What do You Want to be When You Grow Up?
“I’m going to be a doctor when I grow up—a brain surgeon,” I announced when I was around age 10 or 11. I always read my grandmother’s (Mom-Mom’s) Readers Digest
and I had just memorized a section about the brain. My parents always encouraged my sisters and me to do our best but never fostered what they might consider out-of-reach goals. We were an ordinary middle class family living in a Baltimore row house.
Not long after my announcement, my parents talked with me. “Bonnie, girls don’t become doctors—and besides, it’s too messy. You should be a secretary or a teacher.” I remember my mother saying at another time that she would never go to a woman doctor but I like to think that she would have had confidence in me if I had taken that path.
Although at that age I was teaching myself to type and had already typed several pages of a 60-page book I was writing, I couldn’t see myself sitting at a typewriter every day. Maybe I would be a teacher. I needed to start practicing right away. My middle sister Nancy, two years younger, was already as smart as I was, so that left my youngest sister Jaymie, who was nine years younger than I was. As soon as she was old enough, I began playing school with her. As it is now, she turned out to be very smart, with or without my teaching.
So I didn’t become a brain surgeon when I grew up; I worked with brains on a different but important level. I became a teacher.
I was supposed to be ready to teach after I graduated from Frostburg State College in western Maryland and completed my student teaching assignment at Herring Run Junior High in Baltimore. After sending my college transcript and applying to teach in Baltimore, I was hired without an interview, not even by the principal of my assigned school, Benjamin Franklin Junior High in Baltimore’s Brooklyn neighborhood.
My English department head, Magdalene Rice, handed me a pile of papers and showed me to my classroom, P8, “P” standing for “portable.” A “temporary” white wooden classroom building dating from World War II guarded the playground after the student population outgrew the main brick building. Eerily somber in its silence, my room held 35 graffiti-riddled desks with dusty book bins beneath the seats. Before she left me in my room, Ms. Rice gave me some advice that I thought was strange at the time. “Remember—don’t smile until Thanksgiving.”
Wearing proper teacher garb, a skirt and blouse on this first teacher day, I was walking down the hall in my portable building when a man approached and reproached me. “What are you doing in here? You’re not allowed in the building until school starts.” After my initial confusion, I realized that this was my vice-principal, Ben Joffe, who thought I was a student—understandable since I would be only 9 or 10 years older than my 9th-grade students, I looked young and had long hair going down my back in the popular teen style of those days. After clarifying that I was one of his teachers, he let me stay.
As I began to tackle my classroom so it would be visually inviting, two big boys arrived at the classroom door. “Hey, you’re our new teacher. Can we help you do something?” I found out they were Rufus Shank and Dean somebody and that they would be in my homeroom. Of course, I was delighted with the helpful and enthusiastic attitude of these two students and I gave them the job of assembling and tacking up the bulletin board. After about 20 minutes, they said they had to leave because they had promised their mothers they would be home by noon. I thanked them and thought about what my department chair had said. There was no reason not to smile when my students wanted to help. A half-hour later, I was ready to eat my paper-bag lunch I had on my desk. It wasn’t there. I could hear my metaphoric balloon popping as I realized that these two helpful students had come to check out their new and very young-looking teacher. They stayed only long enough to satisfy their curiosity and to see what they could get away with. They got away with my lunch.
As the semester started, I learned more about them. Rufus was a constant disruption in class despite his mother working nearby in the office. And I found out that Dean was 17 and living independently in his own apartment. Sometime in October, Dean stopped coming to school. The reason? He had been arrested for tying his sister to a bedpost and raping her. I would be removing his name from my class roster.
On the first day of school, my knees were literally shaking. An introvert by nature, as a child I was too timid to raise my hand in class. Now, as an adult, I was afraid of standing in front of a roomful of kids. Eventually my knees stopped misbehaving and I breathed a sigh of relief when the bell rang at the end of the day.
Exhausted at the end of the first school day, I drove home from Brooklyn to my Charles Village third-floor apartment which I shared with my first husband. After I lugged myself and my briefcase up the narrow steps, I collapsed on the sofa and my kitten jumped on my chest, ready to play after being alone all day. All I wanted was a sympathetic presence; instead, my kitten scratched me and made my arm bleed. At that point, the tears started—not only did my students hate me, but my kitten hated me. I must have cried every day I came home from school for the first three weeks. I constantly reminded myself that I wanted to teach and that I needed to toughen up. I must have forgotten and smiled. I was beginning to respect my department chair’s advice.
I was 24 years old and idealistic as I set out to make a difference as a teacher. I expected that I would make a difference to every one of my students; in retrospect and on many levels, my students made a huge difference in my life.
