A.J. goes to teach


In the next few days A.J., a young woman I’ve gotten to know at my local coffee shop, leaves town for a new assignment and career as a 5th grade teacher in a Montana town. Today there was a farewell party, a going away sendoff, for this young woman. The kids she’s been assigned will be lucky. She joins the millions of other young people over the years who have nervously taken their first full-time teaching assignment. (As I know, from having been a junior high school teacher myself, and knowing from conversations with many others, it is the rare teacher who is not nervous on that first day of the school year. After all, for the most part they have new students, and the certainty that this year will be different than last.)

So, A.J.’s heading west, and I went to the gathering today to wish her well.

My parents were both public school teachers, beginning their respective careers in North Dakota country schools in the 1920s. I was a teachers’ kid. I have some idea how the business works.

I’ve been thinking of a send-off message for A.J. and mostly I’m drawn back to a memory of my Dad, long after he retired from classroom work.

In the late 1970s Mom and Dad bought a small home in San Benito TX, a Rio Grande Valley town. Their home at 557 N. Dowling was directly across the street from Berta Cabaza Junior High School. They had retired from teaching in the very early 1970s.

Nothing is certain in life, and in 1981, about this time of year, my mother died of cancer, leaving Dad alone, far away and very lonely.

He had a life decision to make, literally, and at some early point he went across the street to the school and offered to volunteer.

San Benito is basically a border town, and many of the kids had a first language of Spanish. It was the language they spoke at home and with each other. The teaching was in English, and the kids just couldn’t keep up.

Dad’s volunteer job was to tutor some of these students in English. It was not a glamorous job, but it was an essential one.

Dad and Mom liked to travel, most often by bus, and in their trips they would usually bring home a few postcards, usually non-descript ones, like a free one of a little motel they had stayed in somewhere. Dad kept these “postals” as he called them. One would never know when they’d come in handy.

Dad hit on an idea: he decided to ask his kids if they wanted to hear from him when he went someplace, and a number of them were interested and gave him their home address.

So, out on the road somewhere, say Salt Lake City, Dad might take out a random postcard from his cache, say, California, and write a little note to his correspondent in San Benito.

As it was described at the time, these simple little postal messages were a hit. For many of the kids, it was the first time they had ever received a letter from anyone, much less someone traveling elsewhere in the United States.

A.J., what my Dad did was the essence of teaching. It doesn’t need to be grandiose, or expensive, or time consuming.

Knowing you, I’m sure you’ll ‘catch the wave’ and do a great job! Have a great year.

A.J. has set up a blog to chronicle her first year. Check in once in awhile.

A good card, methinks, for a 5th grade teacher. The card is from Kate Harper Designs, Box 2112 Berkeley 94701. She solicits designs kateharp@aol.com.