So excited to begin serializing my novel that I have been working on for many years. Now seems an especially opportune time to explore the inner life of a public school teacher and the struggles, hardship and humor that goes hand in hand with the profession.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for reading, supporting and sharing this work.
The whistle of a New York-bound commuter train slices through another frigid early morning as the school bell rings me into my day. Being a teacher is a little like living life to an infinite melody of alarms. Even Monday morning faculty meetings summon us with a bell.
It is here, in the student cafeteria, where we bunker down for an hour before the arrival of the masses and discuss scheduling, testing, demographics and quotas. Ya know, all those terribly important things that inspired me to become a teacher 12 years ago. About two hundred of us slog in gripping hot Styrofoam containers as we gather around long Formica tables still damp from the custodian’s sponge. Recently disinfected, the stench of steamed hot dogs and lemon-scented Lysol lingers. Accustomed to such smells I ignore it, pour myself a cup of coffee, grab the last chocolate donut and squeeze myself onto the edge of a bench near the back.
Jane is at the next table. She’s an English teacher too. She’s also my BFF, and one of those really responsible, always early, terribly organized types. I watch her expression as she sips coffee waiting for the meeting to start. She’s probably been here since 6 am. I stroll over to chat but she instructs me to sit back down. She’s a lot like my mother so I ignore her, shove the sticky donut in my mouth and coerce her into gossip as administration fiddles with a new speaker system.
“Did you see the Coke bottle glasses on the new superintendent? Guy must be nearly blind!” As always, Jane scolds me. “Ellie, this is the man’s first time at a district meeting. Couldn’t you have been on time, just this once?” I laugh, “On time? Why?” The sound system burps, quieting the room for a moment. Eventually a hush swallows the chatter. Jane pushes me away afraid that I will somehow draw attention to her, “Please sit down Ellie.”
The new superintendent with the Coke bottle glasses starts droning on. He appears to be introducing some agenda of his. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So rather than listen I pull my cell from my bag and text Jane.
Soooo hungry. Bagels before class?
Ellie. Cut it out. Not texting now!!!!!
No!!! Ellie put phone away SOS!!!
Jane’s texts scream so I quickly slip my phone into my bag and look up. The cafeteria is silent. All eyes on me. The new guy with the Coke bottle glasses picks up his styrofoam container, sloshes it a bit from side to side, takes a sip and places it back on his podium. “Excuse me Miss…..? Is everything alright? You seem distracted?”
“Right, of course. Mr. Holden.” I search for something to say. “You see, gosh.” I lower my voice and fake a blush. “I’m so embarrassed but, well, I’ve been texting my gynecologist. Just giving me the results of yesterday’s pap smear.” I pull my phone out of my bag and pretend to slide to a message.
“Yup, Everything looks good.”
Holden has a decent response, “Your doctor begins her work day early?” My rebuttal is better, “Don’t we all, Mr. Holden?”
The cafeteria, full of sleepy teachers, exhales suppressed laughter as Holden turns his back to me and gathers notes at the podium. I play nice for a few minutes but soon decide to slip my playlist back on as this guy continues his presentation. I glance over at Jane who looks like she is about to tattle on me.
Despite the scene I’ve caused Mr. Holden finishes his presentation on a high note greeted by obedient applause. In a fog I scan the room. Jane is clapping and wiping her eyes with a tissue. I slip my headphones out of my ears, tuck my grading into my bag and ask the gym teachers to my left, “Wow, everyone looks so sad. What did I miss?”
Lauren swings her little legs over the cafeteria bench, stands directly behind me and playfully massages my shoulders. “What to do with the inexplicable Eleanor Dunn? Lauren slips on her black windbreaker, smacks my head with a rolled up newspaper and she’s gone. Somewhat humiliated, I zip my distractions deep inside my bag.
I decide to grab a free coffee with real milk before I head up to my classroom when I am met by Mr. Holden near the large silver urn “Congratulations Ms. Dunn.” I am taken aback by this, “Excuse me?”
“On your medical test result. Congratulations. Glad to hear it wasn’t anything serious.”
I am mortified. This time my face honestly burns with embarrassment. I was hoping to avoid this guy. “Thank you. Sorry to disturb your meeting, sir.” I hold out my hand to introduce myself and sort of break the tension. “Well, the kids call me Ms. Dunn,” I wink, “but you can call me Eleanor.”
Holden doesn’t smile and I feel foolish.
From the corner of my eye I can see Jane. She is pretending to not know me while she takes out a red pen and grades papers. Clumps of teachers shuffle up to their classrooms, stopping at the refreshments on their way out. I spot them sneaking little cranberry muffins into white paper napkins for later.
“Well Ms. Dunn,” he holds out his hand. I must say it is a pleasure to meet you. I’ve heard you are a kind of celebrity around here.” I pitch a reluctant chuckle to try and ascertain his tone.
