Student teaching is like Hell Week only it lasts an entire semester so my trial began in January, a month in Anchorage that never got above zero degrees for even a whole minute. I was assigned to Bartlett High School located just outside the gate at Elmendorf Air Force Base where the student demographics were as diverse as anywhere else in the country as the sons and daughters were sent here while their parents served their country.
I finally managed to find Ms. Wertz's classroom tucked in one of the many alcoves in this expansive campus. She was sitting at her desk as I approached. She looked up at me with cold blue eyes, saying in a deadpan monotone, "You must be Mr. Frost."
"Yes Ms. Wertz, I am." I presented her with my UAA appointment letter. Putting one finger to her lips, she read the short letter introducing me as a student teacher.
"Are you familiar with this school?" She asked in an accusatory tone with her finger still drawn over her lip.
"Yes I toured this school last month." I answered with a cordially nod that brought her eyes to mine directly from the letter I had handed her, there was a scowl on her face.
" You did not answer the question." She gave her head a quick shake amid a halo of blonde curls that appeared entirely natural. "This school is unique to any school in the state. Our student body is very diverse and challenging to anyone who does not understand where these kids are coming from. Your job is to teach my sophomores how to read and write so they can become productive members of the community. Most of their parents are serving in the United States Air Force." Her homily paused allowing me to interject.
" I served for thirteen years." I said, but she did not appear impressed as she sat there, eyes on me as if she wanted to use her laser vision to incinerate me where I stood.
"My husband is a major." She crossed her arm over her chest, "He is also a licensed Bush pilot and he has flown us into the Bush to hunt caribou."
End of discussion as my GPA that I took. Such pride in, suddenly seemed entirely insignificant. What was not obvious was not only did the children of servicemen and women attend Bartlett so did the kids who lived on Government Hill. Government Hill was named because those residing there were receiving government assistance of some kind including subsidized housing, a massive residential structure that crowned the hill in plain practical units designed to withstand a nuclear attack. Up on a section known as Mountain View school lunch and breakfast programs were made available to young students who would otherwise go without otherwise.
From this pocket of poverty would come the rest of the students who would populate my classes. My first day I was ready to deliver a lesson that would knock my students' socks clean off their feet, but my roster had names I found unpronounceable filled with unfamiliar consonant combinations and sparse vowels.
Filing in, the students each gave me a head to toe going over, three with ear buds dangling from their ears and one with a distinct odor of something from a lingering memory of my past. I had read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was in school with Atticus Finch and Scout and old Boo Radley. I began class with a ten minute homily on the strong sense of social justice I wanted them to walk away with and before I finished one of my students held up a piece of paper ripped from his notebook that read, "I'm so bored."
My face turned red and I wanted to snatch that paper from his hands, rip it into a million pieces as I sent him down to the office, but I pretended not to notice.
"I find this book rather insulting." An African American student named La'Quitichia remarked without raising her hand.
" How So?" I was determined not to reveal my irritation, but I was afraid my reddening face was offering them little doubt.
"She be like some of them cheer-leading bitches in the cafeteria at lunch." She stated as Monique, her BFF nodded in agreement.
"Scout is just a child." I defended.
"She still be like, 'My daddy's a lawyer y'all.' Go over to that Radley boy's house to make fun of him when he ain't done no wrong. Don't be treating people like that." She stood up pointing her finger as she stomped her feet before finishing with a flourish with her hands on her hips. Laughter was her curtain call and the bell could not ring soon enough.
Ms. Wertz reviewed my lesson plans during my preparatory period in her office downstairs from the classroom. She had been appointed coach of the high school cheerleaders, the only group that lacked diversity as all twenty of the girls were white, blue eyed and blonde, half were tall, pretty, leggy and skinny while the other half were pretty and skinny.
"I used to be a cheerleader you know." She said proudly as she scanned the lesson plan I gave her. She nodded and thrust the paper back at me, "Unacceptable."
"Ba-ut…" I was too stunned to say words.
"Fix it." She demanded. One of the cheerleaders entered her small office and her scowl aimed at me turned into a pleasant smile for the cheerleader who waited to talk to coach, "Ashley," her voice sang, "What do you need?"
"I can wait." The tall leggy girl said shyly.
"No, no, Mr. Frost was just leaving." She chuckled with a wave of the back of her hand dismissing me. Swallowing my dignity and pride, I left the once crowded room to repair my lesson plans.
