Contains a single reference to a sexual abuse allegation. (not central to the plot)
Joshua came into my class at Our Lady of Fatima in late October. He had a late start with us because at his old school, St. Michaels, kids always called him names like “brownie” and “squirt.” I had already warned my kids that I would not tolerate name calling. But the damage was already done.
On his first day in grade four, Joshua would pick fights with anyone who so much as looked at him. He might have been a loving son, a wonderful brother, a fearless warrior for justice. But no one wanted to be his friend.
How can I justify what I did to solve this problem? It was not discussed at the parental interviews. The entire class will whisper and speak only if spoken to. The calm atmosphere and endless classroom silence made Joshua smile. Not long afterward, I could see him playing with new friends.
“Mr. Fitzpatrick isn’t funny anymore. Remember when he sneezed and the whole portable shook? I’ll never forget that! Kids fell out of their chairs and rolled around the floor laughing their guts out! Rotten portable so full of mold that when Tommy tried to burn it down no one was upset! Where is Tommy now?” said all the children.
Tommy, my prodigy. His problem? Oppositional defiant disorder. I made him my assistant. Joshua could revel in the eerie classroom silence made by children who could not speak let alone fight, while Tommy obeyed all my class rules because he helped enforce them.
Ah, how I miss Tommy now, my tattle-tale chief! Our school population was highly transient, and many parents were on social assistance. Tommy was now at his fourth new school in as many years.
Tommy’s departure from our school didn’t help the resource teacher who had been assigned to help him. Tommy made sexual abuse accusations against this teacher. His mother spent hours with administration the week before Tommy left. The simple fact that Tommy left our school would not make the allegations go away like they did in the past.
When the accusations were made, I had been teaching the most difficult part of the “Family Life program” with my class of grade fours. All those “icky things” as the students called it, were making what was happening more difficult. The entire staff at the school was so upset. The behaviors that week in the school yard were unreal too.
“I didn’t sign up for this,” complained Cathy to me when we were both on yard duty. It was getting to be so cold. Kids didn't want to go out at recess. She was the very young grade one teacher, new to our school. “I can’t take much more.”
“What exactly?” I said, as I shivered, mentally counting the minutes until the bell.
“This. Everything, this place is a madhouse.” She stooped down to take care of yet another teary-eyed primary student who had been hit by a student at the bottom of an ice slide. Then she stood up to stare at me. “Sexual abuse allegations, kids flopping around like baby seals, I barely teach. I’m just running from one problem to the next. How do you do it?”
Cathy’s question couldn't be answered. Too many things were involved. I reached for a band aid. “The number one rule of teaching is simple: Always look like you know exactly what you are doing. Fake it till you make it. Pretend. And hope you last long enough to learn some things.”
Little did I know how much I would soon have to learn myself. Shortly after Tommy left, a new principal arrived. The new 1997 standards-based curriculum was here, and everyone would have to change how they taught. Schools like ours used to get a pass. It was understood that there were good schools and there were not so good schools. Given the number of problem students, no one expected more from us than our best effort. That was about to change.
It wasn’t so much what the new principal said that had the whole school staff aflutter though, it was what she did. She started sitting in on all the teacher’s classes. I always thought that when your boss supervised you closely, that meant you were in trouble. Could the whole school be in trouble? It seemed inconceivable.
At least I had a good class management system. Or so I thought. Children were coming into my room with so much baggage from home, from their friends, from life, that learning how to work harmoniously together was something they needed to learn first. To do this, they needed a structured classroom where everything was simpler and more predictable than the chaotic lives that some of them lived. I was convinced that I would not have a problem with this new principal. I was strict and my kids knew their limits. What more could be asked of me?
But I was doing everything wrong. It was like it was my fault that I did not have up to date learning materials. The Math textbooks were twenty years old. I still had to use basal readers; even the science materials were so old you would think that nothing had been discovered since 1980.