Teacher as Learner and Risk-Taker
Because I was young-looking and inexperienced, my students knew they could take advantage but gradually that changed. At the same time, I was willing to take risks even though it might reveal my weaknesses and render me vulnerable. I asked my area supervisor, Manny Velder, to come to my school to watch me teach so that he could advise me of what I needed to change. I knew I needed better classroom management skills if I were to be a good teacher. Manny was surprised. Apparently, I was the first teacher to ever invite him and ask for help. Most teachers are nervous about being observed. It was a good move because he watched me in action and offered advice. Ultimately, I followed his suggestions and continued to improve.
Did I mention that every waking hour in my life was spent preparing lessons and grading papers? Goodbye to carefree weekends. Goodbye to relaxing Sundays. Soon I found out that more was expected of me. Besides regular classroom duties, as a new teacher, I had to go to school headquarters every couple of weeks to sit in a classroom with other new teachers from around the city so we could learn how to teach. Never mind that the teachers who were teaching the teachers did not know how to teach. I especially wasn’t impressed when for our second class we were assigned “homework.” What?! I did not have time for these meetings, much less do their silly homework. Many years later when I would return to teaching, this time at Annapolis Middle, my principal Charity McClellan told me that my goal that year was “to survive.” That was the kind of understanding I needed in Baltimore City as a new teacher.
At this time, I considered my options and goals. My goal was to do a good job teaching and to make a difference however I could. The new teacher-required classes were interfering with this goal. If I did not go, I knew I could be fired or reprimanded at the very least. However, I would have more time to plan and succeed in my job. It was clear what I had to do. I stopped going to the required classes.
Eventually vice-principal Joffe received a letter about my lack of attendance and he called me on it. I told him that my goal was to be an effective teacher in his school but that new teacher classes were preventing me from doing my job. I also told him that I would not attend any more. His response gave me new respect. “Okay,” he said, and walked away. I wasn’t reprimanded or fired and I continued to put my heart into teaching my students.
Sometimes I took risks with my students. In one of my classes, a disruptive student (maybe named Tyrone) was making it difficult for me to teach the rest of the class. I gave him detention. I told him that in two days he would teach his class. That got his attention! He had to come for detention the next day too, and I would work with him to help plan a lesson for him to teach to his peers. I announced to the class that Tyrone would be their teacher the next time they came and that I would be sitting in the back of the room. You could see the “Oh boy!” in their eyes. I also told them that Tyrone could give them detention that I would require them to serve with me. (These were the days when detention mattered, unlike when I returned to teaching in the 90’s and parents told teachers and principals that their children would not be serving detention.)
The next day arrived with a nervous Tyrone. The tough guy wasn’t so tough any more. He followed the lesson we had worked on together but not without some disruptive attempts from his classmates. They kept turning around to see if I would call them on their behavior. I did not but was waiting for their fellow student to do this. Tentatively he took charge and did not do a bad job at all. Afterward he told me that he’d never been so scared in his life. Also, after stepping into his teacher’s shoes for one class, his newfound empathy led him to be a more cooperative student.
And then there was Basilio Thrasher, who only sneered and fiddled with a chain. It was obvious that his life experiences were beyond my understanding. We sort of came to an unstated understanding that if he sat quietly in his seat, no rattling of the chain, I would not bug him. I suspect he was merely waiting for a birthday that would allow him to drop out of school.
I loved the diversity at Ben Franklin Junior High, both among students and faculty. The staff socialized outside of school and I never noticed a racial divide at #239 as I did when I returned to teaching in 1988 at Annapolis Middle. I had the same expectations of all my students, regardless of race, so I was surprised when Doris Williams, an excellent black vice-principal, approached me about a student (Mavis maybe) who complained to her that I was prejudiced against her because she was a “Negro.” Doris laughed as she told me because she said Mavis also complained about her history teacher, Charles Minor, who was black. It turned out that both of us had given Mavis detention and she thought she could get out of it by accusing her teachers of racial prejudice.
I’ve always been lucky and somehow escaped reprimands from administrators, even when I threw a stool in the classroom in the late 90’s when teaching in Pasadena. (But that’s another story for later.) The original wooden portable buildings became extremely hot in warm weather. The usual attire for female teachers in the 60’s was a dress or skirt and blouse with stockings. (Later when teaching at George Fox Middle, I wore slacks and even hiking boots sometimes.) When temperatures rose, I found stockings unbearable. So did Sara Conlee, another English teacher who taught in a room close to mine. Principal Edna Carter reprimanded Sara for not wearing stockings. I was surprised that anyone would be reprimanded for trying to stay comfortable in an uncomfortable environment. I was never approached about this. I don’t know why but I would probably have continued teaching without stockings.
