Chapter two: Glory Days
Bruce Springsteen’s hit coincided with student teaching in the mid-1980s, but it’s the song that pops into my head when I think of teaching in the ‘90s and my time at NLRHS.
Though my job at the paper was fun, before long I missed what I considered my calling, and when I returned to teaching full-time in 1990, it was in the most Welcome Back, Kotter-esque circumstance possible (minus the sweat-hog part). My new gig as the Journalism One and Creative Writing teacher (only electives from now on for me) at the East Campus of the newly reconfigured North Little Rock HIgh School meant I taught in the same classroom in which I’d spent so many hours as a teenager on yearbook staff –and taught with some of my own teachers.
(Kotter-esque side note: The first day of duty that year, when we had to fill out emergency info cards at our first big gathering of teachers, I wrote my maiden name, even though I’d been going by my then-husband/children’s father’s name for 14 years. It was funny and prophetic, as I would end my time there divorced and back to my maiden name. Freud did claim there are no accidents.)
My creative writing students produced an East Campus literary magazine, and, for one year, my journalism students produced an East Campus newspaper. Then the district decided two papers were redundant and I was told I’d be traveling for one period to West Campus to oversee the newspaper staff and combine both papers.
The first year of being at both campuses was a bit disorienting – I had to teach newspaper staff in another teacher’s classroom at West Campus, but I did get a travel period in addition to my prep period and the cutest little portable Mac computer you ever saw. The two newspaper editors, Lindy (West Campus) and Nickie (East Campus) would come to my house in Park Hill in the evening to work on the paper when necessary, and we managed just fine. (The three of us also went to a high school journalism convention in Chicago – stayed with my friend Pam in the suburb of Mundelein, and I rented a car to get us around, of all things. That would never fly today.)
I loved, loved teaching creative writing and was given total latitude in what I taught. Fortunately/unfortunately (depending on the student), I was a poetry fiend and taught them all kinds of poetic forms, common and obscure. We read the novella Rear Window then watched Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie, then the kids wrote about the differences. We watched Arsenic and Old Lace for Halloween, then the kids either wrote long letters to one of the characters or a “newspaper article” about what had transpired. They loved it.
Neither assignment would be up to standards today.
I quickly developed a reputation. “You don’t want to make her mad,” the kids would say, though I was never sure if it was because of stories told by one of my darling students the first year (who is now an actor in L.A. and my friend on Facebook), whom I would take in the hall and chew out royally – and regularly call his mother – for acting like a goofball in class, or because I only wrote up two students in my years there, and in both cases the kids got four days in in-school suspension, a tough punishment for the times.
(One was a kid who loudly used a horrible racial slur against a precious girl and excellent student who had been adopted as an infant from Korea. The other was a random kid in the hall who called me a bitch outside my classroom door. Turned out his dad was an old friend from junior high and high school. Big oops for him at home – his dad was furious and brought him to my room to apologize, in addition to the suspension. Parents were still pretty quick to back teachers, even in the 1990s.)
Whatever the reason, I was glad to have the mystique. I also taught my own children and many of their best friends during those years. I was the only available teacher, so everyone made do and no one thought anything of it, other than a few kids called me “Mom.”
I gradually began teaching more periods of newspaper at West Campus and sharing the journalism compound with my journalism teacher/mentor, Gail Hopkins, who taught yearbook. I was at West Campus enough periods that my classroom at East was used by another teacher when I was gone, and gang graffiti began showing up in my room and the books on the shelves, something that infuriated me. These were the Banging in Little Rock days, and things were never perfect. We had our share of fights at both campuses and the usual headaches. I’m not remembering through rose-colored lenses.
But I did have students who were in my classes because they requested them. That made all the difference in the world in what the old PET (Program for Effective Teaching) terminology would have called “Feeling Tone.” And they knew they could get kicked out if the they acted up too badly. Journalism and creative writing students were expected to have at least a C average in English and know how to write a sentence. That seems so refreshing now.
During those years, I proposed an Editor’s Lab credit for newspaper editors. It was approved, but the first year I had to give up my prep period for it. What a joy. When I moved full-time to West Campus, editors could get that credit during a second period of newspaper staff. I ended up full-time at West after proposing a new journalism class, Desktop Publishing, which was quickly approved. I taught using Quark Express and Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator on the small Mac computer lab that newspaper staff and I built via fundraisers from regular car washes to carport sales to a snack closet we were allowed to operate on a full-time basis.
The class was so popular that by the second year we had a Desktop Publishing II, by application only. I’d also picked up the girls soccer team, one of the most fun (though time-consuming) things of all, along with an athletic period to go with it. For a couple of years, it was teaching heaven. All upperclassmen, all electives: Newspaper staff, DTP and soccer and no traveling between campuses.
I took students (always groups of girls) all over the country to high school journalism conventions, and one year our newsmagazine (we adopted the newly developing format that very year) was judged eighth in the nation. And the soccer team was damned good the first two years. As I said, glory days.
(Telling story from those days from a conference with an assistant principal, a DTP student who’d not been doing her work before she stopped coming to class altogether, and the girl’s mother. Said girl claimed she’d stopped coming to class because she was so far behind and was scared to talk to me because she knew I wouldn’t be nice to her. The AP roared with laughter at that excuse, turned to me, and asked if I could work out a way for her to catch up. I said of course, and the AP left the details to me. No one asked any questions or monitored how we did it. That girl never did like me, but she did get the credit she needed and graduated on time.
I’d gotten divorced and was working two extra jobs and doing freelance desktop publishing work to make ends meet with two teenagers at home and a big house payment, so I was beginning to think I might need to graduate to a job that paid more in 1998, when my daughter would graduate, a year after her brother. But it still came as a huge blow when the principal called me in to tell me the Arkansas Department of Education had decided to create a version of desktop publishing to be taught by business teachers with Microsoft Office software. On Dells. My classes were now illegal, and I’d probably have to go back to traveling between campuses again – and possibly pick up some English classes.
Fortunately, before I even looked for a job, the then-managing editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette asked me to come back, at a salary much higher than I was making as a teacher, so it worked out well. (I’d taught his children and the exchange students who lived with them.) Liz graduated and I left teaching forever. Again.
And again, this is long, so the third – and truly last – teaching act will have to wait for part three.