Although I ended up teaching in the West Virginia public schools for more than 30 years, my journey to the classroom began somewhat unexpectedly. In 1973 I was living on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., taking a short break from college—well, actually the college I was attending (studying engineering) decided I should take a break because of my less than stellar academic record. The counselor told me to use the time out of school to determine a direction for my life.
During the evenings I taught guitar for the Prince George’s County Recreation Department so I could continue to nourish myself. One evening after an adult guitar class, a young lady approached me and asked if I would like to teach math and science at the local Catholic school for the remainder of the year. Laughing, I responded that I would need a degree to teach in a school. She informed me that in the Catholic grammar school almost anyone could teach. The eighth grade class was driving out the regular teacher, and the school was desperate to find a body to put in the classroom.
I drove a 1959 convertible Karmann Ghia previously owned by an artist with a vivid imagination and very little regard for traditional car attire. A wolf howling at the moon adorned the driver’s door, multicolored stripes navigated the trunk, and balloons cluttered up the front hood. My hair, like that of many young men of the 1970s, was long and flowing, and a mustache hovered over my mouth. Looking more like a hippie than a teacher, I fit in with a traditional Catholic school about as well as a banjo in a philharmonic orchestra. [Which I have been told has been done] The young lady invited me to the school so I could take a firsthand look at the situation. I agreed to visit the following day, reserving my right to consider the offer before giving her an answer.
The next day came. Our first stop was to see the principal, who seemed a little apprehensive about my appearance. After exchanging pleasantries, my guide, the principal, suggested we walk down the hall to see the classroom. As I followed her down the hall, a small knot formed in my stomach. As we approached the embattled area, the noise level began to rise. We rounded the corner and a beleaguered woman quickly exited a classroom, crossed the hall, and entered another room.
I asked my guide who the lady was, and she said, “She is the teacher you may replace.” I looked into the classroom and observed the reason she had vacated the room. It appeared that things were not totally under control. Crossing the hall, we entered the room to which the lady had escaped and observed her in what appeared to be a state of disarray. She attempted to light a cigarette but was having little success. Finally, with her cigarette lit, she looked up at the two of us. My guide informed her that I might be her replacement. She muttered “Good luck” and continued to take long puffs on her cigarette.
Events moved quickly after this first encounter, and within a few days I was standing in front of a classroom of students. My first day was interesting. The students could not believe the principal had allowed someone who looked like me to enter the school, let alone be their teacher. Rumor had it the former teacher was admitted to a rehabilitation program soon after, owing to a nervous breakdown caused by the eighth grade class.
As the days and weeks passed, the class and I got to know one another. Occasionally we even did science, although I had access to nothing more than a textbook. Our activities tended to be of a philosophical nature rather than hands-on. We talked about God, religion, evolution, and almost anything they wanted to discuss. Obviously, I had a lot to learn about staying on task. I did not fully comprehend why I was there or what it meant to be a teacher; however, somehow I felt very comfortable in this environment. The students apparently could sense that I respected them and that I was willing to give and take, to learn with them. The principal was pleased the room was under control and I was not crying all the time.
The end of the year quickly approached. I was having so much fun I dreaded the end of my first teaching assignment. Being a professional musician, I was asked to be in charge of the graduation music. I had learned that many of my students were musically talented, so I began to assemble a band for graduation commencement. Mark played the horn like a pro. Bernie played the drums. I played the guitar and sang, along with several others. We had one of the coolest graduations ever. Years later, I still hear from some of those students.
The next semester, I went back to college with a real direction in my life. Over the next two years I obtained a teaching degree in secondary math and science education, and after graduating, I entered my name in the West Virginia teacher placement service, which made my name available to all counties in West Virginia. I received an interview in a small county in the Eastern Panhandle of the state.
As I drove to the interview, I felt the roads narrow. The trees seemed to grow closer to the side of the road, and the turns seemed too tight. For what seemed like hours, I weaved through the mountain roads heading for my destination. Finally, I came upon the small town, found the courthouse, and wandered into the office of the Board of Education.
A middle-aged man in a leisure suit and tie greeted me. He smiled frequently and asked questions like: “Do you go to church regularly? “Do you wear blue jeans?” After an hour of meeting all the people in the central office, they told me they would recommend me to the Board of Education for the math and science teaching position. All I needed to do was decide in which junior high school in the county I would like to teach. I asked the size of the two schools needing a science/math teacher and he responded, Capon Bridge has 220 and Romney has over 500…I choose the smaller, Capon Bridge. Later I learned I was the only applicant who came in for an interview.
