Part Three—The Hard Years

After having taught at Oneida for 2 years, I got married and moved to Knoxville. I taught for three years at a large elementary school just across the county line. It was at this school that I learned about school politics. Not my favorite subject I can assure you. I learned that what is best for administration is not always in the best interest of the students. Frustrating.
“Red Tape” aside, I had a good time at this school. I had a wonderful teaching assistant who also became a dear friend. I could have never made it without her.
I taught one year of resource, with kids that had learning disabilitities, one year with a small group of boys that had emotional/behavioral problems and my last year with a class of more severe disabilities.
It was my last year that was the most fun. I had a little, second grade girl in my class that made the year interesting! She had cri-du-chat syndrome which is French for “cry of the cat.” (due to the infant’s high pitched crying resembling that of a cat) This is a syndrome that is due to a chromosomal abnormality. L.B. liked to lick everything in sight. That included you if you happened to be in her way:) My assistant and I spent a lot of time cloroxing the room down each day after school. L.B. was fascinated by my pregnancy that year. She would touch my ever growing belly as if she knew something good was going to be happening. Her mom would tell me that she went home at night talking about Mrs. Satterfield having a baby “in there”. I’ll never forget the day in May that L.B’s mom came to me and asked if she and L.B. could visit me in the hospital when I had my son. She wanted her daughter to see that indeed a baby was the end result. I said, “sure”, and so good to her word, here came mom and L.B. You could see the awe in L.B’s face when she saw my baby. It was precious. It still makes me smile to think about it. Last night I was thinking about her. She is 20 or 21 years old now. I wonder how she is?
The next Fall I started teaching at an inner city school in Knox County. (where I lived). The two years at this school were the hardest for me. I was challenged physically, mentally and emotionally. There were days when I didn’t know if I’d make it out alive. No, that is not an exaggeration. Little known to me when I accepted this particular position, that I would step into a world totally alien to anything I had ever experienced before. I had been hired to work with a group of nine of the most street smart, emotionally disturbed, and physically aggressive boys that you might run across…especially for an elementary school. I was trained in therapeutic physical restraint, crisis intervention, problem solving, and had the added assistance of mental health counselors (for the kids,not for me….though some days I could have used it). I should have known how this was going to go down when my first student sauntered through the classroom door. He was all of six years old, but tough as nails. (In the following story I do not wish to offend anyone with the language, but I think it is necessary in order to tell the full story. It is shocking to hear these words…and I’m sure it will shock many as you can imagine how I felt when I got it yelled at me.) “Little” John greeted me with, “HELL no! You a white bitch. Hell no! No muther fuckin’ white bitch is gonna be my teacher.” Well, and hello to you too…..and thus the school year began. I started out with a female assistant who left just a few months later when one of “our boys” hit her in the back of the head with a large book. It knocked her to her knees and caused her to see stars. She informed me that she felt bad, but that she didn’t need this and was quitting. Entered Dale. A tough man who was a huge help to me. We became quick friends. I actually liked Little John even though I never knew what the day would hold with him. One day he informed me that as soon as my back was turned he was going to break a window, get some glass and cut me. Friendly little guy, huh? It could get scary, but even more then that, it was sad. I worked hard to teach these boys their academics, but each day was peppered with restraints (for their own safety and those of their classmates) and crisis management.
I vividly remember one day when a mother came bursting through the door near the beginning of school. She did not know me yet screamed, “White bitch! You not to touch my son. I will fuckin’ beat yo ass. You hear me?” She was nose to nose with me, spit flying, and I just knew she’d hit me…I was tearing up because I was so thrown off guard by this verbal assault. After this I vowed no one would ever see me cry again. I would learn to be tough….I had to be. It was all about respect. Oddly enough, this same mother requested to go on one of our class’ field trips shortly thereafter. This class had to go on “adventure” trips where we had to work as a team. It forced the kids to confront their fears and at times it was stressful. The trip she went on was when we went caving. We were about a mile underground with our guide. He told us not to touch the walls due to black widows…we only had his flashlight and the lights on our helmets. I’m claustrophobic anyway AND I’m terrified of spiders so I was dealing with my OWN issues on this particular trip.We got to one section of the cave that was so narrow that you had to put your arms out in front of you, slide on your belly and pray you didn’t get stuck. Half way through this narrow tunnel I started to panic. Really panic. I just knew I was going to die in this hole, and for what? Then I heard that mom’s voice. “Go, Mrs. S. Go. Just do it!” I managed to get through the hole and then it was her turn. She was scared and it was my chance to encourage her. She stopped half way through. Near paralyzed with fear, yelling, “My ass is as big as a football field. I can’t get through.” I kept yelling at her to move. Just move. She did and from then on we were friends. No kidding. Just goes to show that nothing is impossible. Our next trip was obstacle courses and zip lines. Once again I’m beyond nervous. I am on a platform all the way in the top of a VERY tall tree. I am harnessed onto a zip line and told to jump. My heart was about to beat out of my chest. The instructor told me to just close my eyes and jump. My students were like little ants down there on the ground watching their brave (crazy?) teacher being the first to go. I stepped off the platform and went flying through the woods like Tarzan. Only I didn’t yell like Tarzan it was more like a blood curdling scream of imminent death. Thankfully, I made it and lived to tell the story.
This time brings back memories of threats on my life and restraining orders, being bitten by a student and having to endure a series of hep shots because of it, physical restraints that I just knew if the child got loose he’d kill me, police escorts, chasing an escaped student through the neighborhood, a drug dealer that ran through our school cafeteria and holed up in the office, refusing to come out because if he did the guy on the street would kill him. I also have sadness from this time over the senseless loss of one of the school’s kindergarten students. She was in sitting in her front yard when she was hit by a stray bullet. A drive by that took the life of a sweet little girl. At this school drive bys were not uncommon. Other schools have fire drills. We had drive by drills. Children learned when they heard a whistle to get down on the ground. One day one of my students came in totally exhausted. I asked why he was so tired and he told me that his mom wouldn’t let him sleep in his bed last night. I was indignant and made a mental note to call this mom to “discuss” this with her……until I heard the rest of the story. There had been drive bys in the public housing all through the night. The walls are thin in these houses and the safest place this mother could think of to protect her son was for him to sleep in the bathtub. She didn’t pull him out of his bed because of neglect, but out of love.
So, you might wonder if I came away with anything after teaching at this school for two years. I did. I learned that many times people act certain ways out of fear of the unknown. Change can be scary…and that everyone needs help sometimes.