Category Archives: Serial

Symphony 23

“Who are you?”

“I’m Dixie.”

Neil nodded and smiled. “I know your name, Dixie. Now tell me some more. What are your parents’ like? Where do you live? Do you have brothers and sisters? What do you like to do? Tell me some of those things.”


The other hands had gone down, so Neil turned to some papers on his desk and pretended to study them. In fact, he was studying the class as they “worked”, and he found that most of them didn’t work. They stared at their papers or stared out the window or chewed on their pencils. Two of the readers-by-choice sneaked their reading texts open, looking up from time to time to see if Neil was watching. Sabrina Palmer tried to get Tasmeen Kumar’s attention, but Tasmeen was one of the few who was trying hard to write. Lauren Turner and Lydia Ruiz carried on a quiet conversation. Pedro Velasquez flipped a paper wad at Brandy Runyon and she shot him a look that could have killed.

The bell rang. Neil told the students to leave their papers on his desk, and as Pedro came by he said, “Wait.” The other students trooped by, putting their papers on the pile and watching a very uncomfortable Pedro as he waited to one side. When the last one had left, Neil asked, “What did I tell you this morning?”

Pedro shrugged. Neil waited. Finally, Pedro said, “You told me to leave Brandy alone.”

“And did you?”

“Well, she’s always bugging me.”

“And I suppose you never bug her? Pedro, in my class, every student has the right to learn. It doesn’t matter if that student makes As or Ds, he or she still has the right to learn as much as she can. Do you understand?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“I’m sure Brandy didn’t find it easy to write the paper I assigned today. Do you think you made it any easier by throwing paper wads at her?”

Pedro scuffed his feet and said, “No.”

“Pedro, if you bug people and keep them from working, you are going to be in big trouble with me. Do you understand?”

Pedro nodded.

“Okay, scoot.”

Pedro was gone like a shot.

Neil sorted out the papers of the students he had observed. On Lauren’s and Lydia’s he wrote in red, “You would have written more if you hadn’t spent all your time talking!” He made similar comments on half a dozen other papers, including, “I appreciate the way you ignored interruptions,” on Tasmeen’s paper.

When he actually started to read the papers, a chill went through him. Five of the sheets were completely blank. Another seven had no more than one misspelled and unpunctuated sentence. He counted the papers and checked them against his class list. Five students had sneaked out without turning in papers. Only thirteen students had actually tried to do the assignment, and their work started at very bad and ranged downward from there.

Richard Lujan had written: “My nam is Richrd Lujan    I am twelve years   I hav two brothers and a cat”

Rosa Alvarez had written: “My name is Rosa    My mother works for a bank and my Father works in the fields     I hav  two sisters younger than me and i don’t hav no brothers”

Oscar Teixeira, the boy who had made five years of  excellent scores and one year of zero on his yearly test, simply said: “I am Oscar Teixeira and I am very smart” 

Well, maybe. more Monday


Symphony 22

Since physical punishment had been outlawed, Kiernan, like most school, had gone to a step system. First came verbal warnings, then more formal verbal warnings, and finally, if a student persisted in rule breaking, a detention. If a child got so many detentions, a letter went home to his parents. So many more detentions and the parents had to come in for a conference. So many more and he would be suspended. So many more and he would be suspended for a longer time. So many more and he was expelled from school for the remainder of the year.

It was a fairly effective system. Most students never got to step one, and very few were ever suspended. But every year there were a few who moved through the system to the bitter end, not caring, or pretending not to care.

Explaining the discipline system was easy. The hard part was teaching the children the rules.

One would think that a few general rules like, be kind, don’t take anything that isn’t yours, and do your own work, would be enough.  For children, it never is. Rules for eleven year olds have to be numerous and specific.

Can you chew gum? (On the playground, yes; in class, no.)

Can you go to the bathroom? (Go during the breaks unless you have an emergency. Then ask.)

Do you have to raise your hand to talk? (Yes.)

Can I get out of my seat? (To get a kleenex or a drink of water, get up quietly and don’t bother me with asking. If I am talking to the class, don’t get up. If you are working at your seats, you may get up for books or paper or to sharpen your pencil. But not to visit.)

And so forth.

The rules had to be taught over time. Within a week, the children would know most of them, but they would forget, and Neil would still be reminding them of some of the rules in June.

By the time Neil had added the names of the new students to his roll and talked about discipline and rules, the second hour was over. The children headed for recess and Neil headed for the teacher’s  lounge.

