Small World

That is one tiny world




"Simplicity of thought is an attribute when hitting major league pitching but with affairs of the heart, it is a detriment. Furthermore, the desire for a simpler life is a fallacy because the desire is not to dumb down one's life but rather seek to remove complications which are the factors that continue to bombard us all on a daily basis."

The student teacher stood in front of the class of high school sophomores and waited. The silence was only missing cricket sounds; the deafening sounds of indifference echoed within each student's brain. They had no idea what she was talking about and to a person, didn't care. She had been holding onto that phrase as a guaranteed conversation starter since she had walked into the classroom so she was surprised at both the lack of applause and the variety of the few odd looks staring back at her while the rest of the faces looked down at their desks.

Eventually, the class collectively and blankly stared back at her, in an orderly grid of five rows across and five rows deep and the symmetrical twenty-five still had absolutely no earthly idea what she was talking about. The teacher, Miss Nilke, had been with the group all year and only due to a medical emergency which recently befell their regular teacher, was standing in front of them for the first time without a net. All year, Miss Nilkie sat in the back, taking notes and grading papers for the regular teacher, Mrs. Nathan. Cathleen Nathan was a regional educational legend and had been teaching tenth grade social studies in the local high school for over forty years. Almost to a person, Mrs. Nathan had taught the town's entire generations of students, their siblings and eventually, their children. She rarely went away from her time-tested script and with forty years in, she rarely had the motivation or educational interest to do so. As far as tenure goes (and is defined) for non-University environments, you will get a wide variety of homespun definitions but as far as Cathleen Nathan was concerned: she didn't care what you called it, she knew she could do anything she damn well pleased and every child within the school district would be provided an appropriate historical and social-science based education based on what Cathleen Nathan thought about the world.

In her early sixties, Cathleen Nathan was not a healthy woman. A long-time smoker and aggressive social drinker, Cathleen was a legend in both the classroom and the teacher's lounge as she held court with her strong stage presence. As the years went on and the teacher's lounge was forced into a no-smoking area, Cathleen's health deteriorated proportionally with the increase in non-smoker rights. These rights, once assumed and inalienable, Cathleen began to act as a victim. Her frantic embrace of nicotine was the only link between professional (although limited) service and actual bodily implosion. As a result, each year, Cathleen demanded and received the hardest-working student teacher available; becoming in all aspects, her indentured servant. Each year, the student teacher would do more and more of the classroom instruction while Cathleen sat in the back of the classroom remembering better, smokier years. While not fully engaged, it remained extremely clear that any customizing or non-scripted comments would not be tolerated and to a person, compliance was achieved by all because Nathan's classroom was heaped with internal and indentured anguish beaten out of youthful and energetic young instructor's souls.

One Friday, in the middle of November, Cathleen Nathan was not able to come to school and the student teacher, Emily Nilkie was notified before school that she would have to take over until further notice. While she wasn't exactly a novice, thanks to Cathleen's hands-off approach, the thought of teaching untethered was both terrifying and liberating. Emily had twenty minutes to put together her own lesson plan: Nathan's curriculum had not changed since the end of the cold war but Emily finally had a mandate to do what needed to be done. As she sat at her desk before the first period bell, she quickly put together a list of things which she felt tenth grade students needed to ponder with the concept of political and social engagement at the top of the list.

She tossed the established course plan in the wastebasket; it hadn't been updated for twenty years due to Mrs. Nathan's understanding of the rules orbiting around the concept of teacher hierarchy. In addition to those facts, she made a quick diagnosis of known factors and was fairly confident she wouldn't be seeing Nathan again. The combination of her advanced years, history of poor health habits, liberal retirement benefits and the realization that it was likely time to leave made Emily feel it was her time to make a difference...no matter what the kids thought about the whole thing. It was going to be showtime and she had a great opening or at least she thought she did. As the air became quiet after her initial salvo, she entertained repeating the phrase. Certainly these children could easily understand the concepts of love, simplicity and the importance of self-enlightenment.

"They couldn't be that stupid," she thought.

The class remained frozen in some slow-motion torporish fog: their old teacher was gone, which accordingly to the jungle rules of public education classroms, is when all responsibilities ceased. They couldn't understand what the student teacher was doing; the witch was dead but for some reason, instead of getting quiet study time, she was up front and riffing some abstract and complicated thought. The impasse stayed active for a few minutes while both sides refusing to either repeat or engage until finally Cindy Bassamore raised her hand.

"Miss Nilkie?"

"Yes, Cindy?"

"I have a question: what does that mean?"

The class, while not officially engaged, all leaned toward the front of the room to at least hear an excuse.

