Sunday, May 9, 2010

Coronated At Last

My Queen Mother just received a Teacher of the Year honor from the town of Laverne, California, where she has taught Spanish to boys for the last nine years. She got a chance to make a 30-second speech, something in the mode of an Oscar acceptance address but nothing fancy. Mom said she would briefly thank everybody and step away from the podium. She was never a public speaker, despite thousands of classroom lectures.

For much of my childhood, I didn't think of her as a teacher. She got her Education degree from the University of Missouri and quickly locked up a first job at Raytown South Junior High teaching English. Then came love and marriage... and me. Mom saved up all her salary and placed her teaching life on hold to be a full-time parent, living with Dad in the Alpine Village apartments about two blocks away. "We just about wore a hole in the carpeting carrying you around," my father tells me.

She made sure I -- and later, my brother -- didn't slack through school. I zoomed forward in reading and then ran into trouble with spelling. She gave me mock tests at home the night before. Yet she really went out of her way with the math tests. My fourth grade teacher demanded all of us pass a series of timed exams: one minute to answer an entire sheet of basic addition, subtraction, multiplication or division problems with no mistakes. We had to pass each test four times, as indicated by an orange poster on the classroom wall, with a list full of names and gold stars to show how everybody was doing. Mom would make up sheets full of problems and time me with a stopwatch. "You have to keep your wits about you," she said. She could have homeschooled us. If my brother and I had been born twenty years later, she probably would have.

When we reached a cruising altitude in our schoolwork, Mom began preparing a comeback. She returned to substitute teaching in the Raytown school district and filled in at the elementary level. This led to a freak occurrence: "Guess what teacher I'm substituting for today?" she told me one morning. "Yours!" For at least two days, I was the most popular kid in class, with everybody telling me how nice Mrs. Francis was. Yeah, they were kissing up. It only lasted two days.

Mom later moved up to the prep level, taking a job at a Catholic high school teaching English, American Literature and Spanish. The paper chase caught up with her, as she spent night after night grading tests and homework and compositions, often sitting in the comfort of bed. I helped out by putting her grade book into a Microsoft Multiplan spreadsheet, which shaved some time off of midterm reports.

Then the Queen Mother decided to go for the crown jewel: her Masters' in Education. She chose a graduate degree that wouldn't require a dissertation or thesis, but her final paper sure felt like one. She had to design a curriculum for a literature course. The monster paper grew to a monstrous thickness, even with help from AppleWorks. During her research phase, I went along with her to the UMKC library and fell in love with its vastness. It stocked just about every conceivable magazine. She took notes and left me to explore, so I pored over Radio/Television Age and wondered why anybody would subscribe to World Marxist Review.

Mom pulled it off just before we moved to St. Louis in 1989. She took a job at an all-girl Catholic school and taught Spanish exclusively. The nature of the workload shifted from the bread-and-butter homework and tests to a system of "packets" that let the young ladies work with a bit more independence. The girls were also better-behaved, giving her sanity a breather.

About a decade later, when Mom and Dad moved to California, she found the state wouldn't reciprocate her Missouri teaching certificate, leaving her to once again teach at a Catholic school. I joked that my Presbyterian mother was "common-law Catholic" for all those years in parochial education headed up by priests and nuns. Mom's been through many a mass on the job.

Her current gig at an all-boys school exposes her to more testosterone and behavioral issues. This institute of education is known for being a "jock school," meaning certain people who perform well on the football field can get away with lousy grades. My mother has also run into several parents who refuse to believe their son's subpar performance has something to do with a lack of effort, preferring to blame the teacher. It fascinates me how these families shovel thousands of dollars into a religious school, see their children flunk, and throw more money away.

This would be more tolerable for The Queen Mother if the administrators showed more willingness to stand up for their teachers. She told me about a drama teacher who nearly quit the school because, through a series of clueless mistakes, she had to hold class in the library. I guess she could have taught aspiring thespians how to act in their "library voice." I have also heard of troublemakers that should've gotten the boot long ago, if expulsion didn't also mean kissing away tuition revenue.

Thankfully, other students show admirable gratitude. So does a department head who nominated her for this honor. Though it's only one night of laurels, one brief respite from the grading and grind, it's long overdue.

Her acceptance speech ended up running past 30 seconds. She made enough thank-yous to cover all bases: to the Laverne Chamber of Commerce, the department chair who nominated her, to my Aunt Shirley and Uncle George for coming to the ceremony, and several others.

Mother reflected on the moment she found out about her laurels: "It was like one of those situations where somebody comes behind you and says, 'Congratulations, you're teacher of the year,' and you want to turn around and say, 'You're talking to me?"

She nearly had an Oprah moment.

A fellow teacher told her she "had a reputation for being tough but fair. But right now, I want to cry."

She didn't, though.

"It got the response I expected," she said. "I was just hoping not to embarrass myself."

No, not at all.

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