On the way home, I stopped at the school I had chosen and walked into what appeared to be chaos. Desks were spread about in all directions, books were piled up in the hall, and paint cans were scattered about the area. As I looked around, I noticed a young dark-haired women moving toward me at a high rate of speed, carrying mops and brooms and various other cleaning devices. She breathlessly introduced herself as the school custodian and asked who I was. I told her I would probably be the new science teacher if the board decided to hire me. She laughed loudly and began moving her mop around wildly while she talked. In the next few minutes she told me all the jobs she must complete before the little monsters (students) came back to tear everything up again.
As I stood there I realized why she seemed so happy, despite the obvious amount of work that lay before her: The air was rank with several types of paint solvents. Soon, I was getting a little giddy myself. She gave me a tour of the school, we said farewell, and I began the long trip home. As I drove home, I contemplated the changes my life would soon take. Like a train heading toward a destroyed bridge, I had no idea what was around the next turn.
Welcome to the Classroom: Please Take a Desk
When I was shown my classroom for the first time, a few weeks before the school year began, I was very excited. It was a brand new room with built-in air conditioning and two small windows. Later I learned the windows did not open. In addition, there was one small problem: The room was completely empty. Not a desk, teacher’s or otherwise, adorned the space. There were no books, no shelves, and no science equipment.
Before I proceed, please let me say that I expect this experience is not a common one for most new teachers surveying their first classroom and its contents. Schools may have limited resources, but most classroom will most likely contain some furniture and teaching supplies.
Given my unusual situation, I went to see the new principal, who was about as ready for school to start as General Custer was for the Indians. The previous principal had been asked to leave, and our superintendent had found an old buddy who needed a job. Our new principal had arthritis in his back and was in constant pain. As the year rolled on, his attendance would become increasingly sparse. I told him about my empty room. He assured me he would straighten things out before the students arrived. So I sat in my empty room, thinking if a man is principal of a school he must be concerned about the education of the students.
As the first day of school drew nearer, I became increasingly apprehensive about my oncoming doom. My room remained empty, and my visits to the main office became more frequent. Fear began to filter through my confidence. Panic was creeping into my mind. Several more days passed with no change in the status of my classroom. It became obvious the principal was not going to produce the desired effect I needed to start school.
I called the superintendent. He listened quietly as I expressed my concern about the quickly approaching school year. He assured me that everything would be taken care of before the arrival of the students. I felt much better. The superintendent would most certainly take care of this problem in short order.
The first day of school arrived, and there I was in my empty room with no books, no chairs—nothing but four walls, a ceiling, a floor, and two windows that did not open. Luckily, the students’ initial reaction was better than I expected. We sat on the floor and laughed about the empty room. I was young, athletic, and long-haired, so they considered me fairly cool.
My being cool did not do much for the condition of my room, unfortunately. Although the kids thought it was fun to sit on the floor for a while, the novelty was wearing thin as they grew tired of the hard-tiled cement. The days turned into weeks, and the room was still empty. At last I found a single science book and lectured from that book. The students took notes. Fall came. The leaves put on a spectacular show, but the room remained empty.
At this point, I decided a new course of action was necessary. I started arriving early to school and confiscating desks from here, there, and anywhere. Teachers began to notice I had acquired some desks. Some of them even commented the desks looked familiar. During my early-hour pillaging, I found the school basement, which was dark and dingy, with light bulbs hanging by wires from the ceiling. A layer of coal dust covered everything, including the early model coal-fired heating system.
As I explored the nooks and crannies of this dingy place, I found many interesting items, including several old graffiti-covered desks that I carried up to my room. I bought a sander and sanded the graffiti off the tops. I also found an old amplifier with two large speakers. Anything I thought might be tradable or useful I carted back to my room. By mid-December, I had acquired through my clandestine efforts enough desks so that most of my students could sit down. Just before Christmas, the school maintenance crew delivered a beat-up teacher’s desk that I was happy to have. All I needed were some textbooks and I would be in business. They arrived after Christmas.
Meanwhile, the new principal had some creative approaches to education. One of his ideas was for the entire school to play basketball for a week. If you are a teacher, I am sure you can imagine what an enjoyable week this was. Our small population of 225 students was scattered around the school while game after game went on in the gym. Another of his ideas was to have surprise assemblies in the auditorium, and he often engaged in long monologues over the PA system.
Despite all this craziness, and my serious concern about the level of education going on in the school, I was enjoying teaching. My first year gave me a lesson in basic survival as well as valuable hunting and gathering techniques. More than 20 years and many adventures later, I still taught in the same school and was still having fun. My journey to the classroom began rather unexpectedly, but I know now it was exactly the right path for me.