Updated: Jan 27, 2022
My first classroom was a trailer space, a transient foundation for a permanent career. I had my work cut out for me: it was a bleak, gray, corrugated, temporary metal structure intruding upon the playground. No bathroom facilities. No running water. No covered entryway into the main building. I had no choice but to make the best of it.
My mother sits with me in late August on the empty trailer floor. Today, our work is literally cut out for us as we create the pieces that will turn the grade five space into an experience: “Going to the Movies.” Our voices echo in this hollow space. I know she’s uncomfortable on the floor; I can tell she thinks it’s dirty:
This is no place for a new teacher, and definitely no place for my daughter. Who decided to isolate her from the experienced teachers? It smells like mildew, and this floor has to be crawling with germs.
The rasp of scissors produces the colorful columns for Mann’s Chinese Theater, the letters in the H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D sign, and the “Now Showing” marquee for the daily schedule. My mother holds up a deep blue pocket folder and asks, “Are you using this for something?”
I return to the task at hand. She begins drawing something on the folder with a thick sharpie and then starts to cut it out. I am too preoccupied making wall decor to pay much attention.
An hour from now, I will discover that I can staple directly into the walls and the staples will not leave a mark. I will savor my first small victory!
The consummate, elder teacher of 42 years steers the conversation as we work. She speaks the words of Haim Ginott: “You are the decisive element in the classroom. Your moods make the weather.” She tells me she will send me a copy of the complete quote.
I respond with an, “Mmmm hmmm.” Then I remember my manners and promise that if she remembers to send it, I will read it every day. She gives me a look and then smiles.
I hope she will understand that these are words to live by for teachers, but I still remember my own chaotic first year. She will probably not have the time to even glance at it.
Years later, I will discover a laminated copy of Ginott’s quote that I shared with a colleague, after years of teaching, hanging on the wall of an office in a school with that colleague’s name and the title, “Principal,” on the door.
My mother pulls me back into the moment with: “Remember, you must “see” your students. You don’t have to be aware of exactly what’s going on beneath the surface; just be aware that something is always going on beneath the surface. So, “see” their humanity. They may not be able to put it into words, but they will sense that they are recognized.”
I am listening to my mother speak, I really am, but I am becoming more and more concerned as I stare at the trailer/classroom door. It is hung askew in a way that I realize will most certainly let in the cold and rain.
Time will prove my prediction correct, and as the carpet mildews, the flooring beneath will become softer and softer to the point I will fear one of us might fall through. A student will make a joke about there being a monster living beneath our floor, and “The Soft-Spot Monster” short story series will be born.
The room became chilly. I stood, walked to the thermostat, and raised the temperature setting. I told my mother about the sympathy I was getting from the faculty about being assigned to a trailer and made a joke about my frigid classroom actually being Siberia.
Well, at least the faculty is aware that my daughter is out here. Maybe some will check in on her from time to time. I hope they feel guilty; they should feel guilty.
As the steamy hot weather continues into the school year, teachers in the building will complain bitterly about the heat. I will think lovingly of my independently controlled thermostat and just smile in a way I consider to be very like the Mona Lisa.
The hours pass, and my mother and I transform that drab trailer into a movie-themed classroom fit for young celebrities. I finish off our creation by placing an extra-tall director’s chair at the front of the room.
Days will begin and end, children will arrive and leave, and work will be assigned and completed. Subtle, yet profound, changes in my perception of myself as a teacher will begin to shape my pedagogy. Occasionally, I will also have to address the younger children at recess for using our classroom wall as a backboard for kickball practice.
My mother cautions me about the challenges ahead. She tells me to trust myself. She hands me the small bluebird she just sketched and cut out from the blue pocket folder. She says, “Put this in your classroom somewhere you will always see it. Whenever you look at it, you will know I am thinking of you.”
It’s still there. It’s always there. Her legacy and mine.
For Sara Palmer
April 17, 1929 - December 21, 2008