34. A Very Young Teacher

101One sultry afternoon in late spring the principal came running into my ninth grade classroom and shouted, “Boys, get on the bus. There’s a prairie fire.” All the boys from all four grades – about fifty of us – piled into the school bus and roared off west of town. Local farmers with milk cans of water in their pickups and bales of gunny sacks were already there. We grabbed wet sacks and went to work, and during the next three hours we fought the fire to a standstill.

Not one boy hesitated and not one parent complained. Small town Oklahoma in 1962 was a very different place than anywhere in America today. It was a good place to grow up if you wanted to become a man, and the sooner the better.

Two years later, I was one of two students in second year German when the English and German teacher was severely injured in a car accident. He was out for six weeks. The only substitute teacher in the area was a million years old, and she didn’t speak German. She got the job.

About the second day, the principal pulled me aside and said, “I want you to teach the first year German class.” I said yes. Then or now, I can’t imagine giving any other answer.

He put the substitute into the library during the hour German was taught and pulled me out of the class I was supposed to be in. It was tough. My German wasn’t as strong as it should have been, but it got better fast. Every night I typed up worksheets on my old manual typewriter, and every morning the school secretary made copies. I worked the kids hard and put up with a lot of silliness. A class full of sophomores is never going to really listen to a junior, even when the principal comes in regularly.

Can you imagine the lawsuits if that were to happen today? After about a week, the principal asked me how I was doing. I said, “It’s working. I’m studying at night, staying one chapter ahead of them, and trying to seem like I know more than I do.”

He patted me on the shoulder and said, “Son, that’s how we all do it.”

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