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A schoolmarm's role was pretty straightforward; hand out assignments, wear out a red pencil each day, discipline young Mr. Palen, and monitor the playground. "How sweet it would be to be a teacher." I thought. They work six hours a day, get every weekend and all major holidays off, a week of vacation at Christmastime and another in the spring, plus three months in the summer. Of course, back then, I also thought priests and ministers only worked one hour a week.
In time, I became friends with several school teachers. Two of my three daughters are now school teachers; Delaney in the Twin Cities and Annie in Sheffield, Iowa. Now that I think about it, I've never heard any of them say, "I became a teacher for the short hours and great pay." The ability to teach is a gift - they desire to do so is a passion.
I've recently had a few encounters with the everyday challenges of an educator. My granddaughter, Addison, had a homework assignment – how to count money. Easy-peasy. I could help her with this.
I went to the bank and withdrew $5; one-hundred pennies, twenty nickels, ten dimes, four quarters, and a crisp one-dollar bill. "As soon as you can count it, I'll let you keep all of this money," I told my young student. Eager to earn her pay, Addie and I went right to work.
With the coins in their respective piles, I asked, "Which pile has the most money?" She chose the pennies. "Which has the next biggest amount of money?" She picked the nickels, then the dimes, the quarters, and finally the dollar bill. "What if I told you each pile has the same amount of money?"
"That can't be, Papa, because all these pennies are more than one dollar," she explained.
Our lesson began, "Which would be easier to put in your pocket: this one dollar, or all these pennies?" We agreed the dollar would be more comfortable. "Everything is based on one-hundred pennies, but that many pennies would be hard to carry, so they made the dollar bill – which is the same as one hundred pennies." Next, we made twenty stacks of pennies with five coins in each. She totaled the piles by counting in fives.
"One hundred." She answered
I had her lay a nickel in front of each stack of coins, explaining that one nickel was the same amount as five pennies. Again, counting by five, she reached a total of one hundred. We did the same exercise with dimes but would save the quarters for the next lesson. "How old are you?" I asked Addison.
"Papa, you know I'm seven." She replied as if the answer was obvious.
"Okay, give me enough coins to make seven cents." She counted out seven pennies. "What's another way could you give me seven cents, using fewer coins?" She thought hard; I prompted her, "How many pennies are in a nickel?" As if a lightbulb lit up over her head, she gave me a nickel and two pennies.
We explored the age of other people. "How old is Evelyn?" She gave me three pennies. Asking, "How old is your mom," allowed us to find several combinations of coins totaling thirty-one cents - without using quarters yet. "How old is Papa?"
As innocent and sincere as a child can be, Addison asked, "Do we have enough money to do you, Papa?"
"I think our lesson has gone on long enough for today," I said and began gathering the coins.
In our next lesson, her teacher wanted us to convert cents to dollars and cents. I laughed as I recalled my mom telling me many times, "Son, you have more dollars than sense." I always appreciated that play on words, but I digress; homophones are fun, but that's English, and we were still working on math – counting money, to be specific.
Her teacher wanted us to convert 132 cents to dollars and cents. First, I had to explain the decimal point and the importance of its placement. I explained, "Numbers to the left of the decimal point are dollars, and the numbers to the right of the point are cents." I went on to tell her, "When you put the decimal point between the three and the two, made the amount thirteen dollars and twenty cents." She wasn't getting it – yet.
A teacher once told me, "If a student's struggling with a lesson, it doesn't mean they're not smart enough to get it; it could be I haven't explained it in a way they understand. It's about communication." I concluded: if I fail a subject, it's the teacher's fault, but I missed the point.
It was frustrating for both me and Addison. Something so simple as a decimal point, which I take for granted, was challenging to comprehend for someone who had never heard of one before today.
"So, I have to get the point right?" She asked. I drifted off for a moment, recalling first grade at Horace Mann Elementary School. I was in Mrs. Sales' class.
One year older than me, my brother Gerard was in Mrs. Sales' class the year before. He warned me, "When you go to her desk to get your paper checked, she'll ask you to go sharpen her red pencil. Then, if you have a wrong answer, she'll bonk you with it, and the point breaks off in your head."
I don't know if his story was true or not. But I do remember shaking at Mrs. Sales' desk one day when she handed me her red pencil, "Tommy, will you please go sharpen my pencil."
I returned with her the freshly sharpened marking device. She went over my assignment. The fine tip of the lead broke off when she firmly circled a math problem. "Eight plus two is not nine. Now you tell me the correct answer."
This was a critical life moment. I rolled my eyes rolled up, and to the right. My mouth puckered, my lips moving to one side and then the other. In my head, I saw eight fingers, then counted two more. Sheepishly and nearly scared to death, I replied, "Is it ten?"
