strength to stand up to the world in the future.
And go back to school I would.