Friday, January 7, 2011

Thirty years of fun

It is hard to believe that I spent thirty years doing what I enjoyed most - teaching. I have done this many times for free - it came so easy to me and I felt that I owed back to society my expertise and the experience I had gained through many years of education both in Europe and the United States, living and traveling overseas. I spent twenty-five years as a full-time teacher and five years as a private teacher and graduate teaching assistant.

I remember playtime always involved me as the teacher, while my friends had to be dutiful students. There was no time in my mind that I contemplated very seriously doing something else.

I remember the trepidation of the first day of school, entering the classroom and seeing the anxious eyes of my students, wondering who is going to be the class clown, the brilliant but quiet student, the brown-noser, the know-it-all, the goth, the shy, cannot-fit-in, the non-conformist, the loud-mouth, the creative, and the beauty queen who excelled at being popular.

My reputation preceded me, one generation of students told the other about the Romanian teacher who spoke 14 languages. It seemed that every year, the number of languages increased with my fame. I started with six and it had reached 14.

Meeting with parents twice a year on Parents and Orientation Day was also a whirlwind of fun since there were anxious expectations on both sides. I knew I would do my job in an exceptional way but I had to reassure the parents that their children will receive world-class education, unlike any institution they attended before. None of the teachers were unionized, most of them had Ph.D.s and considered teaching a vocation and their life's calling.

As a perfectionist, I did not want to teach unless I did it to perfection, unless I went far beyond the call of duty. No matter how much I was paid, my salary was never enough to compensate for the long hours and effort I put in to prepare my lessons and my delivery. I was always on a stage, giving 150%, whether it was 8 a.m. or 8 p.m., whether I felt poorly or terribly, my students deserved and got the best.

I had regrets often that I could not spend more time with my children as they grew up so fast. I cried when I could not spend time with them but I brought them with me into the classroom all the time. Since first grade, they were a fixture in the back of my classroom, doing their homework, rolling their eyes at mom's delivery and antics, after all, I was mom, I could not seriously be a teacher, a teacher is a goddess on a pedestal, and I was just "mom." How could I be anything else?

I allowed students to be themselves within certain understood parameters of classroom behavior. I allowed them to think, be creative, and express opinions in a non-threatening environment, while respecting the views of others. We traveled to far-away places and brought lessons back that were forever etched in their memories.

Some of the names have faded from my memory but their faces are still in my mind's eye. I have pictures of every class I've taught and, as I look at pictures of what some of my students have become, it is hard to match the high school or college photo with the adult of today.

I associate some students with minor mishaps such as accidentally shining a laser beam in the teacher's eye and blinding her for four days with minor permanent damage to one eye, special clothing they wore, hilarious hairdos, projects they completed, trips they took during which time they've gotten lost in a foreign country, winter formals, Tales from the Crypt, and Depression Day.

My students kept me young, smiling, laughing, and eager to go to work every day even though I disliked my colleagues who indoctrinated students every day into the vile communism that I had escaped in 1978. I closed my eyes and focused on the positive aspect of the job, teaching young minds to become proud and productive Americans.

Most of my pupils were naive idealists, socialists and communists at heart, wearing Che Guevara t-shirts, not really understanding the reality of what they believed in and advertised.

My former high school and college students are now productive members of society, with families, responsibilities, and I am proud that I was a tiny part of what they have become today, I am in essence touching the future, even though I have retired.