Introduction

All names of students, faculty and even the school are designed to protect their identities somewhat and to reflect my impression of these “real life” individuals and this place in my first year in teaching. I’ll introduce the pseudo-names as the narrative goes on and explain why I chose each descriptive title. These people are not referred to by these names in everyday life, however, so they don’t know what I have called them here in this story. Ha! I take the liberty of renaming myself throughout the text just for fun to reflect my changing moods and viewpoints in the experiences. Here are the stars of this true, yet slightly embellished adventure.

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The Students                                 The Faculty

HomoSapienBookus                    MsDiligence
NotInnocent                                 MadamLionTamer
Dainty Fearless                           CaptainRedShoe
FenceRider                                   SuperHero
DoubleTrouble?                            IceQueen
SilentThoughts                            WorkingTheLateShift
Unaware                                       ReptilesCanSkydive
KeepTrying                                   ImaginativeZoology
Forgetting                                     CollectedAssignments
Volunteer
MoralRecall
SocietyDiva
SmartyTears
Trouble?
SenorFutbol
WorkerBee
DaVinci
AthletaBrain

The School

BoundariedFreedomElementary

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August 2001…………To Drown or To Swim!

The principal at BoundariedFreedomElementary hired me to teach fourth grade on a Thursday. Classes started the next Monday, so the weekend was not a couple of days off of rest for me in getting ready for the big event. All the waking hours were consumed with finishing work at my former job and preparing a classroom trailer for seventeen nine-year-old children.

Posters were needed to fill the walls that covered topics like “The Steps of the Water Cycle”, “America’s Presidents”, “Ways to Use Words to Describe Things” and my favorite pin-up, “Skeletons from the Animal Kingdom”. The staff from the first grade gave me plenty of blocks for math games, while the third grade educators equipped my room with other multiplication and division “manipulatives” (a key word for every school day, which meant any item that the children used to learn concepts in a hands-on manner). My fellow fourth grade teachers brought over the necessary curriculum folders and binders that I would learn to hate……..I mean love, of course. Before the first bell rang on opening day, I had no comprehension of how many hours of my evening life and weekend “breaks” would be swallowed in lesson planning from these resources (harmless at initial glance, but deadly in the killing of my attempted time management!).

Upper management, to recall a business term from my previous academic training, at this institution consisted of a 1-2-3 punch with a principal, assistant principal and school counselor. They ran the place, as everyone quickly remembered, especially when they casually strolled into your classroom. When there was physical space inside my trailer between all the other frequent visitors in the last seventy-two hours or so before school started, the 1-2-3 group was there, rarely in attendance together though. More than one hundred years of professional experience, give or take a decade or three, came packaged in our school upper leadership. Therefore, most questions could be answered by anyone of these folks, very nice folks I’ll add. Not always the same answers, I’ll add. These were the moments that reminded me of former experiences within business life.

Our principal, FearlessCaptainRedShoe, as I’ll call her, was a seasoned veteran of the elementary school world. Her shoes were well acquainted with her colleagues in the profession also. It seemed she only had one pair. Red. High heels on an almost six foot tall woman. Wait a second. Just how tall were those shoes? Anyway, this lady had more energy than a class full of vibrant kindergarteners. Sometimes, all you might notice was a red streak flashing across the hallway. We all knew exactly who it was. No matter what the clothing arrangement, red was the footwear varnish. Red must go with everything, I guess. It was our school color, mind you.

Superhero is a great title for our next guest on the character line-up from my first year in teaching. She was the assistant to not just any principal, but FearlessCaptainRedShoe, known all around the county for..….well, being fearless and red shoed. Superhero gladly supported her commander and graciously gave her best to her colleagues and students. For this story specifically, I initially named her HeriocService, but she didn’t seemed to like it much. A more glamorous name like SuperHero brings a courageous flavor to the persona of this servant leader of our institution. Everyone loved her. She always encouraged people no matter how they responded to her hard work. If she was real mean to people when I wasn’t around, my apologies for the misrepresentation here.

IceQueen, #3 in command. It could be the harshest name in my entire story. OK, it definitely is the toughest, roughest nickname for the most resilient, undaunted and determined lady at BoundariedFreedomElementary. I almost get visions of Yosemite Sam, squared off with Bugs Bunny in a draw, just thinking about her. I would certainly be Bugs, she was Yosemite. “Dag blasted varmints, all of them.” “Ah….What’s up, Doc…..I mean, school counselor?” (She had lots of academic degrees, but no doctorate, see.) Oh, yeah. IceQueen was the school counselor. Pretty lady (not that the others weren’t too), fierce competitor, with a strong heart under the spirited demeanor she laid on. She was a bulldog, until you realized she didn’t want to bite ‘ya, just make sure that you were on task and not getting pushed around by the tenacious little people.

