I was lucky to begin my career in a small (1,000 population) farming town seven miles from my family farm. Consequently, many people in town knew me or my family. In fact, the doctor who treated me a few times as a child was the town doctor. One of my first students was the niece of my junior high science and math teacher and I had her younger sister in class my second year. In other words, I was very comfortable with my surroundings and families in town.
My first principal, the one who believed in me and hired me, was Tom. He had an Italian last name but was known to everybody as Mr. B. An All-American soccer player at Michigan State, he very gregarious and sometimes outspoken, not afraid to call it as he saw it kind of guy. We became friends and colleagues. He saw through my long hair and hippie kind of attitude. It was the early 70’s. Nixon was months away from impeachment and resigning in disgrace. The war in Southeast Asia was winding down. Considering his urban, conservative upbringing, I didn’t appear to be “his kind of guy.” I still thank him often even though I haven’t seen him in nearly 30 years. He was a critical influence for a young, first-year teacher.
As I said earlier, I was known in this small town from my childhood. My family’s reputation was a good one. We were local farmers who did business with the same grain elevator, my dad spent time in a local bar (maybe too much time, but that’s a different story), our family doctor practiced in town and even owned the farm across the road from our farm. Lots of connections. Two of my first fourth graders had even closer connections; the aforementioned niece of one of my teachers. The second was a daughter of family friends. We’ll call her Lori. She was practically family. This is where my first big lesson was taught, but not necessarily learned.
I was in a portable classroom separated from the main building by a sidewalk. My windows looked out on a sidewalk. All of my students brought a lunch from home most of the time. Since the building was crowded, our cafeteria was the gym and we often ate lunch as a class, sitting at our desks. One day, Lori decided to eat lunch sharing a corner of my desk. Since she knew me well, she chose to sit on my right leg as she ate and chatted with me as well as other students who gathered around. I know… crazy now, but innocent at the time. Mr. B happened to walk up our sidewalk to see me about something. He and I talked about the topic as Lori and the other students went back to their desks to finish lunch. No big deal. At the end of the day, Tom came to my little piece of the world and, with no anger or anything, simply told me that was not a good idea to have a student sit on my lap. My naivety was broken just a bit. I was, as some called me, a big teddy bear. Hugs were just part of the job. I was human. And I continued to be. Just a bit more careful.
To end this installment on a rather humorous note, eating lunch in our classroom resulted in another learning moment regarding my lap and for Mr. B to show a new shade in his true color spectrum. Steven, one of my fourth graders who was very quiet and withdrawn, had finished lunch one day without incident. About an hour later, a post-lunch incident became a story I have repeated often over the last 43 years. As they say, something he ate disagreed with him. You know what’s coming. The class was working on their math assignment, all quiet on the western front, right? Steven in his quiet manner walked up to my desk and said a partial sentence that I will never forget. He said, “Mr. Clone, I don’t feel…” The sentence fragment was incorrectly punctuated by the sour milk and some other contents of his upset stomach landing in my lap! Those were the days of double knit slacks. Mine that day were navy blue. “Were” is the key word. My mostly nylon double knit slacks were suddenly covered in a mostly white, acid-enhanced substance. The class was awestruck. I came close to losing my lunch but my large family and farm upbringing came through. I didn’t lose it. I simply asked a student or two to walk Steven to the office. I did my best at daubing my slacks off and dealing with the smell. Mr. B came right out suppressing laughter and told me to go home for the day. He would cover my class.
I threw the slacks away.