September 28, 2009
Six of us had been placed at the school, and we all arrive in the main office within minutes of each other on our first day of pre-service training. My eyes travel around the main office—one wall is covered with ancient, dark-brown-stained, wooden cubbies for teachers’ mail, a huge oak bench is occupied by six young children with feet dangling and eyes surveying the school’s newcomers, and two secretaries answer phones that don’t stop ringing. The antenna of a cockroach appears from underneath a stack of memos, and I turn away as my breakfast threatens. I want to make conversation with my new colleagues, but I sense that they share my feeling of being out of place, and no one wants to be the one to make any unnecessary noise in the main office as we await our assignments.
Ms. T appears from her office, perfect teeth gleaming and layers of lime and evergreen chiffon flowing. I am immediately intimidated by this beautiful, smiling creature who will later become both my biggest fan and most difficult critic.
She waves us into our office, and tells us to help ourselves to any beverages in her mini-fridge. No one moves, and she smiles widely. I will remember this moment later when a veteran teacher dishes about the school over happy hour drinks a few weeks later: “Beware. She has many faces.” I would soon come to understand her wide smile to read more like a huge question mark that left me feeling like a tiny teacher bug caught up in the web of public school bureaucracy.
It becomes clear within a matter of minutes that the school is not prepared to absorb six new bodies today. Instead of spending the day observing a master teacher in action, I find out that I’m going to spend it covering a fifth grade summer school class with Ms. V, one of my new colleagues, instead.
I excuse myself to go to the bathroom, but the ladies’ room is locked. I try another door nearby that says “WC.” It, too, is locked. I walk down the hall in search of an adult who can open the door, but come upon the girls’ bathroom within a few steps. Two of the stalls have no doors, there is no toilet paper, no hand soap, and no paper towels. Initials and words are etched into the mirror, and a thick brown and green sludge drips down the side of the wall from the floor above.
I find my way back to the main office, only to find Ms. T’s door is now shut. A sign on the door reads “My door is always open. But if it is closed, please check with my secretary to see if I am available.” Her secretary is not at her desk.
I pace for a few seconds, unsure of myself or what to do. I know my colleagues are still in the office, and I know I’m supposed to be in there, but I’m suddenly stuck in my own head about the “right” thing to do. Just as I take a step forward to knock, a tiny woman carrying a huge box runs into me. She apologizes and rests the box on her knee as she twists the knob and opens the door—without knocking, I note. My eyes meet Ms. T’s, and I know she can sense my discomfort. I look away, and take my spot at the huge mahogany surface that serves as both a conference table and Ms. T’s desk.
The meeting is over within minutes, and Ms. H—the woman with the box—waves her hand and announces, “Come with me!” I learn that everyone pronounces her name differently. I ask her how she pronounces her name at some point that afternoon. She looks at me hard for a moment, shakes her head, and says, “whatever.”
Ms. V and I are assigned to cover class 646. The door to the room arrives more quickly than I feel ready, but before I know it, we have the children turning to page four in their summer test prep booklets and are breaking them up into smaller groups to work.
I don’t know it yet, but this will be the easiest day of my teaching career.