Those folks were the ‘1-2-3 punch,’ ‘the top three,’ ‘the fearsome threesome,’ ‘the three amigos,’ or my much-loved designation, TheTripleThreatOfTheMiddleSchoolNotYet. (Quite a mouthful, you say? Shush. This is my story, remember?) I grew to appreciate their style and approach to education. They had assembled quite an all-star cast of teachers, well experienced and full of love and care for the children of this community. My inaugural year in elementary school as an instructor would prove to dispel many stereotypes I had heard about regarding modern school life. TheTripleThreatOfTheMiddleSchoolNotYet used a discipline program developed by Barbara Coloroso, of Colorado Springs, Colorado (who taught with Colored Crayolas in Columns of Color-Coded Colonies of many words that start with “Colo” that I like to use together to try to make you laugh.). Coloroso’s angle on classroom management was termed “Positive Discipline.” Sounded like the chiming of politically correct mumbo-jumbo to me when I first heard the expression. But, after I gave the audiotapes that explained the ideas behind these words a fair hearing, I began to believe in them as strongly as TheTripleThreatOfTheMiddleSchoolNotYet did. That didn’t actually happen until I was far underwater in trying to run my class my way, unfortunately. I don’t think I actually put the tapes in my car until October or November. The administrators tried to get me to listen to them at the beginning of the year. However, in the same preferred method of many of students, I chose to learn the hard way.

In “Positive Discipline,” children respect themselves and other people in their environment. Treat your neighbor as good if not better than yourself. When you make a decision to take a certain action, you also choose the necessary consequence. The teachers and adults do not punish you by enforcing the action/consequence chain of events, they simply hold to their end of the agreement they made in helping the little people learn what real life is all about. The children signed contracts during the first week of school that detailed the whole disciplinary system at BoundariedFreedomElementary. Discipline is consistent and unemotional in the application by the adult or else the child will start to expect special treatment when they misbehave. Responses to rule breaking are swift. Also, the students are responsible for their education to a substantial extent. Certainly, the teachers and other leaders have a great challenge in presenting the material they hope to impart in an attractive manner, but the kids have to be responsive and maintain a good attitude to complete the process. All these elements were highly emphasized in the audiotapes that I borrowed from our school media center on “Positive Discipline” by Barbara Coloroso, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, that is.

The nationally popular Coloroso courses on classroom management broke apart the myths that have captured public attention related to the dominant approaches to life in contemporary schools. This was not a way to overly empower kids to drain their teachers by over-emphasizing their every feeling or desire. It did not alienate the children from a strong child-adult relationship with their teachers or adult figures in their lives either. I recognized a classic balance that the perspective provided. Classroom management is the number one culprit teachers claim to have sucked out the wind in their pedagogical (big teacher word) sails, so a super strong and relevant policy such as Coloroso’s was essential.

Before I could take on much recuperation from the intensive preparation of the past half-week, the children were entering my trailer. Seventeen little folks joined my life on Monday, August 13, 2001. My worldview of ideals, my visions of how life worked, would together transform through this educational experience that taught me unique lessons, unattainable in my previous schooling. This was real life in action, children’s futures influenced dominantly by “Yours Truly”.

7:00 A.M. Monday morning. As I quickly rearranged some math books under numerous desks, I reminded myself that my current name was FearlessMr.Rhodes.  Okay. Honestly, I had a few issues that brought stark feelings of dread to my veins. I knew that I could be stuck with the most arrogant, selfish kids on the planet or blessed among some of the most interesting, cooperative students in the state of Georgia; or a combination of both tribes. In actuality, I was minutes away from getting the combo package.

The bell rang a moment later. It was already 7:45. I don’t recall the exact order of my first arrivals, but I can vividly see their statures. Nine-year-old children are really small! Literally, they’re half my size! This was fantastic in a way. I stood about six feet tall, so I was accustomed to peering over many shoulders of the human species. But, this was profound. I was a giant.

One at a time and occasionally in small groups of close friends, the new students poured in. I met the parents, most of whom made comments about how young I looked, how young I actually was or how thrilled their family was that I was a male teacher (especially a young one).

The kids’ seating arrangement was prearranged, which upset a few of them initially. However, this fact was not nearly as disheartening when compared to the trauma endured by a few select members of the class. These self-absorbed individuals could not bear the pain of separation from their numerous friends down the hall in the other classes. A great and mighty sadness overcame me. OK, just kidding. I never cried for their “turmoil” in this respect. I didn’t get everything I ever wanted either. DrillSergeantMr.Rhodes would make sure the new recruits understood this fact of life!