Going Beyond the Classroom
Unorthodox approaches that might have worked in the past would never work in today’s educational climate. I remember another student (maybe a Wayne) who was not a bad person but just immature and disruptive. After keeping him in detention, I told him I was going to drive him home to talk with his mother. His mother came to the door and told me I had her sympathy. “I can’t do anything with him. He keeps acting up. You have my permission to spank him if he gives you trouble again.” Of course, I did not spank him but her words seemed to have helped him to be in a more positive place.
Another student I had for a first-period class was a girl (name escapes me) who had trouble getting out of bed in the morning and arriving at school on time. Because of this, she frequently missed my class. She wasn’t trying to avoid my class. We both liked one another and later that year she planned a surprise birthday party for me (during class, of course) with a card that said, “We love you like a sister.” One day I was determined to take unorthodox action. She lived across the street from the school and still had trouble getting there on time. I left school, with my homeroom students in the room, walked across the street and knocked on the door. When her mother answered, I asked her why her daughter wasn’t in school. She responded that she had tried to get her daughter out of bed but she didn’t listen to her. She suggested, “Why don’t you go down to her room and drag her to school.” She let me in and I descended steps that led into a bedroom painted black on ceiling and walls and with a young girl still in bed. I told her to get up and get herself to school right away. I returned to my homeroom and she got to school quickly.
Another student (again I forget his name) seemed to be a little needier than the others. He was a foster child. I invited him to come home with me and paint my back porch. It would be a paying job. By this time, I had moved to Brooklyn Park, which was closer to work. The next day, after school, he painted my back porch. I never asked him if he’d ever done any painting. For some reason, this didn’t matter to me—but it did matter to my first husband, who was a good painter and who did not appreciate the sloppy work from my student. This experience for my student, seeing his teacher at her home, was enlightening to him. He told me, “Until today, I always thought my teachers left school and curled up in a black box until the next day.” He learned that his teachers were regular human beings. I learned that I should have supervised his painting a little more closely. Later, my first husband and I made an appointment with social services about the possibility of becoming foster parents for this teenage boy. We were turned down—something about us being too idealistic.
I learned that there were some students I could not help. A girl who was on my roster never showed up and I found out that she was a runaway. I contacted a friend who worked with the Fellowship of Lights in Baltimore, a service that worked with runaways. He made contact but she still never returned to school.
Field Trips and Assemblies
As I gained experience, I decided to become even more involved. Another teacher, Eileen McKinney, and I started a United Nations Club. We took a bus trip to the United Nations, another to D.C. and visited embassies. We invited a speaker from the Peace Corps to talk with our group. As it turned out, the speaker who was sent was someone I grew up with as a child.
The trip to D.C. was interesting but was not without a mishap that shook me up a little. One of the students on this trip was frequently ostracized by his peers. We did a buddy system and head count when we returned to the bus after each embassy visit—all the normal checks. However, as we drove up to our last embassy, this student was outside the bus and met us at the curb as the bus pulled up. His buddy hadn’t raised his hand, maybe wanted to leave him behind. This student who missed the bus was smart enough to know our itinerary and he caught a cab to our next stop! I always counted three times after that experience.
|Along the C&O Canal © Bonnie J. Schupp
I also started a Travel Club and remember two trips in particular—one was a bike ride along the C&O Canal in the D.C. area. We met with a junior high group from Suitland, Maryland, that was led by my Frostburg roommate who taught there. It was a good trip with city kids riding bikes on a dirt path rather than the street. Our Ben Franklin students were well-behaved while having fun.
A more complicated trip to plan was camping and tubing at Harpers Ferry. I think it was a first-time camping experience for most students who signed up. One fell out on the tubing trip but was okay. Then it rained that night and a tent collapsed. The next day we dried out at the laundromat. In spite of everything, that too was a good trip.
Every year our school treated graduating 9th-graders to a special year-end field trip. Some years we rented the Port Welcome for a boat trip from Baltimore to Annapolis. Other years we went to Gwynn Oak Amusement Park, which was first integrated in 1963. Some of my students twisted my arm, almost literally, and I had my first roller coaster ride on the wooden roller coaster. To be honest, I preferred the carousel, caterpillar, airplane and bumper cars. The park closed in 1973 after flooding from Hurricane Agnes but the carousel was moved and is still operating on the National Mall in D.C.
