(Because we’re just pretending anyway, right?)
By Hugh Chapman
When I was a kid, my friends and I played Secret Agents. With toy pistols we’d run around the yard trying to out-spy the bad guys. But eventually the game would get boring so we’d think of a good way for the enemy to do us in so we could go sit in the shade. Sometimes we’d be tricked into drinking a deadly potion! (It was really only Kool-Aid that someone’s mom had made). Or maybe we’d be chased over a cliff that was a thousand… No! A million feet high. Sometimes we’d be captured, or sometimes we’d crash our bikes, or (for the truly unimaginative kids) we’d just say we were shot or something. At any rate, once we were done in, we’d always go sit in the shade because from that point on we were dead.
But one day a new kid moved in our neighborhood. After a half hour of spying, he pretended to have been killed. But then…he didn’t go sit down! Instead he just shouted, “New Guy!” then kept right on playing. My friends and I were stunned.
I said, “What do you mean, ‘new guy’? You can’t still be playing. You’re dead.”
He said, “No. I was dead. Now I’m a new guy.” Then the kid laughed when he saw my irritation. “Look, this is just pretend, right? I’m not ready to quit playing, so now I’m going to pretend to be a new guy.” To my amazement, the other kids went along with him.
For me, the event marked a whole new paradigm. The crazy kid was right! We were just pretending anyway. So if he wanted to be a new guy – in fact if we all want to be new guys — all we have to do is shout out our intention and start again.
I have since adopted the philosophy as my own and it has worked well for me most of my life. When I got fat my first year in college, I woke up one morning and said, “New guy,” then set out to lose 30 pounds. When a girl I worked with told me I had wimpy arms, I called, “New guy,” then went to the gym and ended up bench pressing 300 pounds before the year was out. When I discovered I didn’t have enough money to buy the beach condo in Destin, Florida that I wanted for my retirement, I said, “New guy,” and… well, I still haven’t made it, but I haven’t stopped trying.
The point is; if life is not working out the way we want it, we don’t have to remain the same. And neither do our students
Role of the Teacher
My friends know me as a school teacher/bus driver. Our school is high poverty; we have a 73 percent free or reduced lunch program. For many of my kids, life is not pretend.
My first encounter with a future student was two years before I began my teaching career. My wife was already teaching at our elementary school and one evening she asked me to drive her to the home of one of her forth graders so she could visit with the parents about his worsening school performance. When we got there we found a mother, father and four children living in a broken down trailer. The living room was heated with a rusty wood stove and illuminated by two kerosene lamps. My wife’s student, who had done well in the early fall when the days were long, had simply reached a point where after finishing his chores there was not enough daylight left to do his homework.
As we drove home that night, I watched my wife brush away a tear. “Baxter’s parents can’t even help themselves, much less help Baxter,” she sighed. “And if his teachers won’t help him, who will? He’ll have to live this way for the rest of his life.”
That was the moment I decided what I wanted to do with my life.
If I appear to be rambling, please bear with me; the two stories are very much related. At the time my wife introduced me to Baxter I was the branch manager at a rapidly growing bank with multi-million dollar facilities. My desk, bookshelf and credenza were made of Indonesian Mahogany and I had plush leather chairs. But the night I met Baxter, I began to realize that I had only been pretending. It was time to be a new guy, and within six months I was back in school pursuing a degree in Special Education. It was the only means I knew to reach people like Baxter. And while I would never be flippant enough to suggesting that Baxter was pretending (because his life was more real than I can possibly imagine) I will tell you that his existence was far from the one he would have chosen. And though his parents were desperate to help, it was all they could do to simply survive.
So what do I stand for as a teacher? Well it’s not reading, writing and arithmetic, (although they are obviously an essential part of any curriculum.) Rather, I stand for helping a child with his own realization; the discovery that if what he’s doing is not working for him he doesn’t have to leave the game and sit in the shade. There’s a new guy in there somewhere. He just needs the motivation to step forward. My job is to find the motivation.
The Role of the School
No teacher has a say anymore in what is being taught in Arkansas Schools. There are standards and frameworks that must be adhered to in order for the school to meet the preset criteria. Fortunately, the State has designed a well rounded menu for our students. But like a good restaurant, the items on the menu must be well prepared by someone with the expertise to do so. Whether it’s reading, calculus, chemistry, or health, the school should insist on excellence from its teachers in their area of specialty.
