There are seven of us—Mrs. Carlton and her aide in the kindergarten, and then one of us for each grade from the first to the fifth. We each have twenty-five to thirty students depending on the year, on how many students have to be held back or transfer over the summer. I teach the fourth graders, the largest class in the school, and I have the most responsibility. I have thirty students this year, and have been told that I will probably have between five and ten more in the fall. When he told me this, just a couple of weeks ago at the beginning of May, the principal said he wasn’t worried because he knew I could handle it. “We’re all very impressed with you, Ms. Stafford,” he said and smiled, and I thanked him. I’m a good teacher. It is what I’ve wanted to do all my life.
Every day I lead the students into the classroom from the hallway, where they stand around after breakfast next to the water fountains and lockers chewing gum and yelling at each other. Not all of them are supposed to have free breakfast at school—their parents can afford for them not to—but we let them have it anyway. Their parents drop them off at school early, and it’s either breakfast or they wander around the halls or sit in the classroom without supervision. The principal has called meetings about it, but he says he understands there’s nothing we can do. I make the children line up outside the door and walk single file to their desks. They jostle and hit one another, and when they get too loud I make them turn around, go back into the hall, and do it all over again. By the third or fourth time, they are quiet and sullen, and I let them sit down.
Most of them are smart children, smarter than a lot of the students in the private schools. They’re high spirited, perhaps some of them are a bit too hyper, but they listen, and they understand what they’re told. When I first started teaching, I didn’t believe it. I thought they ignored everything I said, but after a while I realized they were taking it all in. It didn’t change the way I taught, but it made me think. I spoke with the other teachers, and they said the same thing. “They surprise you,” Ms. Foster, who has the third graders, said, and the rest of them agreed. They smiled at me, and a couple of them patted me on the shoulder. “They always surprise you,” Ms. Foster said.
And they do. They surprise me. Sometimes they say such strange things. They ask me what it’s like to pay bills, to live in a house by myself. I tell them I’m not by myself, I have a dog, but they say that’s practically by myself. They ask me what I’d do if someone broke into the house while I’m asleep, and I tell them no one will break in, I live in a very safe place, but they just look at each other knowingly and shrug. They tell me they want to be married by the time they’re my age—they want it to happen before they’re old. They want to be rich and have kids of their own that they’ll send to private school. Some say they want to work for the government, and others want to own their own businesses and pay other people to do all the grunt work. They say it just like that—“the grunt work”—and when I ask them where they’ve heard phrases like this, they say they don’t remember. I tell them it’s time to quiet down and finish their worksheets, and they say they’re already finished. When I come around to check, they are.
We do math first because it’s my least favorite, long division, and the students all raise their hands quickly so they can solve the problems on the board. They love using the dry erase markers, and I have to take them away from them when they’ve finished the problem so they won’t doodle all over the board. “Don’t waste the markers,” I tell them, “they’re expensive,” but they just roll their eyes. After math, I let two of them—the ones who’ve done the best on the problems—erase the board, and then it’s time for geography. I show them a map of the United States, and they call out the names of the states: Alabama, Alaska, all the way through to Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming, until we’ve filled in all the pink and green and yellow shapes. Next week we’ll start the capitals, I tell them, months ahead of schedule, and they nod.