“So that’s it?” the principal said at recess, laying waste to all my hard work with just three words. She was at my portable classroom door after observing a math lesson, impatient to leave. “You teach for fifteen minutes, then they just work on paper and pencil problems the rest of the time? You need activity centers. Kids can’t be sitting at their desks all the time. Its not like you haven’t heard this before. I want to hear the children. They are supposed to be active learners.”
I was so taken aback. “But you saw the materials I have to work with," I spluttered.
“Well, you make what you need for now and when our school budget drops for next year, we’ll see what we can do.” She opened the door. It was still cold outside, a cold spring by the looks of things. The wind fluttered all my children's work on my decrepit bulletin boards.
This was so unfair. In a span of a minute or two she had dismissed my entire math program. Before this new curriculum, a principal would be respectful. Being dismissive like this was just not done. I would try again. Show her a little anger. “Do you mean to say that I have to come up with my own learning materials and prepare everything from scratch?”
She threw it right back at me. “You do what you must. I’ll be checking in again next week. Oh, and one more thing. I don’t ever want to hear that you made an ODD child a personal assistant in your class again. You’re lucky I didn’t have any complaints.” With that, she left, the portable door slamming behind her.
I was furious. The nerve of that woman. Everything she said made no sense to me. Do surgeons buy their own surgical tools? Do police officers provide their own squad cars? And “act-up centers” as I preferred to call them, were more like a match making service for dust-ups. Kids with low social skills couldn’t use them properly. As for children like Tommy, well I could be out on stress leave, I suppose. Would that work better?
It was all I could do to get through that school year. At least my wife got to know me better. “You’re thinking about work again, aren’t you?” she would say.
“How do you know?”
“You look like death.”
I applied for a transfer. The principal didn’t seem surprised. The parents who wanted their children to be at St. Michaels had been getting cross boundary transfers to avoid Our Lady of Fatima for years now, so I was in good company. If such high standards were expected and no allowance was going to be made for student behavioral issues, why handicap yourself by teaching children with so many problems?
Besides, teaching at St. Michaels would help me make a real contribution to the teaching profession. My ideas about classroom management would have an audience amongst people that count.
I was in such a good mood on my first day at St. Michael. My new teaching partner thought it was hilarious that I would lock down my classroom and take stock of every pencil, ball, or activity toy to prevent behavior problems.
At the meet and greet later in the month, the parents paid such close attention when I described how inexpressively happy I was, how wonderful the students were, how amazing the school was. They must have hung on every word that I said. No one asked any questions!
Then, all the teachers heard my stories. What a great jump off point for my theories about how we should be teaching! They listened politely over coffee in the staff room, so urbane, so indulgent. I was thrilled.
“Its not just that parent’s eyes glaze over when you hint that there might be something a little off at home, it’s the ticking timebomb that you set when you try to say something about how they raise their children. At schools like Fatima, they can’t take any more of what life is dishing,” I said, so pleased with myself.
I told them that in schools like Fatima, “No child left behind,” is really “No teacher left standing.” You must pretend all the time to survive.”
“Just come up with a plan to help a child and if it doesn’t work, change it. Then change it again and again as needed. It’s the child’s behavior and happiness that matter, not the paper improvement plan.”
“Get the students to behave properly and everything else falls into place. Make a real difference by focusing on the foundations of all learning, how people behave."
“Interesting,” they all said.
Now that I was at St. Michael, it wasn't as if I never thought about Fatima and my former students. St. Michael and Our Lady of Fatima were almost like twin schools, they were relatively close to each other. St. Michael, a middle school, always beat Fatima in Track and Field and Cross Country. If Fatima won an event, there would be this huge celebration.
Near the Christmas break, Fatima and the lower grades of St. Michael were scheduled to watch a matinee movie at the local theatre together. The movie was a special showing of "Miracle on 34th Street." The St. Michael kids were lined up on the sidewalk when Our Lady of Fatima buses arrived, late of course.