We shake hands and he introduces himself, “The name is Mr. Holden, Harry Holden. His body language turns flirtatious. Suddenly, I look around and everyone has left, even Jane has abandoned me. “You look young, Ms. Dunn? Like a brand new teacher.” “Well, thank you, Mr. Holden.” And suddenly I sound like Scarlet O’Hara in the final scene of Gone with the Wind and inadvertently continue to role play with this creep flipping curls toward my left shoulder. “Well, Harry, I’ve been teaching for nearly 12 years but I have only been at Jefferson for three.” I continue and sort of surprise myselfIn fact, this is my tenure year.”
I want to kick myself for saying that. Way to make sure Holden pays attention to every screw up, Ellie. But he quickly interjects and I realize that I’m safe, he hasn’t listened to a thing I’ve said.
“Well, you had better hurry upstairs, Eleanor.”
I have the urge to sarcastically beg him for a spanking but reluctantly hold my tongue as misogyny floods the little stairway alcove. “You don’t want to be late for those students. Remember, I want those numbers by the end of the week.”
My stomach plummets as I realize he is referring to what he must have just said in the meeting. I try and act like I know what he’s talking about. Like I didn’t spend the entire meeting texting Jane, grading papers and listening to Comfortably Numb. I attempt to keep my composure but my curly red hair finds its way around my middle finger, a childish habit I’ve yet to break. Holden must sense my discomfort.
“Ms. Dunn, do you need clarification on the importance of what I introduced today?” I am about to turn away from him but my passion for teaching spills from my mouth. “Let me guess your speech had to do with filling of charts not the education of children?.
“Ms. Dunn, do you have a problem with recording data, Ms. Dunn because as I stated in the meeting this morning, I will need some numbers by the end of the week.”
His patronizing attitude begins to piss me off and I return to full blasted sarcasm. “Mr. Holden, you can rest knowing that it is one of my all-time favorite things to do. In fact, recording data is why I entered into teaching in the first place.”
“Ms. Dunn, whether you like it or not, being a teacher is a bit like being a real estate agent. The district sells, the houses sell.”
He pauses and wipes some beads of sweat from his brow. His handkerchief is embroidered with his initials, H. R. H.
He is boring me and my mind starts to wander. I glance over to the long table and notice that those cranberry muffins have vanished. There were hundreds of those little things like five minutes ago.
“Ms. Dunn? Excuse me, Ms. Dunn, are you listening?” He said something stupid about teachers being real estate agents. What an ass! I try to exit on a pleasantry. “Yes, thank you for your time.
By the way the embroidery on your handkerchief is beautiful. I assume the H and H are Harry Holden!” I sing his name allowing the vowels to swoop up and down on my tongue. “But what about the R?”
His face changes and a moment that should be light turns dark; the air feels sudden and heavy. “The R stands for Robbie. My teenage son Robbie. The one I mentioned in my talk this morning…the one killed last May.”
I crouch onto the step as a dust bunny lands on my nose. “Oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no. Ellie, you are such an idiot!” Hearing me mumble He takes a deep breath and gains his composure. “I am so sorry, Mr. Holden.”
“Ms. Dunn. What school do you teach in?” Mortified for not listening earlier, I say with a gulp, “I am here at Jefferson High.” He does not smile back, I’ve driven him to swollen memories.”I guess I should hurry upstairs. Wouldn’t want to impact housing prices.”
He laughs at my attempt at collegiality, and gets us back to the business at hand. There is no escape.
“Ms. Dunn, I appreciate your idealism and I’m sure you’re a fine teacher. But you are just one of many. Please don’t forget that part of your job is to make our district look good by helping our students score high on tests. And that, Ms. Dunn, whether you like it or not, is my job.”
I take a deep breath and look at the murals painted on the cafeteria walls. Primitive portraits of John Lennon, Anne Frank and Malcolm X painted by students in 1988. Work that will continue to endure as generations come, glance and go.
“Mr. Holden I bet you loved being in the classroom. How many years did you have the teach before you were recruited to the dark side?”
He strolls over to the long formica table and fills his coffee cup again. The coffee is nearly gone and he tilts the urn towards the floor to salvage the last drop.
“Well, Ms. Dunn, sadly I only taught three years before I entered, as you call it, the dark side. There is something gratifying about being in the thick of it. I’ll not deny it.” He wipes his brow and winks. “But the dark side pays a hell of a lot better.”
I stir my cold black coffee with a red plastic stick as I watch steam rise from his cup. “Only three years? Wow, three years and I was still Junior Varsity.” Silent, he paces and wipes his brow again. I keep humiliating my boss. I’m such an idiot!
“Well, like I said, I wish I could have spent more time in the classroom. But you must admit, teenagers can be a real handful.” “I don’t know, Mr. Holden. Perhaps you underestimate them.” I swoop up my books and begin to walk towards my classroom. I surprise myself by saying, “Mr. Holden be sure not to underestimate me.” He does not answer. We part ways without goodbyes.
“Damn.” I mutter to myself. “That didn’t go well.”