Then I saw Trouble? Yes, I mean it. His reputation preceded him and the name was proved sufficient to describe his potent ability to turn the tides of any situation for the worse. I saw the mother of Trouble? She looked just like Trouble? Imagine that. His fame “around town” conveyed that he was an active fellow. Bouncing off all four walls of whatever environment you placed him within, a trailer in this case. Expressing his moments of intense emotion, to everyone, in many “special” ways was his trademark. Grabbing people. Yelling into their wholly intimidated faces. Not always, though. It depended on the how insecure he was as the moment. His moods among other people usually related back to current events in his family network, as he came from a broken home and resided with his mother and teenage sister. His father was days away in New York and nearly non-existent to any practical need Trouble? might have. In effect, I would be the only adult male he ever saw regularly for more than a short time span. However, he did meet for lunch weekly with a mentor (the local manager of a supermarket) through a significant school program designed for kids with this kind of relational imbalance. With an Iranian dad and a Mexican mother, he fit the stereotype for a powerful personality. He seemed to be in a decent mood that day, at least that was my intuition as he sat down and began to organize his desk.

Minutes later, two buddies from Columbia materialized on the doorstep. SenorFutbol and NotInnocent stared me down, not impolitely, but with a suspect thoroughness. While I explained to them and their mothers what to expect during the first week of class, I felt their analysis of my attitude, my appearance, my everything. They were sizing me up so definitely that they convinced me I had just met two key players in the social power of this new troop of learners. If I could ever win NotInnocent and SenorFutbol to “the good side of the Force” (an analogy from the Star Wars movies which they had never heard seen), I had one major piece of the classroom management puzzle complete. (That last analogy obviously comes from the Star Wars movies – which I found out later they had never seen.)

During the first month, a stronghold rose up against my authority from these two potential classroom criminals, who actually could be so helpful to the other kids when they decided to live the philanthropic lifestyle (very rare occurrence). Add one more element to this attempted coup d’état in the person of FenceRider, another foreigner (most of the school seemed to be internationally bred), and this kid from Pakistan solidified TheThreeMusketers. However, ZoroA.K.A.Mr.Rhodes, was prepared for this subtle onslaught. I knew their game, as did every other savvy adult in school.

Then a wisp of elegance and subtle manipulation strolled into the room. Dainty was small and cute, as her name implies. She’d invested a hefty portion of her childhood extracurricular hours training and performing with a respected ballet company in the Atlanta area. If you got her to her good side, she might bring in a handful of photos from her work. Her mother was a professional photographer, who had been the main person assigned to all major events and promotion for this dance troupe. Dainty and her young sister, a brand new face in the kindergarten grade, were likely the most photographed children in the county! Their mom enjoyed her resident “guinea pigs” to have and to hold, in-house supermodels ready for all her experiments as she mastered each technique of her job. Thankfully, Dainty’s relatives became my most supportive family and regularly encouraged me during the hard points in the year. Dainty was mostly very obedient (outwardly, she seemed to be an angel) and she started our teacher-student relationship well by heading toward her desk and getting ready for class.

Unaware. I mean the kid’s name should have been Unaware. My next guest on the “First Day of Fourth Grade” (a popular game show in the cerebral cortex of Mr. Rhodes) didn’t always know what planet he was orbiting sometimes. He would laugh when his environment was somber, find friends guilty of treason or murder when he felt the slightest trace of ambiguity or rejection in the relationship and would even sometimes doubt that parents and adults in general cared about his life. Unaware seemed goofy and harmless at the beginning, when you first met him, but he stored many strange personality quirks inside his closet of irrational thinking. Unaware was unaware of the true dynamics of existing in the company of others. He maintained an almost totally constantly silly expression on his face, as if he knew a good joke and he wasn’t going to let us in on it. Those of us who closely associated with Unaware knew better than to judge this character by his outward appearance; it actually meant he didn’t have any idea what the world is about by his careless inobservance of the social order around him. It was tragic and yet mildly hysterical to watch him operate. However, he possessed an amazing academic mind. Practically any fact from previous classes or homework was retained inside his idiosyncratic round head attached to his lanky and physically uncoordinated body frame. I would later discover that he not only waited until age five to speak any audible words, but that he struggled with the basic dexterities required in using scissors or riding bicycles. Just ask him a question about electricity (from our science lessons), any definition from any subject or a math problem that stumped most of his peers. Either Jeckyl or Hyde arose momentarily, depending on how we categorize his lopsided personas, for a display of intellectual prowess that dumbfounded all rational predictions of his potential. A short pause occasionally happened, but when he replied it was similar to listening to an audiotape version of our textbooks. Word for word. He gained a reputation as a virtual encyclopedia; one that was oblivious to his surroundings, of course.

