In less than nine hours, school begins.
I dreaded those words all through my summer vacation. My fervent wish that school stay away as long as possible had nothing to do with burnout or with a desire to visit all kinds of wonderful places or hit the beach. No, the last time I was in a bathing suit was the day before President Ford said, “Our long national nightmare is over.”
Thirty-eight years later, I still wonder if he was talking about his pardon of Richard Nixon.
It wasn’t the hustle and bustle of teenagers moving through the hallways at the middle school where I teach that had me in fear of returning for my 14th year as a teacher…it was the meetings we have to go through each year before we get down to the actual business of teaching- necessary, but not why I am a teacher.
I have never been much for splashy billboards filled with motivational sayings designed to bring out the best in the students. At my first school, I was hired a week before school started, 18 years after I had done my student teaching. I couldn’t get a teaching job in 1981, so I continued working on newspapers for the next 18 years. When I sheepishly asked my principal what I should to to decorate the room, he told me, “Put up some of your old articles. Show the students what good writing was all about.”
So at the beginning of my first year, that is what I did, at least for the first few days. As I began giving writing assignments, I replaced my articles with the best student papers, and soon the Writers’ Wall of Fame was born. I made the same discovery thousands of teachers have made- students love to be recognized for their work.
By the end of the year, we had papers all around the room. When the final day came, some of the students took their papers home, but dozens were still on the wall. I took them down and stacked them on my desk. I was probably the only one left at the school by this time, but I started to read the papers, reliving the assignments from my first year in the classroom and what a wonderful group of students had done with those assignments.
When I was finished, I was tempted to drop those papers into the trashcan, but I was never able to bring myself to do it.
When my second year of teaching rolled around, I never gave a thought to putting any of my own writing on the wall. Those old papers had a second life, serving as examples of excellent writing.
Over the years, I have collected hundreds of those papers and each year I select a different group to have a second or third life on the Writers’ Wall of Fame.
I thought my collection of top student writing was gone forever when I heard on May 23, 2011, that my classroom had been hit hard during the tornado the day before. When I was finally able to get into the classroom, I was stunned to see that the students’ papers were still intact on the wall coated slightly with dust, except for a couple that fell to the floor and were destroyed when the sprinklers went off.
In the back of my lectern, the folders of Wall o Fame papers from previous years were untouched. It was a small triumph when the building eventually had to be razed but it was one that gave me great comfort.
Last week, I decided to do something different. I had student volunteers come in to help me decorate my room and for the first time, someone else had the choice of what papers went on the inaugural Wall of Fame for the 2012-2013 school year. Two sisters, Raycee, who just graduated from Joplin High School, and Victoria, who is a senior this year, took the responsibility seriously, poring over the papers and making their selections.
I enjoyed the moments when they discovered that their own best papers were in the folders preserved for future use and I encouraged them to put them on the wall. When the young ladies were done, I was surrounded by papers from all of my years of teaching in Joplin, some dating back to my first year, some from students who were just in my classroom three short months ago.
The choices included one, still with the same small dust coating, that stood proudly on the wall after the tornado. It included others from people who have long since left the Joplin school system and are now making this community proud.
It included one from the young lady, Laela Zaidi, who had the eyes of the nation on her in recent days when her written and spoken words helped raise more than $350,000 to replace her mosque which was destroyed in what was likely an arson fire.
I looked at the papers again today after our hours of meetings had ended- remembering Fox from the 2005-2006 school year, who was never in her seat because she wrote better sitting on the floor, Jennifer from last year, who became one of the few students to place every one of her papers on the wall.
I left the school this afternoon with a good feeling.
When students enter Room 804 in a few hours, I won’t know any of them and it will take a while to build those relationships that make education a success.
It’s nice to know that while I am getting to know the new students that those students from yesteryear, their thoughts captured from their 13th and 14th years of life, will always have a place in my classroom.