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I was 21 years old, a bride of two months and scared out of my wits.

My mother had told me that teaching was something you could “fall back on,” and I had listened. I not only got the husband, a requirement to growing up in the 1950s. I also got that teaching degree.

So on a September day splashed with sunshine, I stood trembling in Room B4 of what was then the brand new Willingboro Junior-Senior High School. I was waiting to greet my first class of eighth graders, and frankly, I wanted to bolt.

I was so terrified I didn’t dare hold the class list, because my hands were shaking, and I was sure these 13- and 14-year-olds would notice and ride roughshod over me.

My fervent hope was they wouldn’t find me out, so I went for being tough. I insisted they stand when they spoke. I didn’t tolerate side conversations. I force-fed them grammar from a grim textbook and made these eighth-graders diagram sentences for mastery of language.

I’m not sure who hated it all more – the kids or their new English teacher. And all the while, I was actually smitten by them.

More than 50 years later, I can still remember the names of those kids, where they sat and even some of their personal histories. But I never let on that I cared.

There were days when I came home to our little Cape Cod house and cried out of sheer exhaustion – and frustration.

By the end of the first marking period, a wise veteran teacher took  me aside, counseled me on the ways of eighth graders and assured me that tyranny was not going to work in the end. How right she was.

As I loosened up and released my grip on control and concentrated, instead, on creative teaching, I began to finally get somewhere.

Linda, the queen-bee leader of the girls in my first-period English class, somehow spread the word that I was OK. Nicky, the tough guy in fifth-period English, became my buddy, not my tormenter. I would love to say that I magically became a great and inspiring teacher that year. But I was far too young – and too green – to work that miracle. Still, when  I finally loosened up, the vibe changed.

I loved their reactions to the prints and paintings I would bring in as inspiration for writing.  A Picasso “blue period” print of a woman and a boy standing and staring at the ocean brought interpretations that dazzled me, laced as they were with thoughts about loneliness and alienation.

By the second half of my first year of teaching, I was in love. It was a collective love of these boys whose feet were suddenly too big and whose voices were moving octaves in a single sentence. It was love for eighth-grade girls who so desperately wanted to own their changing bodies and who were just starting to become the women they would be.

Most of all, I would learn that the brightest of them still had deforming fears about being liked and accepted, and those who struggled needed extra TLC. I tried hard to help them find affirmation as artists or athletes or just as great kids.

By June, I knew I wouldn’t be back to see my students in the fall. I was newly pregnant with our first child back in an era when pregnant teachers were not welcome in classrooms. And it absolutely broke my heart.

As overjoyed as I was about having a child of my own, I would miss the next chapter of the lives of these youngsters I’d come to adore. And I still had so much to learn from them.

I never went back to teaching. Motherhood, and then writing, took over my life. But every September, I think of those first-year teachers walking into classrooms. I think of how much they have to learn. And hopefully, to give.

September 2014
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