In1970 I moved out of state to train as a medical technologist. Although I loved the work, my favorite part of the day was early morning when the lab techs made rounds of the wards to draw blood. Finally, I became so lonely for the interactions with people that I had enjoyed in teaching that I dropped out of the program. A science position deep in the Ozark Mountains appealed to me and the village was charming with old-style houses available for rent, so I applied and got the job.
I leased a house with French doors leading from the living room to the back yard which was pleasantly overgrown with large bushes and trees providing some privacy from curious neighbors and passersby on the main blacktop entering the village from the south. Shopping in the only general store was less enjoyable, however. The clerk covertly followed me, creeping around the ends of the isles to peer cautiously at the interloper.
I enjoyed cutting the grass and trimming the bushes and decorating the house after classes every afternoon. In late September I had the large heating oil tank in the back yard filled since the weather was getting chilly at night.
Not too long after the tank was filled the owner knocked on my door.
“You’re going to have to move, Miss. My wife thinks you have fixed up the house and yard so cute, she wants to move in.”
“I have a lease for this year. Then your wife can move in.”
“You don’t understand. I’m evicting you.”
“Then see a lawyer,” I snapped and closed the door.
Perhaps this Missouri mule thought he could bully me. But when that didn’t work he tried to wear me down by knocking on my door or calling me several times a week to tell me I had to move.
“You have to move by the first of October, Miss. The law is on my side. I get to keep the deposit and the heating oil, too.”
“I’m not moving, Mr. Johns. A lease not only protects the landlord from a dishonest renter, it protects the renter from a dishonest landlord. I’m willing to move but I expect you to refund my deposit and pay me for the heating oil. Here is the receipt to show what I paid.”
He then tried to negotiate a lower price on the oil but I steadfastly refused anything but a full refund on my money. At last, to my surprise, he coughed up the deposit and full price of the oil, so I agreed to move.
Considering that the store clerk thought I was from another planet and the owner of the house had little concept of how laws work, I decided to move to a nearby larger town. There would be an hour commute but hopefully the people there would be more involved in this century.
The two bedroom house I found was in excellent condition and I hired movers since I was teaching full time and didn’t have time to pack. Nor did I have any acquaintances to help with moving the stove, refrigerator and heavy furniture. Only later did I discover that my new landlords, who lived just across the driveway from my little house, were leaders in the local Jehovah’s Witnesses church.
In 1970 Missouri had no minimum wage laws to protect public school teachers, so I bargained for my yearly salary. Being a woman with a broad science background and being highly recommended, I succeeded in getting the second highest wage in the school district. Other teachers, some with Masters Degrees, eventually found out what my salary was and complained bitterly. Nevertheless, my broad educational background made me unusually versatile, so I was unperturbed.
Classes began with a bang that first week. One afternoon during Biology class two male students began to quarrel and moved to the back of the room into the lab to throw punches. They pushed each other violently and shouted angrily. Afraid they would crash into the glass cupboard doors or break the gas connections, I hurried back to demand that they stop fighting immediately. They glared at me uncertainly so I took advantage of the situation to dismiss the class to get the students out of the room. Then I told the two combatants they had a choice of dropping the class or one of them could move to the morning section. They assured me that neither choice was acceptable to them. Then they hurriedly left the building to catch their buses.
Early the next morning I was called into the principal’s office. The boys were there, having told the principal of my highhanded tactics of the afternoon before.
“Miss, you don’t have any authority to tell students they must drop a class or move to another section. That is my prerogative, not yours. These boys will be back in the afternoon class today.”
“No they won’t,” I stated boldly. “If these students are allowed to over-ride the teacher’s discipline and I am not allowed to have control of my own classroom, you may look for another science teacher.” Then I turned to the students.
“Alvin, you may come to the morning class. Shawn, you may stay in the afternoon class.” Then I wheeled and left the principal’s office.
The elderly principal appealed to the superintendent who upheld me, I was to learn later. It seems that no one was willing to cross swords with the ageing administrator who was ready to retire. Possibly he wanted the good will of the parents and students more than he wanted to support a staff with high turnover and strange ways.
At the beginning of every class period the principal came into my room the collect absence slips. He just walked in and stood impatiently at my lecture desk. If I hadn’t taken attendance yet, he jogged my memory. If I was slow in determining who was absent, he helped me get it right. At last, to gain a little autonomy, I shut the door to the room, but he walked in without knocking. Not being very long-suffering, I asked him to wait at least ten minutes before coming to my door for the absence slips. Nothing changed, so I paid a visit to the superintendent and mentioned this contest of wills. The super had a talk with the man and he didn’t come back to my room to ask for anything but sent an office helper who did give the teachers enough time for record keeping duties.
I found a door hanger that showed a cave man with a huge club and proclaimed, “Knock at your own risk”. Then I told the students, “Heaven help the person who knocks on my door during a lesson.” They took me seriously, and a week later, when my brother and his wife were passing through the area, they stopped at the school to say hello to me. They stopped a student in the hallway to ask directions to my room and were amused when the student explained that I was having a class and “heaven help the person who interrupted her lessons.” Of course, my brother wasn’t afraid to interrupt and I was so delighted to see him that I allowed the class to go outside before the end of the period. Score one for the teacher.
Early in the first semester there was an all-school assembly for students to hear the dress code read. Among the rules were stipulations for the girls’ hemlines and boys’ hair length. I dressed extremely conservatively so the students asked what I thought of the dress code when they returned to class, and were quite surprised that I thought the rules were a little tight for them.
“For example,” I commented, “look at Lee’s hair. It’s over his ears, but it the Asian style and his hair is always shiny clean.” Students looked carefully at Lee who was smiling at my approval, then back at me in surprise. Score another point for the teacher.