"Mr. Frost." Ms. Thompson called out as I headed back to the classroom. Nearing the end of her third decade at the school, Edna Thompson was the department chair of the language arts for Bartlett and a senior advocate at the district level, but to me she looked like a kindly grandma as she made her way down the hall at her own speed, "How are things going for you?" She asked with a smile made perfect by her sparkling white dentures. She wore an ankle length dress of vivid, lively colors, flower patterns that made her appear as a walking garden. Her deep brown skin had seemed to have faded over the years, but no one dared equate her advanced age as a sign of feebleness and senility, because she was just as sharp as she was when she became the first African American teacher hired at the school in 1964.
"Not so well." I bowed my head.
"What seems to be the problem?" She asked with an inquisitive expression on her face that seemed as if it was connected to her heart and soul. I shook my lesson plans appearing defeated and discouraged. Shaking her head framed with frosted gray hair, she said, "C'mon, let me have a gander."
She took the paper from my hand and immediately inquired, "So Mr. Frost, what do you want the students to do?"
The question confused me, "Do?"
"When they leave your classroom, what do you want them to take with them when they leave at the bell? What are you gonna teach them they didn't know on the way in?" Her eyes began to scan me, reaching the core buried deep inside me, to the reason I wanted to be a teacher in the first place, to share my love of learning with my students, those who would carry on the legacy of learning and discovery that burned inside me all with a twinkle that said to me do what you came here for.
"I want them to know that Tom Robinson was a victim of social injustice, a Mockingbird killed because of the color of his skin." I answered as she continued to smile.
"Then you write that down for the objective so Miss Bonnie knows where you are taking them. Boat ain't no good without a rudder." She concluded with a knowing wink.
When Robert first entered my classroom, I nearly gasped as his six foot six frame filled the doorway instantly becoming my tallest student, even taller than me by almost four inches. He had been absent since I started two weeks ago and I began to suspect that he had dropped out, but truancy was not mine to question. He calmly sat in an empty desk that looked much too small for his large adult frame. He did not appear to have an ounce of fat on him as he had a very athletic physique that resembled a defensive tackle on the school’s football team, but I would find out later that Robert tended not to be a joiner, spending most of his time with his earbuds in listening to music instead of the lectures. Both Ms. Thompson and Ms. Wertz had warned me about him and to tell you the truth, I had hoped I would never encounter him anymore than a name of the computer print out of my class roster.
The first five minutes, I had them working on a vocabulary exercise for what we call “bell-work” to keep the students busy as we get ready for the class. Robert had not been in class since I started student teaching, so I pulled out the bell-work assignment and handed it to him. He looked up at me with eyes that seemed to want to ask the question, “Who the Hell are you?”
“Robert, I’m Mr. Frost. I am your student teacher.” I explained. Slowly a smile worked its way across his face.
“I is Robert. Robert Parks.” He managed to say. His voice did not match his physical size, but his hard cold stare was almost like an assault in itself.
“Welcome Robert.” I nodded walking away. Robert picked up the assignment before ripping the paper in half, turning it over to the blank side and drew a gangster tag. Some of the boys and a few of the girls had tattoos with their gangster tag inscribed on their person that was hidden since the school had a strict policy against anything associated with a gang. Since Robert was not a jock, there was only one other conclusion I could come to and that was he belonged to one of the local gangs in Government Hill.
But his voice was so soft and gentle in the infrequent times when he did speak. We were midway through the Twain book when I heard laughter. Looking up from the white board when I had written out “Passing” as a theme for the story, I saw the students surrounding Robert were snickering. Walking over to the disruption, I saw Robert handling an unmarked flask. My heart began to beat faster, because I had no recourse, but I knew Ms. Wertz had one and she expected me to know what it was. More laughter as I went back to the board to continue writing about the theme of our story. For the next forty minutes, I taught a class on the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain, but my concentration had been shattered by what I saw in Robert’s hands.
Next period, Ms. Thompson taught a class next door to mine, so I wandered over in the passing period. She smiled when she saw me coming.
“Ah Mr. Frost, how are you?” She nodded.
“I have a question.” I sighed. After explaining what happened, her expression changed to one of concern. With a thoughtful pause she asked, “Who was the student?”
“Robert Parks.” I answered.
“Hmpt.” She put her hand to her chin, “I didn’t know he was out of juvenile hall.” So that would explain the absence and then she continued, “You must report this to the office, but I will notify security. It’s right here.”
