Originally published in the Emmitsburg Dispatch
Republished in the Emmitsburg News-Journal
It was 1977 in my 60th birthday was coming. I had spent many hours substitute teaching but except for my first year out of college I had not held a full time teaching job. In 1961 I signed a contract to teach English at Thurmont High School. I promised myself that when I got to
be 60 I would retire.
Classes for the final marking period had been assigned and when I went to my final class Monday morning I was greeted by about 25 students all of whom were classified as "reluctant learners." Immediately the students began questioning me. "Are we going to have to do any
writing?" "Are we going to have to read any books?" (God forbid reading and writing in English class!)
What do you do in a class if you don't read and write?
One girl said, "My sister had you for teacher and she said you are nice."
"I am," I said. Not one eager student this spring. Why hadn't this group, like other 16-year-olds, dropped out of school? They were old enough. One thing they did know and had learned was that they had to have "that" diploma, and regardless of how it was attained they were
going to stay long enough to walk across the stage to get it.
I had four weeks to go and no plans -I was already tired of the school year. "What am I going to do with these kids?" Frederick County, as usual, was in short supply of teaching materials and at this time I was in short supply of ideas. Four weeks with a bunch of reluctant
learners that need to be kept interested.
I finally decided I did have some choices. I would tell them about my teen years and encourage them to ask questions. I would read stories that had been written for teenagers and we would discuss them. I would let the students decide topics that they were interested in. As the
time wore on the students got more and more interested and questions began to fly.
I began my stories with my high school years - a large high school in the heart of a shopping district in a small city. No school buses. No lunch program. No place to park student - which wasn't a problem as students didn't have cars. All athletic activities in venues miles
from the school. Imagine the questions that information provided. And the students were interested the topic lasted for a day or two.
One class I took in a newspaper picture of myself fallen down in a local stream. I had all the required pieces of the outfit of a trout fisherman - hat with flies - limber rod and line - waders. It was all a staged picture. A Washington newspaper man had come to the stream
wanting a picture of a women fishing and had chosen me as the subject even thought I pretested I wasn't fishing. I became the story and the students were fascinated. Lesson for the day: Don't believe everything you read in newspapers.
The class loved the story of my going one snowy, cold night to a golf club to sled. Rather then going down a hill, we unknowingly went down a ski jump. When we, my sled partner and I landed, the sled broke into splinters and so did my rear end. My partner was in front of me and
I smashed my face on his back.
I told them of my first date which was to a roller skating rink and the return home when my date kissed me.
Probably their favorite story was of my washing the outside of a very large window. I was wearing shorts and when the water spilled down the window onto a nest of yellow jackets, the yellow jackets swarmed and some of them went up the legs of my shorts. That story was a winner.
The student's may have liked that story best. Imagine what went through their minds.
Then one lucky day Ron come to me asking me to tell him how he could be elected the President of the senior class for the next school year. We talked about campaigns. Voting and all things political, especially convincing his classmates to vote for him. My promise to the class
was that if Ron was elected president I would buy them all ice creams!
Well, Ron was elected and we had our ice cream party.
As the four weeks were drawing to an end, I was asked: "Are we going to have a final?" "Of course." "How can you study for it?" "Just wait and see," as if they would study.
Test day came and we had the "test". "Takeout a paper and pen and in as many words as you can, tell me what you have learned in these four week." They wrote busily and laboriously for 40 minutes. I collected the papers and took them home to read. I cried as I read them. I cry
as I write about them now.
I quote a few of the remarks:
"We finally had a teacher who didn't yell at us."
"The teacher never got mad at us."
"This teacher acted like she liked us."
"This teacher told us about her life and it was interesting."
"This teacher didn't have pets."
They all loved the class.
And finally - "I haven't learn't how teachers can make class so fun and interesting such as Mrs. Richards has with us. None of my English classes has ever been so fun and interesting as this one." "You're a hell of a good teacher , Mrs. Richards."
They left the classroom for the summer. I left the classroom forever.
I loved those kids.
This topic prompted lots of questions. (Asking a good question was certainly a good topic in an English class.) And the students were interested and asked good questions.
After telling the story of the day I allow the students to ask questions. Their curiosity had peaked, not an easy task as many of them thought of themselves as quite grown up in knowing all about the world. Some of them had even been to Smithsburg!
I found stories written about and for teenagers. Some of them were surprising plots and endings. So I read to the students. One of the girl said to me, "Mrs. Richards, you read like a movie star." Wow!! The students like to guess the endings or provide their own. Had these
"kids" never been read to at home?