My almost granddaughter-in-law is earning her master’s degree and has made a commitment to teach in an inner-city Memphis school for three years. I think that this is a wonderful thing, and it propels me back in time to 1960, when I began my teaching career in an inner-city Memphis school. I taught in Memphis for three years before moving from that city. As I think about describing that first year of teaching, my mind is bombarded with two thoughts, one a comment from my son, John, and one from our long-time friend, Lin Martin.
When John left Kentucky for the first time, he went to be a part of a discipleship program in Texas which meant he had to find part-time jobs to support himself. He had the choice of chopping vegetables for a restaurant salad bar or driving a school bus. A “no-brainer”, right? So he thought BEFORE the driving began. After a day or two of bus driving, he called me to say, “Mom, you would have to be crazy to turn your back on a bus full of middle school kids, much less try to drive.” So, he went back to chopping veggies for a while. I had had that same thought as I went, at age 22, to turn my back on inner city middle school students in Memphis. I had had not one day of experience in front of a class by myself, because I, who was going to be a speech therapist, had done my practice teaching in a speech pathology clinic. I landed in a Memphis school with an ancient principal who judged you as a teacher by how straight your class line was in the hall and who, if you sent children to her for discipline, either talked to them about the dangers of bicycles, or quoted over and over again “in loco parentis” (Latin for “in the place of a parent” to emphasize her control over them) or looked at rosebush catalogues with them. No help there! Anyway, I was thinking along the same line as John, only with a different slant. “They have to be crazy to put me in a room with students and close the door.” I remember distinctly the first time someone said, “Mrs. Bryson”; I turned around to see if my mother-in-law was in the room. Finally, it dawned on me that I was Mrs. Bryson, the teacher in this room. Probably the reason that I have not shared the story of the day Miss Margaret Williams visited my room is because of the question that Lin Martin asked me after I had been writing articles for The Harlan Daily Enterprise for about eight months. I was standing in a crowded room when Lin approached me and asked, “Do you make up those stories you write? You have a good imagination.” I nearly fell over as I replied, “No.” He then asked, “How do you remember them?” I’m not sure whether I replied or just thought, “It’s my life, and how could I not remember it?” Lin is a good friend, so I was not offended, but the following story may make many doubt its truth. It was an unbelievable day.
It was spring, 1961; teacher and students were looking forward to going outside for recess on this warm Memphis day. Things in the classroom were shaping up pretty well in spite of my inexperience. I believe it was a Friday, because someone came to my door with an unopened batch of Weekly Readers. I decided that this activity would be a good time filler and had just handed them out when into my room, which was already warm and crowded, came a large lady dressed in black, and accompanying her were two gentlemen dressed in black suits. Margaret Williams was not just any lady; she was THE person who had interviewed me (and the other teachers in the city of Memphis) and had the power of hiring and firing any of us. The three were official representatives from the central office of education there to observe me, with no warning, as a first year teacher. When I saw these visitors, I’m sure my heart rate doubled. It was about this time that I glanced down at the front page of the Weekly Reader and noticed that it was devoted entirely to the U.S. Nautilus, America’s first nuclear powered submarine! (GULP). Children nearly always “catch” the teacher’s emotional state, and at that time, I was near hysteria, so they became animated and alive, wanting to “help” me by answering the questions. I am surprised that I could even ask a question, and it turned out to be the wrong one. I asked, “Has anyone ever heard of an atom?” Voices started ringing out from everywhere, hands waving wildly, “Adam’s apple”, “Adam and Eve’, “I know about Adam and Eve.” I had to get them off those tracks, so I said, “Oh, no you’ve never seen this kind of atom; this is atom, a-t-o-m, and I wrote the word on the board and said, “No one has ever seen an atom.” Just as I finished that comment, a boy with large thick glasses, a vivid imagination, and the unusual name of Pat Pigue rose from his seat in the front row. He had an “other-worldly” look in his eyes as he slowly removed his glasses; he carefully turned the ear pieces toward me and said deliberately and with great conviction (demonstrating as he spoke), “If I take my glasses off and turn them around and look through the front side, I can see atoms.”
I honestly do not remember what happened next. I do know that we dropped the subject of atoms and spent very little time discussing the submarine. My distinguished visitors left quietly with no comment.
After they left, my teacher friend in the next room informed me that I was so involved with what was going on in my room that I had “taught” through the recess bell, and that my students had missed recess completely. Unbelievable! I warned you; I am not clever enough to make up such a story.
I spent some weeks worrying, because I desperately needed my job. I would like to think that on the way back to the office, my visitors had a good chuckle over Pat Pigue’s “scientific discovery.” Whatever their reaction, I was rehired the next year and was able to put food on the table while Jerry was finishing medical school. Wherever Pat is today, I hope that he has made many discoveries to help benefit mankind. I am still not sure whether he helped this first year teacher get out of trouble or made matters worse.
(You can reach Pat Bryson at patriciawbryson@firstname.lastname@example.org)