# # #

Twenty minutes later, they were together again. All of the eagerness had gone out of the students’ faces. The housekeeping chores had been no fun. He distributed the language, spelling, and reading textbooks and gave them some time to look them over. It gave him a chance to observe them. Within five minutes he had moved Duarte Zavala into an empty seat far away from Sean Kelly. Their dislike for one another was plain to see. No other deadly combinations were immediately apparent.

After ten minutes about a third of the class was still content to explore the books, another third had settled down to read, and the others had become restless. Neil did not want his non-readers to be embarrassed on the first day of school, so he had quietly noted the names of those who read by choice. When the class read a short story together, he only called on them. That made things go smoothly.

Then he distributed paper and told the class, “I want two things now. I want to see how well you write, and I want to begin to get to know you individually, so write a paragraph or two telling me who you are.”

Four hands went up. He chose one. “I don’t understand,” Dixie Margaret Trujillo said. more tomorrow

Symphony 21

There was a diffuse groan at the mention of Ulrich’s name. It sounded genuine, so Neil pretended that he did not hear it. Then Brandy Runyon yelled, “Stop that,” and slapped the boy beside her.

Neil snapped, “Brandy!”

“Well, he’s bothering me!” Brandy’s face was red with anger and humiliation, and her eyes were wild.

Neil kept his face calm, but he was cursing fluently inside. This was something he had not had to face in high school. By that time the students with real learning disabilities had been weeded out. Until Brandy was moved out of his classroom, he had to use the same discipline on her that he did on everyone else, yet she probably would not respond as they did. It was a no-win situation for both of them. He said, “What is he doing?”

“He’s making fun of me!”

The boy, Pedro Velasquez, spread his hands and said, “I didn’t say nothing.”

Neil had no idea who was telling the truth, so he said firmly, “Pedro, if you were making fun of her, or anyone else in my classroom, I want you to stop it right now. I won’t put up with it. And Brandy, you will learn to keep control of yourself.”

Brandy muttered something unintelligible under her breath and Pedro gave a wry shrug. Neil let it go, and got another surprise. The class had ignored the whole incident. They had not waited to see what would come of it, as they had with Tony’s boundary testing. They were used to Brandy’s interruptions, and took them in stride.

They neither approved nor disapproved; they simply accepted Brandy for what she was, because she was one of them. It was a lesson in the difference between a large and a small school.

Neil had lost the thread of his thought, but Linda Muir brought it back to him with a question. “Do you mean that we all be together all day?”

“That’s right.”

“Then we will never get a chance to be in the same class with any of our friends.”

Neil smiled. “Don’t you have friends in this class?”

Linda twisted her hands together and squirmed in her seat. All of the students were getting restless. “Sure, I have friends in here,” she said, “but my very best friend is in the other section. I won’t see her all year!”

Neil tried to look sympathetic, because it was clearly a tragedy for Linda. He explained that they  would have recess, breaks, noon time, and after school together. That didn’t help. Linda said, “But that’s just not the same!”

Privately, Neil agreed, but he wasn’t about to criticize the school’s schedule in front of his class. He was saved by the bell for the end of the first period.

# # #

The children left the room like water poured out of a bucket. The echoes of the bell had not died before Neil found himself alone, and he was thankful to be alone. He could have used an hour to collect himself. Instead he had five minutes to rush to the bathroom and back.

Next came the distasteful task of explaining the school’s discipline system. Most of the students had lived under that system for years, but there are always new students, and children forget. Since physical punishment had been outlawed, Kiernan, like most school, had gone to a step system. more tomorrow

Symphony 20

Someone snickered, but Neil didn’t look up. He kept his eyes on Tanya until the pout evaporated and a worried look took its place. By that time the room had gotten completely quiet again.

Then he went on as if he had not been interrupted. “Mrs. Wyatt will be gone all year. She wanted to be with her baby during its first year, so I am not a substitute. I am your regular teacher.”

This time a hand went up. Neil glanced at the seating chart and said, “Yes, Anthony.”


“Tony. I’ll try to remember that. Remind me if I forget.”

Tony blinked, surprised at Neil’s politeness. He said, “You mean we won’t have Mrs. Wyatt at all this year? That means we won’t ever have her.”

“You are probably right.”

“What a gyp!”

This was more daring than most of them were willing to be and they all grew quiet to see how Neil would handle it. He looked at Tony in silence until he had his complete attention, then said, “I met Mrs. Wyatt earlier this week. She is a very nice lady, and you are going to miss out by not having her. If that is what you meant, fine. But if you meant it is a gyp to have me instead, then you had better learn to keep that kind of opinion to yourself or you will be in more trouble than you can handle.”

Anthony Caraveli, the file card had said, suspended five times in the fifth grade. No wonder.

