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Getting back to the first grade

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an updated version of a column that first appeared in The News in 2016.

During my second year in law school, I was involved in an automobile accident. At that time, my financial cushion was threadbare, so meeting the insurance deductible abraded the fabric. Having no patch material or thread with which to sew, I had to go to work.

I became a full-time sixth-grade teacher in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan, during the day, and a part-time law student in Detroit at night.

The school where I taught had a teacher’s lounge. Occasionally, I would drop by and tell those assembled how hard I had it teaching a group of quick-witted sixth-grade students. I would note how comparatively easy it must be for those instructing in the lower grades.

This conduct was ill-advised.

One of the first-grade teachers, Connie, would knowingly smile, but my doltish behavior eventually proved too much even for her. She decided to teach me a lesson.

Arrangements were made with the principal, and I was temporarily assigned to the first grade, where Connie introduced me to a co-ed aggregation of 30-plus 6-year-olds, all of whom had name tags pinned to their uniforms.

Then she left.

I had formulated no lesson plan or otherwise prepared. After all, what possible preparations would be needed by a sophisticate such as myself to teach a first-grade class?

However, I soon discovered that routine plays an important role in the first grade. I had no idea what that routine might be. As a consequence, I began committing a number of procedural infractions. With each violation, a contingent of appalled young ladies would approach my teacher’s desk to voice their displeasure.

They would unabashedly inform me I had done something their teacher would never have done or I had not done something their teacher would always do. During this confrontation, they would demand corrective action and made it clear my non-compliant behavior was unacceptable.

During these one-sided discussions, several of the boys were on the verge of tears. They had not previously experienced a male teacher. I don’t know what they expected, but, evidently, it was not good.

Those boys who weren’t on the verge of tears demonstrated keen insight. They refrained from any involvement in the girl’s interventions, recognizing, even at that tender age, the futility of interposing in a matter in which the girls had taken charge.

Anyway, they had other things to do — like daydream about dinosaurs.

As the pressure caused by my failure to prepare and my procedural ignorance built, I did what is being done today in response to our society’s current state of foreign and domestically induced chaos — I sought a diversion. I informed the class I wanted to see how smart they were, announcing a spelling test and directed them to take out a pencil and a piece of paper.

Having 30-plus 6-year-olds simultaneously take out a pencil and a sheet of paper is a proposition requiring the smooth interaction of a number of complex variables — none of which I understood or had the ability to control, much less coordinate.

All the boys, both those who had been on the verge of tears and those who weren’t, now were. They had no idea where any paper or pencils might be found.

But my directive to take out those materials had an unanticipated benefit. It redirected the focus of the girls’ attention from me to their area of primary responsibility — the boys. So off they went to help them find their pencils and paper, providing me with a much-needed opportunity to think.

It was an opportunity wasted.

Instead of doing something innovative, even reasonable, I forged ahead with the ill-conceived spelling test, and announced the simplest word my dazed mind could conjure: “Spell ‘fig,'” I said.

The response from the girls was instantaneous and indignant: “We don’t know fig!” they replied.

So that was that — the end of the spelling test.

Mercifully, Connie returned — not a moment too soon or a moment too late. Not so soon as to save me from learning a valuable lesson, but not so late as to do irreparable harm to my self-image as a teacher — and as a man.

There are three takeaways here:

1.) Even if one can haphazardly interact with adults, they better be prepared if they front a first-grade class.

2.) First-graders can pick out dinosaurs — and fakes.

3.) The ladies are in control — beginning at the very beginning.

Doug Pugh’s “Vignettes” runs weekly on Saturdays. He can be reached at pughda@gmail.com.

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