As I approach retirement, here are a few memories — some peculiar, some poignant — from my years in the classroom.
This June, I will retire from teaching. Here are some moments from those 41 years. Not the “big moments,” necessarily. Well, maybe they were …
At the Kiwanis welcome luncheon for new teachers, a burly horse rancher eyeballed me, taking notice of my Semitic features and long (long) black hair and said to me, “Schwartz, huh? That’s yer name?” followed by: “ ’Bout time we have a Native American teachin’ in our school.” What? Huh? Never figured that one out, but it sure sounded like he meant well. Still does.
And then, a few months later, a student, Rory, upon seeing the Star of David hanging around my neck, exclaimed with great curiosity and unabashed enthusiasm: “Mr. Schwartz! I didn’t know you’re a Jewish! Merry Christmas!”
Followed by his father, who one day in spring, leaned on my classroom doorway cradling a bundle wrapped in bloody newspaper. “Here,” he said, holding it out. “I’m obliged for teaching my boy to read.” Turned out — after I had raced in terror to my principal with the bloody package — that it was venison. The boy’s father had shot the animal for his family’s food and wanted to share it with me. He had no money, but “venison was worth a whole lot more to him,” my principal said.
There was Christopher, whose Mafia dad would come to teacher-parent conferences with two bodyguards and who hired a professional film crew to videotape commencement exercises and present a commemorative copy to every graduate.
And there was my teaching gig at an Orthodox yeshiva: One morning, several rabbis huddled in the corner of a hallway, presumably “davening.” Not wanting to disturb their prayer, I walked quickly past them, but not so fast that I didn’t hear them chuckling. Later, one of them confided that they were “debriefing” about the previous day’s Howard Stern radio show.
Not long after that (having gone from Oregon to New York City licensed to teach CPR, as well as English), I asked my students to bring large dolls to class from their homes, since I could not secure CPR dummies from the local Red Cross. Melissa raised her hand and, in a serious tone, informed that she no longer owned any dolls but that she would be happy to bring, on any day except Wednesday, her nanny.
About two years later, after I had moved on to another school, I received a phone call from Michael, who had been in Melissa’s CPR class. Michael’s father had recently had a heart attack at their dinner table. Michael wanted to tell me that he had applied CPR on his father and had resuscitated him just long enough to say, “I love you, Papa,” before his father died.
And here, in Minneapolis, where I close the book, there was Brad. Traditionally, we taught Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” at the end of each school year to our soon-to-be grads. Most got a kick out of reading the quite bawdy “The Miller’s Tale.” At one point in his tale, for reasons that you can investigate on your own, the Miller explains that “Nicholas anon leet flie a fart.” As we read this portion in proper Middle English (by the way, students can hardly believe the word “fart” existed in the 1300s), Brad let fly a tremendous (relevant) fart of his own, immediately eliciting a rousing standing ovation from his impressed and elated classmates.
And then, there was Cameron, my eighth-grader, who quite enthusiastically volunteered to read Shakespeare’s sonnet 54 that offers the lovely sentiment, “O, how much more doth beauty beauteous seem.” Cameron quite unintentionally but with an emotional and sweet intonation, read, “Zero, how much more beauty beauteous seem.” His classmates chose to ignore his snafu and not correct the sincere young man. Neither did I.
Or the students, bless their hearts, who chose to recite the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy from “Macbeth” in Ukrainian, Chinese, French, Spanish and Ewe. More beautiful, heartfelt renditions were never heard.
I hope we find more effective ways to keep wise, intelligent, good people teaching our kids.
Maybe we need to share more stories of the inevitable human and glorious moments.
Because it is a glorious profession.
Dick Schwartz is a teacher at Southwest High School in Minneapolis.
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