The Colgate Scene
May 2001
Table of contents
Sparks
by Eric Guckian '94
Charlie there you are
You know you've come very far
You've beat that mouse Algernon
Now all your friends are gone
I am walking into my third grade classroom. It is 1979 and I am a student at Meadowbrook Farms School in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. My new Toughskins pants are still stiff on my legs. I glance down and am proud that the crease is still visible. I put my Kiss lunch box on the top of the coat rack, directly above where I hang my New England Patriots hat and my coat made of synthetic sheep's wool. Mrs. Tondries has insisted that all of the students in her classroom hang up all of their gear before taking their seats. Although it is March, well into the school year, I have been the slowest to learn this very simple rule, and I have lost many a recess as a result.

     I take my seat. I run my finger along the crease of my Toughskins, buoyed by the prospect of getting to recess that day. Mrs. Tondries is scowling at me, or at least I think it's me. It's hard to tell because she is always scowling. It is an all-encompassing scowl and although I will never admit it, I sort of enjoy her scowling. It brings balance to my chaotic, nine-year-old life.

     After we hang up our "outside clothes," Mrs. Tondries always reads an example of a student's work. I am never the featured student. I'm in the lowest reading group, the "Blue" group is what they call it, and although I love Batman, I still know that I am one of the slowest readers in the class.

     Mrs. Tondries begins by saying that we have "a poet in our midst." She then begins to read my poem, the one I wrote about Flowers for Algernon. I really liked that book. It is the first chapter book that I have ever been able to get through. Writing the poem seemed easy compared to getting through the book, which was more than 200 pages. She finishes reading my poem and then she tells the class that I wrote it and then everyone looks at me and then she does the strangest and most wonderful thing -- Mrs. Tondries smiles. I feel my face getting hot and I can't wait to run home and tell my mom and dad.

Whose broad stripes and bright stars,
thro' the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watch'd,
were so gallantly streaming?

     It is September 1995. Eight hundred elementary school students are crammed into a basement. They stand in tight rows to sing the national anthem. Mrs. Haynes, an imposing middle-aged African American teacher and 30-year veteran of the Community Elementary School #35 in the South Bronx, walks between the children. She is scowling. Any child that is doing anything other than standing straight and singing our national anthem in full voice begins to do exactly that as Mrs. Haynes passes. The children stand beside benches where they have just finished eating their federally mandated breakfast of French toast sticks, a half-pint of milk, and an apple. The continuous thumping noise of uneaten apples hitting the bottoms of plastic trashcans can be heard above the din.

     I pull my shoulders back and stand stock still as Mrs. Haynes passes. I notice a trickle of magenta- colored sweat is running down her forehead, a product of her recently dyed hair. The coal furnace that heats the school is running too hot this morning. I straighten the knot in my tie, wipe my brow with my handkerchief and look down the benches where my students stand before me. Three weeks ago I became a fourth grade teacher. Every morning has started just like this one. We sing, our principal gives the morning announcements and we move up four flights of stairs with cages for railings until we reach classroom 404, my fourth grade classroom. Thirty-two students sit in their chairs packed like sardines. They look at me and they expect something. Thus far I have fallen short, far short of what they need and deserve.

     I am trying. I stay up late creating interesting lesson plans that fall flat on their faces when I try to execute them. Today I tried reading from The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The opening scene of the book depicts the Ku Klux Klan burning the leader's childhood home.

     "Hey Mr. Gu-Can?" Corey asked, "How do I know you weren't in the KKK?"

     "Now, Corey," I reply. "Do you really think I would be here if I felt that way?"

     "Well, maybe you weren't, but maybe your father was, or your father's father was, and now you just feel guilty."

     I have no response for Corey. I look at his hard stare, and then I look down at the tops of my shoes. Colgate and now Teach For America have offered me countless books to read, with words that espouse the values of critical thinking, celebrating diversity, and multiple intelligences. But only Corey, a nine-year-old boy with a razor sharp intellect, could have brought me to this moment.

Oo . . . vertebrates Oo . . . they've got backbones
Oo . . . invertebrates Oo . . . have no backbones
Class-i-fy that's what we do
With the animals, with the animals
A-N-I-M-A-L-S You don't have to take a guess

     Tia Lendo is dancing around her classroom at Pinkston Street Elementary, teaching classification to the tune of Aretha Franklin's "Respect." Her students know every word by heart. I am 29 years old now. I am wearing a suit and tie. I am folded into a chair that is meant for a fourth grader. It's part of my job as the North Carolina Program Director for Teach for America to do this. I travel along winding country roads across towns with names like Bunn and Louisburg so that I can sit in the back of classrooms, an occasional visitor, and offer some kind of insight as to how one might become a better teacher.

     I field similar questions at cocktail parties and fundraisers in the capital city of Raleigh. When I inform people of what it is that I do they immediately want to know how we can begin to solve the "educational crisis" in this country. They implore me to tell them why anyone would want to teach. How can we save public education in this country?

     I have thought long and hard about the complexities of such questions. I have a fair amount of experience with the reality of the challenges that we face. But at the risk of oversimplification and in the interest of time I would like to give a one-word answer -- sparks. Sparks from the searching intellect of Corey, the scowling postures of Mrs. Haynes and Mrs. Tondries, the creative lessons of Tia, and the sustained effort and awareness of you and me. Our sparks are flawed, our sparks often go in all directions, but together, I believe they have the power to light the way towards ensuring that all children, from North Carolina to New York City, will have the systems in place that will allow them to move out of the "Blue" group and into a job as fun as mine.

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