Tony’s face clouded with resentment, and Neil knew that he had to pursue the matter further. He had to establish his relationship with Tony now, or he never would. He said, “Do you understand?”

“I understand, all right!” 

So it is to be a contest of wills, Neil thought. If I turn away weakly now, I am lost, and if I become bitchy and defensive, I am just as lost.

Neil held Tony’s eyes and kept his face still. Ten seconds passed like as many minutes, and ten more seconds felt like an hour. Finally, Tony looked away, and the tension went out of the class like a silent sigh. Neil said, “Good,” very softly, then with a lift of his voice, brought them back from the unpleasantness and and told them about their schedule for the year.

“This class is called Core. You will spend the first three periods of every day here with me. You will learn reading, language, writing, and spelling here. You will have regular five minute breaks when the bells ring, but you will come back here after the first one. The second break is a fifteen minute recess. You come back here after that, too.”

Neil went to the board and sketched a quick layout of the classrooms. “Fourth period you will go to P.E. right next door, or wherever Mr. Wright tells you to assemble. Lunch is after fourth period. Mr. Campbell tells me that you have to show a lunch ticket if you are going to the cafeteria on the other side of the fence. Otherwise, you will eat your lunches on the yard or in Mrs. Richardson’s room if it is raining.

“Fifth period you will go to science here with Mrs. Kelly. Sixth period you will go to history here with Ms. Clementi, and last period you will have math with Mr. Ulrich.”

There was a diffuse groan at the mention of Ulrich’s name. It sounded genuine, so Neil pretended that he did not hear it. more tomorrow

Symphony 19

Neil sat down at his desk and half a dozen of the children moved quickly to their places. Some of the others looked at the clock and saw that they had five more minutes. Two of the boys ran out the door, and a handful of others began to look for their assigned seats.

They were a mosaic. They were very pale and very brown and every color in between. Like a mosaic, each piece was complete in itself, but put together would form a greater pattern. Now the mosaic was still a heap of multicolored stones, but the pattern would emerge. Neil’s job was to find it, without damaging any of the individuals in the process.

The bell rang. Those who were still wandering took their seats, and the boys who had left came running back. They were very docile, unsure, and even a little scared. This was their first year across the fence, with the big kids, and for many of them Neil would be their first male teacher.

Neil had known they would be different from high school students, but until now he had had no idea how different. They were meek (that would surely change), they were eager (he prayed that would not change), and they were tiny. Neil was nearly six feet tall, but he was used to looking up at many of his students. Here was a little girl — his seating chart told him it was Tanya Michelson — who could not be much more than four feet tall. He couldn’t even guess her weight; he had no standard for comparison. Tiny! And she wasn’t the only one; half the boys and a third of the girls were nearly as small.

Three of the students were still standing. One of them said, “Where do I sit?”

“What’s your name?”

“Rafael Ortiz.”

Without looking, Neil knew he had not seen that name. He asked, “Are you a sixth grader?”

He was, and as he spoke two more students came in. There were a number of empty seats, so he had them sit anywhere while he took roll. Of the thirty-two students on his list, nine had not shown up. When he called Duarte Zavala, one of the new arrivals spoke up, and Neil shifted him to his assigned seat. Tim Galloway was home with the chicken pox, according to his neighbor, and would be back in about a week. Juan Rogers was in Mexico; they could expect him back in about a month. And nobody knew where Olivia Pinero was, except that she was out riding her bike last week so she hadn’t moved.

It was clear that the empty seats were nothing unusual to them, but Neil was amazed. He could count on one hand all the first-day absentees he had had in four years of teaching at his last school.

Neil put down his class list and said, “Let’s finish that later. Everyone has a seat for now. If  you aren’t in the right place, or you aren’t on my list, we’ll take care of it, but first I want to introduce myself. I am Mr. McCrae. I will be taking Mrs. Wyatt’s place this year while she is having her baby.”

“She already had it!” Tanya Michelson interrupted. “She had it last night.”

Neil smiled at her and said, “That’s good news, Tanya, but you need to raise your hand before you speak. Otherwise things will get unruly.”

Tanya pouted and added, “It weighed seven pounds, and it is a boy named Michael.” more Monday

Symphony 18

Day One

School began on Friday the second of September. All of the other teachers complained about having the students for only one day and then losing them for the Labor Day weekend. They said it was like having to do the first day of school twice. For Neil, it was a Godsend. It allowed him three days grace to rethink his ideas after having a day with his students.

Even the weather relented and gave him a day that did not reach above ninety.