"You know the answer is ten, but you get in a hurry and rush through your work." She began to shake the eraser end of her pencil at me. With each motion of the pencil, I flinched. "Slow down. Take your time. There is no rush." She drew a red checkmark through my answer. At the top of the paper, she wrote +9 B. I gave a big sigh of relief. I had escaped the wrath of the red pencil my brother had warned me about – this time.
Interrupting my daydreaming, Addison repeated her question. "Papa? So, I have to get the point right?"
Her question was worded a little awkwardly, but I understood. I was delighted she was catching on. "Yes. To have the correct answer, you must put the decimal point in the right place." I gave Addison a hug. I told her I was proud of her progress in math, then dismissed my class.
Our lesson gave me a small taste of what teachers do every day – I couldn't imagine trying to teach twenty kids simultaneously. I thought to myself, "Being a teacher would require a lot of patients – or is it patience? It doesn't matter; I've never had many or much of either."
My bit of spelling humor caused me to laugh and reminded me of another of Gerard's tales from first grade.
"Mrs. Sales got really mad about my spelling paper," Gerard told me, "I don't know why, but she said she was going to call Mom." My brother showed me his spelling assignment to see if I could figure it out.
The page featured several images: a ball, a cat, a flag, a car, a bus, etc. There was a line next to each to write the word that went with the picture. It looked like he spelled them correctly. I focused on the big red checkmark going through one image. Mrs. Sales drew several circles around the word Gerard wrote.
I was not a spelling whiz in kindergarten by any means, but I could spell some words. "Gerard, there's supposed to be an R in the word shirt." We would have shared a good laugh about that, but we didn't know what he wrote at our young ages - we didn't get the point. Oh, the challenges of being a teacher.
A couple of days later, I picked Addison up from school. "If we go home and finish your math homework right away, you'll have time to read your book. After that, we'll get Evelyn from her school, and I'll take you girls someplace fun!" Anxious to find out what was in-store, Addison was eager to do her assignment.
It was the first time I'd picked Evelyn up from school, and she was excited to see us. She handed me a heart she colored in class, "I made this for Mommy." I told her it was beautiful as we walked to her cubby to get her coat.
Apparently, her school was doing an animal theme for the day. Instead of a coat, Evelyn wore her grey corduroy mouse suit, complete with a long rigid tail and a mouse head hood with big ears. This would fit perfectly into my planned excursion. On the way to the car, Ev's big sister followed her. Addison held the mouse tail like a bridesmaid carrying the train of a wedding dress to keep it out of puddles on the sidewalk.
I drove across the high bridge from Duluth, Minnesota, into Superior, Wisconsin. A short way down Hammond Avenue, I turned left into the parking lot. Addison was impressed with the big brown "cow" on top of the sign; "Dan's Feed Bin," she read aloud. (Actually, it's a steer, but that's another day's lesson.)
Several bails of straw were sitting on the loading dock. Inside the big sliding doors, the girls saw large sacks of corn, sunflower seed, and animal feed stacked in big piles. Again, carrying the tail to keep it clean and dry, Addison said, "Papa, as soon as we get inside, you have to tell the people, Ev is a mouse, not a barn rat, so they don't try to catch her." The kid is smart.
At the front counter, I ordered a sack of sunflower seed, corn, and an apple-flavored mineral block for the deer. Addie and Ev ran off to explore the store. They were thrilled to find aquariums with pet mice, hamsters, and rats. Other cages had colorful birds. Addison looked at the top shelf and read the tag. "Crickets are gross," she said, wrinkling her face.
They were most fascinated by the mice. Addie was studying the tags on the glass front. "What does that say," I asked her.
She read, "Mice. Females, two dollars, ninety-five cents. Males, two dollars, ninety-five cents."
"How much are the crickets?"
She looked to the top shelf, "Crickets, ten cents each. They're gross. I would never touch a cricket."
"What does that say on the
bin with seeds and a scoop?"
"Hamster food. One dollar, thirty-nine cents." She continued around the aisle. "Finches. Five dollars, ninety-five cents. Parakeets…"
I asked about another. "How much is the cockatiel?"
We hadn't worked on anything with more than three numbers. She seemed stumped for a moment but didn't give up. She rolled her eyes up, and to the right, her mouth puckered, and she moved her lips from one side and then the other. "Fifty-six dollars, ninety-five cents?" I picked her up, gave her a big hug, and told her how proud I was of her. The other day during our lesson I wasn't sure if I was reaching her, but now, my heart was full.
Suddenly, I had a vision of a school teacher sitting at their kitchen table. The late show was on TV in the other room, but no one was watching it. A basket of clean laundry, waiting to be folded, sat on the far side, next to a few bills and a checkbook. With a sandwich in one hand and a red pencil in the other, they were grading papers from their class that day.
No one becomes a teacher for the short hours and great pay. But, watching Addison read the price tags at Dan's Feed Bin, I was clearly getting the point.