CHAPTER 12. TEACHING IN LYNCHBURG
I started teaching school in Lynchburg in 1963 at Robert S. Payne Elementary School.
Robin, our second daughter, was born in February of 1964.
Mallory started teaching in September 1964. She worked at Dunbar High School. Both places were in the center city around 12th Street. Our third daughter was born in December 1969. At this time Mallory took off from teaching for two years.
I used to love reading to the children. We had a king-sized bed and we would all get on it. I especially remember reading to them on cold, rainy Sunday mornings. It is still a memory that warms my heart. The girls got along so well together. I cannot remember a serious fight between them.
We moved into a white suburb of Lynchburg in 1974. Mallory was 13, Robin 10, and Lisa 5 years old. In the summer the kids would love to go down to Darlington Heights to the old Powell homestead. They would often bring some girl friends with them when they went.
Mallory went to Hampton College in Hampton, Virginia. She now is vice-president of the credit card section of a bank and lives in Chesapeake, Virginia in the Norfolk area. Robin went to business college and now is a government employee working as a secretary for the army at Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Lisa went to Radford College in Radford, Virginia. She now works in the office of a patent attorney in Crystal City, Virginia practically in Washington, D.C. itself.
I taught school for about 12 years and then was a home-school coordinator for another eight years. The latter job was tough because we really had no power over truant kids. There were no real sanctions available to us that we could impose on the kids to get them to school.
Home-school coordinators used to be called truant officers or visiting teachers (The News and Daily Advance; 1/13/80). But in recent years their duties have been expanded broadly beyond the realm of school attendance. And they are only one small part of a broad program to meet the educational needs of troubled students.
Based at Dunbar Middle School, I was a home-school coordinator with the Lynchburg school system. Along with Dan Anglin at Sandusky Middle and Eddie Hicks at Linkhorne Middle, we were responsible for the home life aspect of students' problems.
"Many kids hopefully now are receiving the attention they were deprived of before," Powell says in discussing his role in the school system's special service program. "The quicker they can be identified and remedied, the better for the school system."
My job basically involved visits to the child's home to determine whether any home-related factors were involved in the child's problem. Those problems included not only school attendance, but more often classroom behavior and failure to meet academic potential.
The students in need were identified in most cases by the teacher. But in some instances by the parent. It gave me an appreciation of the kind of burdens some kids bring with them to
school. It gave me greater sympathy for the kids and a greater understanding of their problems. So frequently children with problems in school are products of broken homes. However, occasionally a problem student is found to have a seemingly normal home life. In these cases, the problem could involve parents' failure to agree on methods of discipline.
I evaluated the home life of pupils, including the parents' level of education, income bracket, marital status, standard of living, neighborhood, and other factors which have been shown to affect a child's school work. When the parents themselves have no appreciation for education, it's very difficult keeping their kids in school. Once a kid gets street-wise , you can forget about school.
Some parents have proven hard to get through to when it comes to their child's educational status, while others are eager to help the school system identify the child's problem and come up with a program to help. In evaluating a child under the special services program, the home-school coordinator is responsible for preparing a report on home conditions. Other staffing committee members prepare psychological reports, a teacher's report and an evaluation of health components. The committee meets and discusses each aspect before coming up with recommendations for a program to meet the child's needs. Parents also are invited to these sessions to offer added information and insights.
In the past some students had completed much of their primary education before a disability was detected. But under modern programs now offered in most school systems, these difficulties can be and are detected early.
In my teaching career, which lasted about thirty years, I must have had contact with several hundred children. Some of them I remember with great clarity, others I remember only vaguely or not at all.
The other day I found myself thinking of a little girl who was in my fifth grade class about twenty or so years ago. I knew that there was something wrong with this child the first time I ever laid eyes on her. When she and the other members of my new class assembled in the classroom, I told them: "Take any seat. I will assign you to your permanent seats after I take roll." The children seated themselves in groups with their friends, all except this little girl who chose a seat as far away from the other children as she could get.
It was a warm August day, yet this child was bundled up tightly in an overcoat such as you might see on a cold winter day. When I asked her if she didn't want to take her coat off, she merely shook her head, silently letting me know that she didn't want to take it off.
Ordinarily I would have insisted, yet something stopped me. I sensed that something was wrong, very, very wrong. When later I assigned the students to permanent seats, those kids who found themselves close to this child gave every indication that they were upset and quite unhappy about their seat assignments.
Later in that first day when we went out for recess, I noticed that this child stood for the whole period against the fence taking no part in the games and other activities with the other kids. After lunch, I found out what the problem was when I passed near the little girl's desk. She stank. There is no gentler, more diplomatic way to put it. She stank. She smelled of urine, as if everything she wore had been saturated in urine many, many times. What to do?
