A Day In The Mind of A Teacher
The restaurant was classy, the food excellent, the company, well.... her best friends. “Then why can’t I get into the spirit of the party?” Jess wondered to herself. Especially since the purpose of the party was to celebrate her retirement.
“That’s probably what it is,” Jess thought, “the bittersweet aspect of a retirement party, especially when I haven’t even reached the ripe old-but-constantly-sounding-younger age of sixty.”
When the profession was education, though, that’s how it was done: the “veteran” teachers, those who had taught for thirty-plus years, were expected (and encouraged by some attractive retirement benefits) to move aside to make room for the “young blood,” i.e., the newly graduated crop of enthusiastic young teachers who needed jobs. Most of the veteran teachers were ready to move on, if truth be told. Actually, when she thought about it, Jess had been in move-on mode for the last couple of years. Then why was she so.... what was it?....sad, melancholy, even a tad depressed?
“And now,” the woman sitting next to Jess rose and raised her glass, “a toast to one of our favorite teachers, Jess Korpics.” Everyone responded in kind, and the woman continued, “Who would have thought when she started out that she’d last this long?” Everyone chuckled. “When you think back on all the students she’s taught.....”
“That’s it,” thought Jess, “all the students I’ve taught. That’s the reason for this strange mood I can’t seem to shake.” As the speaker continued with her tribute, Jess’s mind wandered back to the beginning of her career.
As the mind wanders....
She had been just twenty-two...twenty-two!...years old when she’d been offered her first job teaching social studies to high school sophomores. That first year and the year after were pretty much of a blur. She remembered that she’d been pleasantly surprised at how much she’d enjoyed the profession; she even remembered some of the students’ names from back then. She had been so busy getting used to the rules and procedures plus mapping the best route to and from the five different rooms she taught her classes in each day, that there was little time to worry about the teaching part. Actually, that part had turned out to be kind of fun, especially when the kids (the “kids”, of course, had been only a few years younger han she was back then) responded to a particular lesson with enthusiasm.
It seemed that as soon as she had adjusted to the whirlwind world of education (so much of which, she quickly had learned, had so little to do with education) and was starting to relax, she was transferred to the middle school, thanks to “seniority issues.” At fist she had beenreally upset- and, she admitted to herslef, terrified. Everyone knew that middle school kids were much tougher to reach than high school students, and middle school- that’s what she’d been assigned- was the worst. They truly were right in the middle- no longer kids and barely teen-agers- a dangerous position to face from the other side of the desk.
She returned her focus to the speaker, who was saying,”..... and you, Jess, bless you, have had the privilege of dealing with some of the most ‘challenging’ adolescents who have ever gone through the school.”
“If you only knew,” thought Jess. After all, the speaker, Pam Norris, had only been teaching for about ten years. Pam had been a kid herself when Jess had been blessed with the likes of Edwardo, and Manny, and Lacey, and Jack, and Rosie..... the list went on. And then there was Luis.
Luis had sauntered his way into class that first day fifteen minutes after the bell had rung. It was obvious that he wanted to make an entrance from the way he had stolled with nothing more than confidence- no backpack, no notebooks, not even a pencil- right up to her desk.
“You must be,” as Jessica glanced down at the seating chart she had so carefully assembled, she noted that there was only one empty seat, “Luis,” she pronounced.
“Maybe, yo,” the boy shrugged as he looked right at her.
“Excuse me?” she couldn’t remember any other student having made an entrance quite like this.
She’d cut him off. “I heard what you said. First seat, last row.”
“What if I ain’t this Luis dude?”
The rest of the class seemed to hold its collective breath. Nobody messed around like this until at least the second week of school.
Jessica slowly stood. “I guess if you ‘ain’t’, perhaps you need some directions to the principal’s office?”
“Relax, yo. I was just messin’ wit you. I’m Lucky Luis.”
Jess straightened. “First of all, my name is not ‘yo,’ and second, if you want to stay lucky, Luis, I’d suggest you get to class on time.”
The boy moved a few steps closer, looked her in the eye, and enunciated clearly, drawing out each syllable, “Whatever.”
And that was the beginning of her year with Luis Santana.
Pam finished her speech. Carol Anderson, Jess’s English-teacher friend, rose and read an amusing poem she had written for the occasion. The poem ended with,
“Now nothing’s left for Jess to say,
‘Cept, ‘No more students! Happy day!”
Jess applauded and laughed with the rest of the group, but her laughter was bittersweet as she reflected on the last line of the poem. She remembered to put her mask of “overjoyed composure,” the manner she’d mastered over the last few months, back in place as she rose to thank her friends and colleagues for such a thoughtful retirement tribute.
Later that evening, as she was driving home, her thoughts returned to her former students, some of whom continued to stay in touch. The students- most of them, anyway- were the reason why she had found teaching so worthwhile. Of course, she loved her subject, social studies (she still couldn’t get used to that: ‘social studies.’ When she’d started her career, it had been ‘history.’) , but when she started out in the field of education, she hadn’t been particularly sold on the idea of working with kids on a daily basis. Back then, though, there weren’t a whole lot of career chocies for women. In fact, the only other choices were in the secretarial and nursing professions, and she knew those weren’t for her. Once she’d gotten accustomed to having ‘clients’ who called her “Miss Bodrel’ and then ‘ Mrs. Korpics,’ she couldn’t see herself doing anything else. The kids- many of them hadn’t been ‘kids for some time now- made it all worthwhile, especially the needy ones, like Luis.