Chitchat was the mandate of another member of this society of nine-year-old little people. SocietyDiva, the young lady who was sure to be present at all gossip gatherings and insights into anti-schoolwork or pro-socializing activities stood in the doorway. Her mother was friendly and tried to converse with me in as much English as she could. Their family had moved here a few years ago from Mexico. SocietyDiva had a great cuteness that rivaled the psychological command of her classmate Dainty. The difference between them was clear from the first day though. SocietyDiva wouldn’t hide her social power-shifting tactics like Dainty (who didn’t seem to realize she was manipulative sometimes). The Mexican representative of my “United Nations prototype” of a classroom would go straight after what she wanted, regardless of who noticed the strategy. She was very popular and quite influential with her peers. She seemed to carry one major weakness, which I learned about quickly as the rumors spread. Her best friend was in another class this year for the first time in her American school career. How strong would she be if she was made to stand outside her preferred social network?

I couldn’t hear SilentThoughts enter the room. He didn’t talk much but his mom did. She had ideas, excellent ones, for many strategies related to engaging children in learning. She’d served as a Room Mom in many other classes for her children, some who were now in high school. I immediately found another parental ally in her. Always positive, full of new visions toward enhancing bulletin boards and cool arts and crafts, she was a never-ending source of help to me in keeping the kids interested in various subjects. Her son had just as many brain waves shooting from to and fro, but you had to listen and watch closely or you might miss the constant action. SilentThoughts was a shy kid. If you reinforced his confidence among his peers and caught his attention significantly, he was ready to teach the class. Unfortunately, with sixteen other children of such a physical and socially active nature surrounding his daily academic life, he was easy to overlook. Fortunately, his head popped up periodically during his fourth grade education, “wowing” his teacher and “silencing” the opposition.

SmaryTears and WorkerBee walked together in harmony as they neared the classroom steps and politely stepped inside the trailer. They were close buddies and with the additional missing piece found in the personality of Dainty, this friendship chain was solidified. Both girls were small, like most of the other nine-year-olds. I was still trying to get used to that new reality. The experience reminded me of a play that I did in elementary school, way back in the 1980s. “The Wizard of Oz in Space” was a revision of the classic tale that starred me as a trusted relation to the dwarfish munchkins. Remember that tiny community? Yeah. That’s where I suddenly lived from seven thirty onwards each weekday! The latest students to come into my scholastic paradise sat quietly in new seats. The lack of volume was a temporary illusion, far away from the real character that SmartyTears would later portray. When she got into conversation with her classmates, immediate tunnel vision and hearing was the appropriate diagnosis. “SmatyTears. SmartyTears. SmartyTears!” It was hard to attract her attention when her thinking cap and talking yap was intoxicated elsewhere. I guess she could only handle one task at a time. Switching activities from “doing what she wanted” to “attentively noticing her teacher’s voice” (which was rising to the emotive level of a fever pitch) nearly required a special miracle some days.

WorkerBee hailed from a different species altogether. She and SilentThoughts must’ve kept up a secret competition between them as to who could say the least in public. I rarely heard her opinion on anything. WorkerBee, obedient, wiling to serve and help, loyal, a good girl scout, with a pure heart unequaled in the fourth grade.

Have you ever met a Chinese immigrant who functions easily as a mathematician, virtuoso artist, engineer and all around Renaissance boy? DaVinci fit this unique mold though he didn’t wan to exert any effort to cultivate his giftings. You see, more than anything, he reveled in being the barely-English speaking class clown, “an Asian Jim Carey”. He was hilarious without much labor and looked so adorable that you’d almost feel compelled to give him a hug every time he did something wrong as a reward. He fooled many adults and captivated the notice of all kids in his general vicinity. Therefore, he caused most of the early classroom management dilemmas for me. In light of this conflict, Mr.RhodesTheEntertainingEnforcer would have the last word this year. Ha!

I could almost hear the bluesy rock music song in the background as she climbed the steps. Had this been 1955, I might have described her as a James Dean wannabe, but that reference wouldn’t help for this generation since they didn’t know films used to be in black and white. The tune buzzing around my head must have been something similar to George Thoroughgood’s classic “Bad to the Bone”, way back from my elementary school days in the early eighties. “Babababa…Bad. Bubbababa…..Bad. Bad to the Bone.” DoubleTrouble? Yes. Walking like she owned the place and that everyone in the building ought to pay her monthly rent, DoubleTrouble? looked to be at least a year or two older than her peers, I reckoned, since she towered over the little tikes. I wasn’t sure if she’d meant to show up at a local middle school this morning and then gotten lost. No one would have second-guessed her arrival in sixth or seventh grade, but she was here, in a group of people that were radically different in the ways all of us are before we hit adolescence. I would rapidly discover that appearance and attitude were not the only differing characteristics of this one. I met her mom too and briefly talked with both of them before the final bell rang at 8:15. This became a habitual situation for the infamous DoubleTrouble? The bell rang in her entrance virtually each morning.