First of all, to the great relief of those who sat near her, I permitted her to take a seat in the back of the room. Then I told the school nurse about her and asked her to call the child in for a conference so that the nurse could see (or maybe I should say smell) for herself. I could only wonder, "What kind of home does this child come from? What kind of mother would allow her child to come to school in this condition? Is this not a case of child abuse and neglect? Shall we report this case to Social Services?"
The result of the conference was a visit by the nurse to the home to talk with the parents. (I can only imagine how humiliating it must have been for the mother to have the school nurse come to home to complain about her child.) The mother explained that she left the home early each morning to go to work leaving the children to prepare for school without her. She explained further that the little girl and a younger brother shared the same bed, and that both children had a bed-wetting problem. (Can you imagine each night going to a bed that was sodden with months of bed-wetting?) In spite of the nurse's visit, nothing changed.
My heart was wrung with pity for the child. No other child played with her. No one wanted to sit near her or even be around her. The damage to her self-esteem and to her personality must have been enormous. She was a lonely, miserable little girl, and of course she knew what the problem was. (That's why she wore that heavy coat. It was an in vain attempt to contain as best she could the offensive odors that accompanied her.)
I didn't know what else to do. The child's problem must have been brought to the attention of the authorities before now. She had been a student at that school for at least four years before she came into my class.
I began to go to extraordinary lengths to say complimentary things about the child. Whenever she did well on any of her assignments, I praised her almost to the point of exaggeration. I was especially profuse in my compliments about her math skills. I wanted to make her know that I valued her and that I was her friend. And I gave her lots of smiles. It could be that my attempt to befriend that little girl was the only positive reinforcement that she ever received in her early years in school.
As far as I could tell, her condition remained unchanged for the rest of the year. Even after she left my classroom and moved to the next grade, she would come to show me a good paper or a math test on which she had scored a good grade. She knew that she could always count on me to have some friendly conversation and some encouraging words for her. I don't know what happened to that little girl. Was she eventually able to control her bladder? Did her home condition ever improve? Would her classmates ever stop reminding her of those painful years? Children, as you know, can be so cruel to each other!
There was another teacher in the same school system who made a great show of spraying air freshener around when certain students approached her desk. What callous disregard for the sensitivities of the students! There must have been a better way.
I saw the little girl with her brother in the backseat of their mother's car one day. I walked over to them, reached into my pocket for some change, and gave them the quarters I had in my pocket. I never saw such radiance of glee on the faces of two young children. The mother saw what I did and thanked me. All I could think to say was: "Oh, you weren't supposed to catch me."
Several years ago, when I was employed as Home-School Coordinator by the Lynchburg City Schools, I had occasion to visit the home of a parent whose son was having some difficulty in school. The mother's attitude from the very beginning was hostile and resentful, and remained unchanged throughout the interview. In looking over the child's records, I remarked to the woman: "I see your son has missed several days from school. Is he in school today?"
She replied, "Yes, and you better be glad he is!"
I said "Well, of course, I'm glad he's in school. That's where he should be. But I'm puzzled. What to you mean when you say I had better be glad he's there and not at home?"
"Because, if he was home, you'd probably find your tries slashed and maybe a window or two smashed in you car when you leave here."
"Do you mean to tell me that you would permit him to do such a thing?" I asked
"I can't control him. That's just the way he is" was her response.
"Well, if you, his mother, can't control him here at home, how do you expect his teachers to manage him at school" was my obvious next question.
She responded "That's not my problem. That's their problem."
At the end of the interview I left the home with the feeling that my visit had been a total waste of time and a waste of the taxpayers' money. And I left with the certain conviction that public school has no remedy for what ails this child. His problems were home-grown, nurtured, cultivated, encouraged, and perpetuated by the attitude of his mother, a defiantly resentful, profoundly, abysmally ignorant woman, having no idea of her responsibilities as a mother.
I could only sympathize with the teachers who had to deal with this child. By this time, the youngster has reached maturity, that is, if he's still alive. Can he read? Can he do simple arithmetic? Can he write a simple sentence? I doubt it. This youngster was rendered ineducable, not by lack of ability, not by lack of opportunity, but by the stupidity of his mother. I'd bet anything that he is well-known to the police. I expect that he has spent some time in prison and, lacking the knowledge and skills to sustain himself, can look forward to a life spent in and out of jail.
As he languishes somewhere in a jail cell, if he is introspective at all, he may review the events that led to his downfall. He can only conclude that the blame for his incarceration rests with his mother.
Admittedly, this was an extreme case and yet I know from experience as well as from observation that there are many other parents whose attitudes are very similar to those of the woman described.
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