"Well, Cindy. What do you think it means?" said the teacher. She was ecstatic inside because she finally had made her first non-Nathanian connection. She was actually giving and taking with a student and she was digging it.

Unfortunately the rest of the room was not: the annoying 'answering a question with a question' response was not the intended goal of the class. They wanted to know what was going on as they were all tired of learning. After a year with Cathleen Nathan, the group's initiative to learn was beaten out early and significantly with her style of learning and teaching. She had no interest in seeking input and it took only a week for the group to realize that their primary job was to sit in their desks and shut up. The introduction of Miss Nilikie's desire to engage was both troubling and confusing; the group was unsure whether they should start learning or wait for the bell.

"Well, I am not sure what it means but I think that you think life and love are overrated and full of disappointment."

Miss Nilkie looked at her with an open mouth; the good news was for the first time in months, she actually got a response from one of the students. The bad news was that brutal message was too much to handle without some minor protestations. She was a student teacher, barely scraping a living in a dinky little town in Maine with no life outside of her current gig. She was thinking about her next move and her next school but that was usually reserved for her quiet time; sitting back and not listening to Mrs. Nathan's robotic yammerings. Usually, she looked like she was grading papers but she was also quietly searching the internet for elementary and middle school teacher gigs in the Northeast. Obviously she kept that information confidential but all of a sudden, a student that could only be optimistically described as mildly academic snapped her back to reality with one sentence.

"I disagree with your observation Cindy but I do appreciate you making an attempt."

"Thank you, Miss Nilkie."

The rest of the hour, she attempted several other forays into the collective reluctance of the class but other than a few minor questions and semi-quizzical facial expressions, her attempts fell short. She sat front and center of the class, leaning against the legendary Nathan desk, as she was not going to back down. When the bell rang, she allowed her voice to rise above the din of exiting students and proclaimed, "I want a one page analysis of my opening statement. I will have copies of the quote available outside the door by lunchtime."

The groan was low but uniform. She wasn't going to let this learning opportunity pass without a fight and for the second period class; she was well-prepared for the logical reaction. She quickly had printed up the comment, "Simplicity of thought is an attribute when hitting major league pitching but with affairs of the heart, it is a detriment. Furthermore, the desire for a simpler life is a fallacy because the desire is not to dumb down one's life but rather seek to remove complications which are the factors that continue to bombard us all on a daily basis" and distributed it immediately. She left a pile outside her door for the first period group and focused on her next class. It was common knowledge, thanks to first period announcements and word of mouth that she was going to take over the class for the rest of the academic year. There was a new sherriff in town and she was growing in confident with each new class.

By the end of the first day, she was feeling more comfortable on the classroom stage as she engaged her students a bit more each period. However, with the energy expended through her active teaching methods, she noticed that she was completely fatigued at the end of the day in an undescribable manner. She had done brief stints in front of students many times but not in such long and formal duration; she found herself fantasizing about small group work, reading time, long examinations and week-long presentation cycles as ways to get her off her feet and back into her chair in the back. She wasn't giving the old Mrs. Nathan any props for her years of service but she could sense some proper respect lurking just below the surface of her sore feet. Her passive review of the day was snapped back to reality as she heard the squeak of the door opening into her now-empty classroom.

"Mr. Masterson wants to see you," said a student of no known personality. She recognized the student as one of the office toadies and their authority was assigned by Mr. Masterson, the vice-principal. He was not only the man behind the man, he was the law incarnate. The principal, Mrs. Long, was always away at meetings so the law of that school eminated from only one person: Mr. Masterson.

She collected up her belongings and walked directly to the office. He was waiting for her and upon she her enter the office, he walked over to the coffee machine and poured himself a fresh, hot cup of coffee. His mug, made by a student many years ago, easily held thirty ounces of coffee and he filled it up to the brim. As she walked towards him, he quickly drank down the steaming cup; his leathery man mouth easily swallowing down the hot liquid with no sign of discomfort. It was clear that he was no one to antagonize and she made up her mind, right then and there, to comply with all his wishes. He wore short sleeve shirts and a tie every day to school and as he stood before her, with a drained mug and a similar facial expression, he was ready to break the news.

"Nathan is not coming back, do you want the position?"

"Yes, Mr. Masterson."

"Good. I owe you one."

She watched him walk back to his office: she was on her way. The weekend would give her a chance to fine tune her objectives so to allow the softer side of social studies to come to the forefront. All students needed to memorize key dates, the timeline of World War One, the framers and Louisana (and Gadsden) purchases, but she was compelled to also allow equal time to discuss the human condition and the resulting impacts on each individual. It would be a challenge to work this enlightened thought into the standard lesson plan, cast in stone by Nathan decades earlier, but she was now a shaper of minds and it was time to start shaping.

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