But even more, the school should surpass those basics. Teachers should be encouraged to get to know about their students. I’m not talking, obviously, about becoming one of the kids in a buddy-buddy kind of way. Rather, I contend that familiarity can be achieved in a very professional manner. An excellent means would be to monitor a bus route for a day or two. An excursion down the back roads of Izard County Arkansas, for instance, can be an eye opening experience for most teachers.
Teacher Student Relationship
As noted, the teacher must remain professional at all times. A true teacher is sickened when he or she learns of impropriety or immorality among others within the profession. Yet in order to truly be effective, there should be a respectful form of professional familiarity established between teacher and student.
My eighth grade English teacher was an old fuddy duddy of a woman who my friends and I made fun of unmercifully. But soon she discovered I was interested in baseball and one day she called me to her desk and told me she was from Forrest City, Arkansas and that she used to baby-sit for Chicago Cubs shortstop Don Kissinger. From that point on, old Mrs. Hudspeth could do no wrong in my eyes.
How Students Learn
Students need lessons that 1) relate to their own prior knowledge and 2) deal with subjects the student can see themselves making use of in the future. By the time my wife’s student Baxter had reached the seventh grade, I had been employed as the school’s special education teacher. Baxter was a big friendly kid and he and I quickly established a mutual respect. Because I drove Baxter’s bus route I would occasionally see his father at the house. One day I stopped in for a visit. Baxter’s father told me that he worked part time as a carpenter for one of the local builders and he hoped that Baxter would go into the same business someday. That afternoon after my route was done I swung back by the school and borrowed a book on carpentry from our shop teacher.
Kids relate to things they know and things they will eventually use. When I showed up the next day with a carpenters square talking about how rafters are affected by the lean and pitch of the roof, Baxter was the only kid in class who knew what I was talking about. It became the thing that distinguished him from the others. Baxter knew about roofing, and Mr. Chapman thought it was important enough to talk about it in class! His father later told me that Baxter had become a pretty good carpenter.
As I mentioned earlier, the basics, reading, writing and rudimentary math skills are essential for any education. But because I was dealing with special education kids, they required a lot of reinforcement. My “three R’s” became review, remediation and re-teaching because my students seemed to grasp the skills one day but then forget them by the next morning. I learned to use this short term memory failure to my advantage.
Moderately handicapped kids like Baxter, I discovered, are often very happy and quick to forget their anger. Though I would sometimes make him angry enough to spit nails, Baxter would soon forgive, forget, and want to be my buddy again. I taught him to just say “new guy,” as a signal that he was ready to start fresh. After a few months, I realized this was a gift we could all benefit from.
I knew that if potential employers could get to know Baxter like I did, they would learn to like him, and thus be willing to overlook many faults. So after our remediation, I tried to work on ways that would best benefit my kids socially. I taught them to be clean and to present a firm handshake. I would teach them to say, “Yes sir” and “no ma’am,” to speak clearly and to make eye contact. And I tried to show them that controlling their temper was absolutely essential.
Tangible rewards are few in teaching, but one Valentines Day Baxter wrote me the following note which I’ll keep in my file forever.
“To a good friend ho (who) taught me everything that I know and moer (more)! A good friend and understand my problem and ho (who) wass a good teacher. Love, your good friend Baxter.
Social Context and Expectations
In the fall of 1999, four months after his high school graduation Baxter died in an automobile accident along the rural curves of an Arkansas Ozark Highway. He was 21 years old and had held a job for the past two years. As I walked away from the simple grave site, I found myself wondering what our years together had all been for. And I remembered what my wife had once said after visiting Baxter’s home, “His parents can’t even help themselves, much less help Baxter…if his teachers won’t help him, who will?
Though Baxter never got the chance to realize his full potential, I have no regrets concerning my efforts. I did the very best I could, and in turn, Baxter gave me his very best. I guess that’s all any of us can really hope for.
I don’t want to get too spiritual in a philosophically based paper, but I do have a confidence that Baxter has found a better place where at last his knowledge is complete. “New guy, Baxter. New Guy!”