She walked me into my classroom and pointed to the phone on the wall by the door, “Pick this up and dial 1-0-0. That will get you the security desk.” Still smiling she spoke into the receiver, “Yes Mr. Allen, this is Lydia, our student teacher saw Robert Parks with a possible bottle of contraband.”
“Thank you.” I nodded.
“That’s what we are here for.” She walked into her classroom followed by a dozen students in Advanced Placement English.
Ms. Wertz was nowhere to be found that day, so when my prep came, I wandered to the teacher lounge for some quiet time to recompose myself. In passing I saw two police officers standing over Robert Parks who was spread eagle on the floor in front of them, one officer had a weapon drawn, but the rest of the students passed by as if this was a normal part of the landscape. Before reaching the lounge, I heard my name over the intercom, “Mr. Frost come to the office.”
Following the instruction, I came in to where Mr. Connors was holding the phone out for me when I walked in.
“Hello, this is Mr. Frost.” I sounded very professional.
“Yes, this is Shawna Parks, Robert’s mother.” Her tone was clipped and concerned.
“Hello.” I blinked awake.
“Robert was released from juvenile hall yesterday. His father Julius arranged for this to happen. He came to school today and I was just notified by the security staff that Robert brought a bottle of contraband into your classroom.”
“Yes Mrs. Parks, that is correct.” I affirmed.
“Please call me Shawna.” Her tone was a bit more cordial. “Do you know who his grandma is?”
“No Mrs., I mean Shawna.”
“Rosa Parks. Do you know who she is?”
“Yes, I most certainly do.” My stomach dropped into my shoes at that moment. Rosa Parks? Are you kidding me?
“He does not like people to know that. He would like people to know him as just plain Robert, but this is becoming harder because of his record.” She explained. “I do not pretend that he is an angel, but is a special boy. When I gave birth to him, the doctor said the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck and he went several horrible moments unable to draw his first breath and this caused him some brain damage. Now he has a good heart, but some of them students are harsh with him and he does not understand. They call him Oreo.”
“Oreo?” I was confused at her reference.
“Yes, black on the outside and white in the middle.” She explained with a chuckle, “You see I am white and his daddy is black since he’s related to Rosa and all.”
“Oh I see.” I joined in her chuckle.
“Now about that book you are doing in class, Robert feels that some of the kids are snickering when you use that word, you know the one, and they are looking at him when they read it in class today. Now I know that story. Twain is an American treasure, but the language that was acceptable back when he wrote that book is not acceptable now.”
“You see Rosa likes to come up to Alaska to visit some of her kin. She is quite a typical grandma bringing her children all kinds of love and stuff.” Shawna laughed. “Don’t let them pick on my boy. Ever since he started school his size and his brain damage has made him an easy target. Don’t do that to him.”
“I won’t.” I promised as I heard the dial tone once again. Carefully, I placed the phone back in the cradle.
By the middle of my student teaching tenure, Mrs. Vertoven reviewed my performance and said in a low voice, “George, you are not going to make it. You have shown a lot of good effort, but for some teaching is something that is beyond them. I’m afraid I am going to call for a termination of your placement.”
Tears filled my eyes, but I knew that sometime before the end of the school year, I was bound to have a mental breakdown. As I left the school passing the lobby I saw Ms Wertz and Mrs. Thompson with their heads together as I exited the building. I had never failed at anything before, so it was difficult for me to accept this. I saw Robert conversing with an older woman with nonhuman colored hair and tattoos escaping from her armless top and assumed this was his mom, but assuming had nearly hung me the last time, so I marched up to them.
“Hello, I’m Mr. Frost.” I held out my hand.
“Ya, this is my teacher, ma.” He smiled.
“Shawna.” She grasped my hand smiling, “Robert you have a great day, honey.”
“Yeah mom, love ya.” He kissed her on the cheek before running into the door I had just exited from.
“You did alright.” She squinted since this was the first time the sun had emerged since I started and it was a shock to see.
“I’m leaving.” I sighed.
“Oh no, Robert likes you.” She grimaced.
“Well, he’s the only one.” I shrugged.
“No, there were some parents who said compared to Ms. Wertz, you were a breath of fresh air.” She chuckled, “Maybe the good Lord wants you to teach some other kids, but you will one day.”
I watched her get into her beat up old Nova and putter away with a wave. I knew then the lesson she and her son had taught me about rushing to conclusions without hearing all of the facts and circumstances. Students like Robert need a teacher who understands that there are always two sides of a coin, two sides to every story. It is a lesson I keep with me after fifteen years of teaching and counting.