Lessons from a student—and teacher.
By Joey Kennedy
The buses roar. At about 3 p.m. every day, they pass by our house, leaving Glen Iris Elementary School two blocks north, and, packed with students waving and laughing, heading to wherever they’re going. Usually three buses pass in front of our porch. Sometimes four. I could set my watch by their passing. Three buses at 3 p.m.
Our police officer pug Veronica Pearl runs to the gate and barks in her falsetto pug voice. She’s a girl, yes, and her voice is falsetto. A high-pitched bark out of her range. She monitors cars that drive too fast, vehicles too loud. She barks at them and would give tickets if she could. She’s a good pug.
It’s back-to-school time, and as the buses roll by, belching and straining as they go up the hill at 11th Place South, they remind me. They remind me….
Nobody in my first-grade class wanted Miss Mullinax. We were all afraid of her, even as first graders. Especially as first graders. I got Miss Mullinax. Our teachers back then didn’t have first names. They were all Miss. There were two sections of first grade at Hamshire Elementary in Southeastern Texas, and nobody wanted Miss Mullinax.
I got her. She was fairly old even then, at least to a 6-year-old’s eyes, and we were scared to death. For many reasons. Miss Mullinax would hit you with a short ruler on the hand if you answered a question wrong. Any question. I was bad at math and got hit a lot over figures. I became good at spelling, because I didn’t want Miss Mullinax to call on me and, if I missed a spelling, get whacked on the hand.
This was public school in Texas, early ’60s. I hated Miss Mullinax, and I hope she’s dead.
The Glen Iris buses roar past. Pearl barks in her unique voice.
I remember when summer was forever. When I was in elementary school, in junior high, summer seemed forever. We’d get out in May, and didn’t have to report back to school until after Labor Day. Summer stretched out. Cool mornings in the air conditioner, watching cartoons on TV and eating Cap’n Crunch. Sleeping late and playing outside. Summer was so long, but not so now. Kids get out of school at the end of May or early June, then are back in early August.
What happened to summer? What happened to the feeling that nothing was in front of us for a few months, at least?
Miss Austin was my third-grade teacher. She was rotund, red-haired, and mean as all-get-out. She didn’t like me and told me after reading some of my writings that I’d never be a writer. Miss Austin seemed old then, at least to a third-grader’s eyes. I hope she’s dead. I became a writer, despite her discouragement. I did, and that’s that.
Miss Willis, my 10th-grade speech teacher, was wonderful. She encouraged us to learn and to be confident. She always put sayings on the blackboard, before every class. Once she put up this: “The hardest part about getting to the top of the ladder is getting through the crowd at the bottom.” I have remembered that to this day. The crowd at the bottom is large, but elbow your way through and start climbing.
I did that. Thank you, Miss Willis. I hope you’re still alive.
The Glen Iris buses roar past, and Pearl barks. They can’t possibly hear her. Her voice is so quiet, but determined. Pearl has to use a cart to get around. Her degenerative spinal disorder requires it. She’s at home in her cart. But whether she’s in her cart or not, Pearl shoots across the porch to scold the loud buses rumbling past her porch.
I’m a teacher now, like Miss Mullinax, Miss Austin, and Miss Willis. I teach writing and literature at UAB. I have their vision, if not their tactics. No, I don’t slap my college kids’ hands with a ruler if they make a mistake or misspell a word. I never—NEVER—discourage them from writing. I am there to encourage, and I try to do that. “The hardest part about getting to the top of the ladder is getting through the crowd at the bottom.”
And, once in awhile, the light goes on. I had a student once, while we were doing a unit on Martin Luther King Jr., who listened to his “I have a dream” speech, and then went and, literally, had this tattooed on her back: “We Shall Not Wallow in the Valley of Despair.” A quote from King’s speech. I was flabbergasted. The tattoo was in nice, black, block letters. She was proud—so proud she did a class presentation of her and her friends going to have the tattoo ingrained in her back.
I’ve written dozens of recommendations for my students who wanted to go to medical school, or nursing school, or optometry school. These are all good students, who deserve to see their dreams realized. No discouragement. No! I have had students who are deaf and needed translators, who were broken in some way and needed counseling, who couldn’t find their way, and then they did. I tried—wanted—to be there.
The buses from Glen Iris roll by, at 3 p.m., every weekday. I could set my watch by these buses. They roll by with the next generation’s leaders. They are filled with happy kids, sad kids, kids who are bullied, kids who are quiet and just hoping to slip by.
And Veronica Pearl barks. She tells them to be quiet, to slow down, to hear the silence. She tells them that tomorrow is another day, a day they have to be who they are. She tells them to understand that life is hard, even for a pug who must live in a cart to get around.
She tells them. I hope they listen.