This file image shows teens sitting in a classroom and...

This file image shows teens sitting in a classroom and raising hands to answer aquestion. Credit: iStock

I was so scared.

I was up long before dawn, and breakfast was out of the question. I had changed clothes three times. Nothing seemed to look right. And just for spite, even my hair was uncooperative.

It was the first day of school, and I was a wreck.

The thing is, I was the teacher.

While it was all decades ago, every September, I remember - and am humbled by - that trial by fire.

I was 21 years old, a newly minted graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Education, a new bride, and absolutely terrified about what was ahead.

I’d taken all the requisite courses. I’d entered the surreal world of student teaching at a high school, where two master teachers had patiently shown me how to do this thing they made look easy. But it wasn’t easy for me. Not even with them right there to guide me, rescue me, and try to convince me that, yes, I could do this.

When I stepped into Room B-4 in a South Jersey suburb to face my first class of eighth graders, I was trembling. I remember gripping my desk so that maybe - just maybe - these 13- and 14-year-olds might not recognize that I wanted to bolt.

Let me cut to the chase: that first day was unlike any other in my life. I was in charge, the captain of the ship.

Sitting before me were kids who expected me to know a lot, if not everything, about English. That’s what we called it before it became “Language Arts.”

Eighth graders have a certain ability to compromise whatever confidence a new teacher may have. They squirm, fidget, stare, yawn and are wired to spot vulnerability.

So yes, there would be reckonings ahead.

Thirteen also is all about mood changes, anxiety about fitting in, anxiety about looks, anxiety about - well, just about everything.

Thirteen is no easy ride.

But in the fullness of time - if you can call a week that - I was on my way to being on to them. I had figured out their society - and yes, eighth graders create their own anthropologic culture. I had begun to identify the leaders, the followers, the mean girls, the Alpha males.

And yes, I had also fallen in love with these itchy, fidgety, sometimes feisty kids who had decided that I’d passed my initiation. And yes, they were the decision-makers. I was not.

By October, we had plunged into a unit on newspapers, and we began reading them together as an experiment in the power of words. By November, they were writing editorials that were so earnest and passionate that they were almost heartbreaking.

And by winter, I had brought in several evocative paintings, including a couple of Picasso prints, and had invited them to tell me what was going on in those lines and colors and faces.

No one was more surprised than I was at their amazingly imaginative interpretations. These kids were thinkers, and as we came to know one another, I also realized what a powerful thing it was to plumb the souls of the young.

Of course I made mistakes. Too often, I was hoodwinked into thinking that I’d gotten a point across, when I actually hadn’t. Kids tend to let you believe that they’ve mastered something when the truth is that they’re bored and want to move on.

The months flew by and I remember how both delighted - and devastated - I was when I learned that I was pregnant as the school year drew to a close.

Thanks to the policies back in those Neanderthal days, pregnant teachers were not welcomed in classrooms once they “showed.” And by that next fall, I did. I was left to assume that seeing a teacher “with child” would scandalize the adolescent students.

So I “retired” from teaching after one year. And because three baby girls soon came in rapid succession, I never went back.

I marvel, still, that in dreams, those eighth-grade students return to me. I know where they sat in Room B-4, and how their voices sounded.

I was horrified when I learned that two boys I had taught died in Vietnam. Of course, to me, they would always be boys.

I also will not forget the awe I felt about having had a chance to mold young minds, as corny as that sounds. Neither will I forget having introduced poetry to kids who initially recoiled at such a notion. But they ended up writing their own achingly beautiful ones.

Every September, as summer shifts into fall and life gets a little more serious, I remember that first day of school as Mrs. Friedman, the English teacher.

I think of Margie and Becky and beautiful little Linda. Of Nicholas and Bruce and of Eddie, who almost won in our battle of wills. And I say a silent prayer that some of them, somewhere, are still reading poetry.

Sally Friedman is a writer in Moorestown, Pennsylvania. She wrote this for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


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