When the Fatima kids saw me, they tried to lower the bus windows so that they could scream at the top of their lungs and get my attention. First it was the kids I taught who were in Grade six, then they were topped by my last class at the school, the fives. Soon every child from Our Lady of Fatima was screaming and waving at me whether they knew me that well or not. St. Michaels kids were jeering back at them, wondering what all the fuss was about. "Fatso Fatima!" they would try to shout, before we made them stop.
"What are you? A rock star?" grinned my teaching partner as we made our way into the theatre. I tried to reply but I was being mobbed by Fatima students who ran to see me in the lobby. Kids from Fatima were even waving at me during the movie itself. I had to put a stop to that of course.
When things had settled down a bit, Joshua came to see me after the movie. He had this sad, yet hopeful look. "Why did you leave? I told you I wanted you as my grade 5 teacher!"
"Oh, well St. Michael needed me!' I lied, trying to make myself heard above all the noise from the hundreds of students getting ready to get on the buses. He turned on his heel and went to his class line without saying goodbye. The buses were a long time arriving. I could see him taunting St. Michael's students, possibly some of those who called him names when he was there. There was a scuffle, but I never heard how that turned out.
Why did I leave? I asked myself. I was beginning to wonder.
By the time I had been at St. Michaels five or six years I was getting tired of it all. Something was definitely off. And what was worse, it looked like things would never get better. I kept getting all the difficult students, the split classes, the worst yard duty assignments. The principal had no time for me. I never got the grade levels I asked for.
The teachers at St. Michaels would stop talking when they saw me coming. They were so very polite, exchanging knowing looks and making an elaborate pretense of listening to me. More often than I would like, if my student’s parents had a problem, they would go see the principal directly. It was sheer clear snobbery.
But we all get by somehow. There were children at St. Michael, just like at any school. And the joy of teaching such little hearts and minds never left me. Each day is so long, but the weeks and months fly by. I wandered into a Canadian Tire after aimlessly driving around for awhile during summer break, quite a few years after I left Fatima. Not a lot to do, or if there were things I should be doing around the house, I didn't feel like doing them.
It was late August, and I had the back to school blues. But there, near the exit to the store, I saw a cashier that looked vaguely familiar. As I got closer, it was the nametag that gave him away. I was almost certain it was Joshua. “Were you at Fatima?” I asked.
“Why, yes,” Joshua replied with a big smile. “Is there something I can help you with?”
“Oh, no. That’s fine,” I said. Joshua’s eyes narrowed. “You’re that teacher, uh…” He snaps his fingers. “Mr. Fitzpatrick! The one who made us be quiet all the time.”
"Good to see you again,” I said, thrumming my fingers on the cash register counter. “I’m at St. Michael's now.”
He smiled like he was remembering being in grade four again. “We called you Dizzy Fitz!” he yawned, stretching his arms out about him. “No offense. Remember that time in the portable when you…” He fixed his gaze upon me. “Where did you say you were at?”
“I’m still at St. Michael.”
“Oh, yeah that’s some jacked up school you got yourself to, huh?”
“What do you mean?”
Now he stared, like I said something wrong. “What? You don’t know? All the fat cats send their kids there. You belonged at our school. You were never one of them. People still talked about you after you left. No joke. Younger kids wanted to be in your class. You were pretty funny...”
All those memories came flooding back to me. Tommy in tears promising that he wouldn't burn the portable down again. Immigrant kids inviting me to their birthday parties like they did in the countries they came from. The way Fatima kids would stick up for each other, even when they didn't always get along.
None of this happened at St. Michael. I wanted so much to just begin again somehow.
Joshua didn't seem to notice how I was feeling though. He went on and on. “...No lie. I was getting picked on all the time in grade three. Grade five the same. Grade four was the oasis, man. Oh, excuse me for a minute.”
A customer showed up wanting to pay for their items. “You have yourself…a very good day,” I stammered, backing away. “I’ll see you again some time.” I turned to go.
What a fool, I am. I thought, tears nearly blinding me as I drove away. What a fool.