When Neil arrived, there was a short line of students with their parents in front of the secretary’s desk. Half a dozen early arriving students had begun a baseball game out back, and there were half a dozen more hanging around the doors of some of the classrooms.

Neil unlocked his door and propped it open with a chair. He had arranged the student desks in straight rows, and had put a student name tag on each desk. Neil’s mother would not have approved, but she had been teaching elementary for thirty years and could handle less restrictive seating arrangements. Neil intended to have everything orderly, at least at first. He had even seated the students in alphabetical order to make it easier to learn their names.

Neil was in his room by eight o’clock in case any parents came to meet him. Only four showed up and two of them dropped their children off at the door without coming in. Mr. Kruger brought Kenneth in and introduced himself briefly. Then Mrs. Whitlock brought in her son Larry and stood by while he introduced himself, squirming with embarrassment, and stayed to chat for a few minutes. Neil found out that Larry always did well in school, that he always liked his teachers, but that he sometimes forgot to do his homework, and that Neil was to call her immediately if anything went wrong. Neil said that he was happy that she cared enough to come in. He meant what he said, but privately he reserved judgment. She was a little too good to be true. He wondered if Larry loved school as much as she thought he did, or if she was reading her own enthusiasm into him.

By the time Mrs. Whitlock left, the room had begun to fill up with children. Some stood in small knots, talking and trying not to be seen looking at Neil. Others ignored him quite completely and wandered around the room without self-consciousness. One skinny blonde girl went up to look at the books that Gina had left, and began telling a dark haired friend which ones she had read. Three boys looked at a display of National Geographic maps Neil had put up.

Larry Whitlock had joined a trio of other boys in the back of the room and already two of them were beginning to scuffle. Neil raised his voice until his baritone filled the room. “Gentlemen,” he said calmly but sternly, “people don’t wrestle in my classroom, even between classes.”

The room was instantly silent, and all eyes were on him. He turned to look at the papers on his desk — papers he had no need to look at — and seemed to ignore the boys. They eased out the door and began wrestling again under his window. He continued to ignore them, so they went out onto the playground. more tomorrow

Symphony 17

After his conversation with Carmen, Neil changed his plans. Instead of spending his pre-school days in academic preparation, he worked at getting to know his children. The cumulative folders were a gold mine. He found out who had been suspended during previous years. He found out which students needed the most academic help. He could see which students had a pattern of mid-winter absences to Mexico.

One boy had been registered originally as Dean Mason. Then his name had been changed to Dean Solstenes, back to Dean Mason, and finally to Dean Smallwood, all within three years. It was easy enough to read an unstable family situation from those changes.

On Dierdre Galloway’s folder he found a note that said, “Needs glasses and won’t wear them. Must sit up front or she won’t be able to read the chalkboard.”

Before he met them, he knew that:

Brandy Runyon had repeated kindergarten, and then had repeated third grade. She should have repeated fifth, but at fourteen, she was far too physically developed. She was marking time while waiting for the paperwork to be completed to transfer her to a school where her learning disability could be dealt with.

Oscar Teixeira had been making outstanding scores on his yearly tests every year since kindergarten, then in fifth grade he had scored almost zero. In the last two years, he had been suspended five times, always for insolence or insubordination. Every parent letter made reference to Oscar as being bored with school. He had failed last year’s test deliberately, and had been suspended for it.

Not every folder contained a problem. Some told stories of unbelievable progress. Tasmeen and Rabindranath Kumar had first enrolled four years ago, in first grade. They had come from Madras, in India, and spoke no English. Their first year scores were nearly zero, but by the second year they were only a little below grade level. At the end of the third grade they were both skipped ahead to bring their grade level more into line with their ages. Despite this, their fifth grade scores showed them to be well above their classmates.

Their fifth grade teacher had wanted to advance Tasmeen another grade. She was a year older than her brother, scored consistently higher, and the teacher felt that he was holding her back. The parents would not agree. They said that they both could be advanced, or Rabindranath alone could be advanced, but Tasmeen was not to be placed above her brother.

With sixty-seven children to remember, Neil fell back on a system that had worked for him in college. On five by eight cards he placed name, age, test scores and a four or five word physical description of each child. For most of the children, he could do no more until he met them. For students like Tasmeen, Oscar, and Brandy, his notes filled the card.

# # #

The night before school was to start, Neil sat in his apartment considering the string of students that had passed through his classes during his years in Oregon. The number was staggering. He had been seeing 170 to 180 students each day for four years. Seven to eight hundred students, and he could only remember about two dozen of their faces.

He had a feeling that he would remember these sixth graders long after he had forgotten every high school student he had ever taught.