Across the hall from the science room was the English classroom with a first year teacher whose parents were university professors. F. was a refined young lady who loved her subject but her students did not. Several months after I met her she began to tell me about coming to school to find papers strewn around her classroom, desks turned over, and even her own heavy oak desk turned on its side at times. She confided that she had rented a little one-room shack with no telephone and at night there were voices and thumping noises around the building. I urged her to move in with me since I had an extra bedroom.
“Oh no,” she exclaimed. “That would put you in danger of harassment, too.”
“No it wouldn’t. No student would dare to trash my classroom. They wouldn’t torment you or me by phone, either. Think about it as long as you need to.” F. did move in with me the last two months of school, and all the monkey business stopped.
In the classroom I am all business until the lesson is given. Alexander sat nearest the door and kept up a running monologue from the time he entered until I shushed him to begin the class. His monologue was so funny I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing. One day I just couldn’t hold it in any longer and bent over the lecture desk wailing with laughter and nearly in tears. Students sat tense, waiting for the axe to fall, but instead I explained that Alexander had a wonderful sense of humor, always clean and truly funny. They could hardly believe their ears, and Alexander’s chest swelled with the compliment. Score another one for the teacher.
When lessons were finished early we talked, and I often told stories of other schools and my early life. Although I grew up on a farm, our parents could not afford a horse, and I had always wanted one.
“Can you ride?” they asked.
“Yes, but not well.”
“Janie has a pony and she lives on a farm. Would you like to ride her pony?”
Janie was eager for me to visit her, so I went home with her after school one Friday to ride her pony. The rascal was small and rough riding, but he seemed to like me. After I’d made a couple of passes around the pasture Janie confessed that the pony was mean and bucked everybody off. I had been set up, but Janie’s plans were foiled when I managed to stay on the bone-bruising critter. By this time the kids were beginning to like me in spite of the tight classroom. One person even said when they first met me they knew they wouldn’t like me because I dressed so conservatively and was so strict. But I kept surprising them with my tolerance of them and their ways.
Second semester I could see that we wouldn’t be able to finish the Biology text so I asked the students to help me prioritize the units. It was my intention to omit the human sexuality unit because Missouri law forbade the teaching of sex. Of course, both classes begged to have this unit included so I explained that I didn’t want to lose my credentials by violating the law.
“But you are qualified,” they begged. “You taught human sexuality in Illinois.”
“I’m willing, but how can I be sure you won’t betray me to your superintendent? You know David is his son and he is in my morning class.”
“I promise not to tell,” David urged.
Still I hesitated and they tried to think of some risk they could take to show good faith. At last they had an idea.
“Remember the fight that broke out that first week of school? We could tell that you didn’t know the older student was high on drugs and we were afraid he would hurt you because he has been arrested for assault. Would you like to learn something about drugs? We will teach you and even take you to places the police would like to know about. Is that a fair exchange?”
“OK,” I agreed weakly. They were risking themselves, but I was expected by state law to report them if I knew anything. So our trust had to go both ways. I still remember the dingy basement bars they took me to, and needle strewn parking lots. Drugs were not a part of my life, so I hadn’t given it a thought that the larger town I moved to might be a magnet for drugs. On the other hand, they asked questions about sex that had never entered my head. I handled that by calling the public health nurse and she threatened to turn me in.
“Because I am asking questions about sex,” I asked? “Is that proof that I am teaching sex ed? If you can’t or don’t wish to answer me, I will find someone who can answer my questions. You are not the only source of information.”
Throughout the school year my Jehovah’s Witness neighbors brought trainees to my door. Although I wouldn’t let them in, I would stand at the door and discuss evolution versus creation with them. They seemed surprised that I could be a public school teacher of science and still believe in God and creation as described in the Bible. Finally they asked if they could come and talk in more detail about this issue. Not being a beginner, I was willing but didn’t want to use a whole evening merely to bat the breeze.
From time to time I noticed that the landlord came into my house without telling me in advance he would be entering while I was gone. I couldn’t understand why they would do that, so at last I bought a paperback copy of Once a Watchtower Slave and left it prominently on the kitchen table. That seemed to eliminate most of the clandestine snooping.
In the course of a weekend visit they mentioned that one of their horses in the pasture just at the back of my house had been shot recently.
“Why!” I exclaimed.
“Well, its deer hunting season and I suppose the hunter thought he saw a deer.”
“Don’t hunters get permission to hunt on someone else’s property?
“No, people aren’t concerned about trespassing around here. Even if you caught them and pressed charges, they wouldn’t be punished and maybe not even fined.”
Attitudes were certainly different in neighboring Illinois. As I thought about the vast difference between the two states, I decided that probably I should return to the present century at the end of the school year. When I turned in my letter of resignation the superintendent called to ask if I would come to his office. Our conversations had all been collegial but I wondered if anyone had told him about the agreement between me and my students concerning the drugs and sex exchange. It turned out that he wanted to persuade me to stay on in his small school district, so I told him about agreeing to teach my students about sex ed in trade for their teaching me about drugs. I briefly mentioned my local landlord and F.’s terror at night and dismay when she came to school nearly every morning. Then I asked him if his son had told him about our lessons at the end of the term, but he had not. Of course I was flattered that this man trusted me so much he would want me to return, but at that time Illinois was third in the nation in educational laws and standards so I moved back home. That year is still clear in my mind and I enjoy thinking of the people who made it so memorable.
When I returned to my home town, because of the national recession, I worked for a year as an upholsterer’s apprentice and then opened my own shop for five years.
With experiences like this, I don’t need to write fiction!