She wasn’t sure why her thoughts kept returning to that one student. She sighed. It probably was because she hadn’t heard from or about him since he’d moved from the area after she’d taught him eighth grade social studies. At least he’d made it out of eithth grade- not wihtout a struggle, of course.
By the middle of the school year, Luis had shown remarkable progress. Well, at least academic progress. He had brought his grades in all his subjects from F’s to A’s and B’s.
His behavior was another story. Jess had suspected that was because, among other things, when he had proudly taken his Honor Roll report card home, the reaction had been far different than he’d hoped.
“Why you wastin’ yer time on that book stuff, boy?” his father had said.
Jess had learned about Luis’s family’s reaction to his academic success weeks after report cards had been distributed, when Luis had reverted to his old habits of coming to class multiple times totally unprepared: no books, no homework.... nothing but The Attitude. Finally, she had assigned him after-school detention; she was mildly shocked when he actually showed up.
“Luis,” she began, “I don’t get it. All the progress you’ve made.... you’re so bright. Why the sudden change?”
Luis sat, silent, for a good five minutes. “Why bother with this crap?” he spat out. “Nobody cares anyway.”
It had taken another half hour before Luis revealed his father’s reactiion to his report card.
Fo once, Jess was speechless. Finally, she said, “Luis, I’m so sorry. People do care, you know. I’ve heard several of the other teachers commenting on the incredible changes they’ve seen in you. Why, Mr. Franzi says that you’re one of the brightest kids in his math classes.”
Luis remained silent.
Jess knew she had to do something, or the boy would be lost forever. After considering and disgarding various options, she grasped at what she saw as the final straw. Luis needed to feel..well, ‘needed’, and appreciated, too. So she asked him to do her a favor’: would he please serve as student monitor/tutor for the new homework club she was organizing? She held her breath as she watched him start to turn away. Just as quickly, he turned back around and looked her in the eye. “I guess I could do that.”
And that marked the point where she assured herself that Luis just might have a chance. At the end of that year, when high school course selection was done and with a successful academic year under his belt, Luis had scheduled an impressive array of subjects for the following school year, his first year of high school. He had even been tested for a couple of Advanced classes. When September arrived, however, Jess heard that Luis’s family had been evicted from their apartment during the summer. They had just seemed to vanish.
Jess sighed. “Time to return to the present,” she thought, “and tomorrow’s final faculty meeting.” It would be her Last Day At School.
Jess turned off her alarm clock an hour before it was set to go off. “Might as well get up,” she thought. “Can’t sleep anyway.”
Her husband Len turned over and groaned. “Time to get up already?”
“Sorry, Hon. I couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d might as well get up.”
“Too keyed up, are you? Want to go out for breakfast before your last day of work?”
“I don’t think so. I guess I’ll just sit around and feel sorry for myself until it’s time for school.”Funny. She had never considered it going to “work.” She always had said, “I’m going to school.”
“Feel sorry for yourself?!” Len sat up. “Are you crazy?! You’re retiring, for heaven’s sakes! Do you know how many people wish they could say that?”
Jess considered his question and replied, “You’re right How about a dinner celebration, though? I want to take my time and look presentable for my last day .”
She did take her time getting ready, but Jess still found herself among the first of the faculty members to arrive at school. There was nothing she had to do, since she had been clearing out her desk and cleaning up her room for the past few weeks, so she decided to pour herself a final cup of coffee from the much-used coffeemaker in the faculty room. Then she headed with her Comfort Cup of Coffee to her final faculty meeting in the library, which gradually filled with the sound of chatter.
When 9:00 arrived, the principal, Martha Coletti, entered and called the meeting to order with, “Well, looks like we made it through another year relatively unscathed and obviously cheerful.”
Her comment was answered with amiable chuckles from the faculty.
“ For our first order of business on this last day of school, I have the privilege of introducing to you our new superintendent, who is coming to us from quite a distance away.” She turned to the door to the library just as a tall, dark-haired gentleman was entering.
Jess did a double take. No. It couldn’t be. The man was heading towards her.
“I wanted you to be the first to know, Mrs. Korpics.”
She rose to return Luis’s hug.
“Keeping this secret was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do,” Ms. Coletti said with a smile, “but it definitely was worth it.” She paused. “For those of you who look totally confused, and for those who think our visitor looks familiar, let me introduce our new superintendent, Kendall Middle School alumnus Luis Santana.” The room erupted in applause as Luis Santana, his former social studies teacher in tow, moved to the front of the room.
“When I left this school,” he said, I vowed to make this woman,” he put his hand on Mrs. Korpics’ shoulder, “proud.”
Jess shook her head as she dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. “So that’s what you’ve been doing all these years!”
“Absolutely,” he paused,”....yo.”
“I guess detention’s not an option anymore,” Jess laughed.
It turned out that when Luis, who had been acting as Assistant Superintendent of Schools in a dsitrict several states away, had been offered the position of Superintendent of his old school district a few weeks ago, he had put just one condition on his terms of empoyment: that the information not be released publicly until his former teacher knew. When he’d learned that she planned to retire, he saw her last day of school as the perfect time for her to find out.
After Jess had returned to her seat, Superintendent Santana briefly addressed the faculty, emphasizing that his dream had always been to return to the place where the seed of that dream had been planted. He ended his informal speech with, “Thank-you all for welcoming me so warmly and thank-you, Mrs. Korpics, for giving me the tools that made this possible.”
Jess Korpics shook her head and smiled. “No, Luis. Thank- you. Now I can retire.”