I noticed by the time I went back to teaching in 1988, teachers planned fewer and fewer field trips, myself included. By the beginning of the 2000’s there were so many students on medication, mostly for ADD, that logistics became complicated. Before the field trip, the school nurse had to put each student’s medicine in a bag labeled with name, dose and time. An administrator had to give medicine to each of these students during the outing. For a group of 150 students there could be as many as 20 students needing to be medicated. Taking this into consideration, along with the new pressure for teaching students for standardized testing, it is understandable why there are fewer field trips in schools now.
Besides instruction, kids had some interesting assemblies. One was when some of the younger teachers decided to put on a play for students. We practiced at night at one another’s homes. Wish I remembered their names. It was such fun just to practice and then, on stage, to hear the kids’ laughter watching their teachers act like fools. I doubt this happens much anymore. Most schools don’t have an auditorium with a stage and lights. Our play involved pretend drinking of alcohol and shooting with a fake gun. Today’s school rules do not allow even a fake gun in school—not even a piece of bread cut out to look like a gun.
9th-Grade Teachers, Publishers, Filmmakers and Snakes
Ben Franklin once housed two wings—one a junior high and the other an elementary school. I thought that proximity provided a great opportunity and I arranged for some of my 9th-graders to tutor elementary school students who might benefit from one-on-one reading help. It was rewarding to see my 9th-graders take a grown-up role with the younger kids. They all seemed to enjoy this. The newspaper wrote about this project but I can’t find the clipping.
One year, as the new schedule was being constructed for the next year, I was approached. “I hear you are a good typist.” Yes. As a 9thgrader at Woodbourne Junior High in Baltimore, I won the top award for speed and accuracy. “So many students want to take typing that the typing teacher has one more class than she can handle. Would you be willing to teach one typing class next year?” Sure. I discovered that typing was ten times easier to teach than English was. For one thing, this was an elective class and the students were motivated. No behavior problems and students were focused. Typing tests were self-graded on the spot and we followed page by page in the typing instructional manual. No special planning, no grading, no behavior problems. It was a nice break for me but, in spite of the challenges, I really enjoyed teaching English better.
I devised English classroom lessons that students might connect with and offered encouragement for the smallest glimmer of light. The two years I taught a typing class were the years my students put together a literary magazine. There were opportunities for longer pieces but also for short insights/phrases. With my students, we spent hours typing, editing. I believed it was good for students to have something tangible to be proud of, something with their words and name.
The school year was divided into quarters with different themed topics for English classes. One of the unit themes was “Decisions” and I thought it would be a good idea to go beyond the normal lessons for one of my classes by making a movie about decisions students make every day. These were the days before video, even before Super 8 mm film. This might be difficult for young people today to understand because they merely have to pull out a cell phone and they are able to make short movies. In the 60’s and early 70’s, a Baltimore city teacher had to call, reserve, and pick up a movie camera at headquarters. And, as we were filming, there was no instant feedback; we did not see what we filmed until it was developed. I remember the final film as being very rough but the kids had a good time producing it and I think they learned something about process—how to get from nothing to a final product. Later, in the mid 1990’s after I returned to teaching, one of my students would win a special Anne Arundel County Public School’s award for her animated movie on nutrition.
In those days, standardized testing was not a buzzword. Teachers were encouraged to use audio visual aids to help create interesting lessons that students might connect with. One of my lessons involved reading a story about snakes. In my head, a perfect audio-visual aid was a boa constrictor I had at home. I wanted to bring the snake to school and bring it out at just the right moment, building up to the story. One of the challenges in the school building was to keep the snake warm and out of sight. The easiest way to do this was to put the snake next to my body, under a sweater I was wearing. When I had to leave my room to teach a typing class, the snake remained under my clothing until its head quietly popped out of my sweater sleeve and I had to push it back in before students noticed. In English class, the snake got the attention of the students. However, unknown to me, in one class there was a girl in the front row who had a deep-rooted snake phobia. When I revealed my snake, she screamed and ran out of the classroom. She stayed in the office that period and only returned when she was assured I had no snake under my clothing.
My experience at Ben Franklin will always remain special because it was my first full-time career job. But even more so, I felt bonds with my students and fellow teachers—bonds that have remained over the years. When I began teaching in September of 1967, I made $5,800 a year. (I have the paycheck stub somewhere and can prove it!) Soon after I started, the annual salary went up to $6,000. In spite of low pay, I fully jumped into teaching because I knew it was an important job and I loved it. However, because it was my tendency to give so much of my time, energy and emotions, I experienced burn-out. I wanted to do so much more but felt that “the system” wore me down. Sometime in the fall of 1974, I left teaching to open a camera shop in Severna Park with a friend. It was something I had to do, something I had to prove to myself. As the years went on and as I dealt daily with money and things, I realized how much more important teaching was. Ever since second grade when I received a camera as a gift, photography has been a creative outlet. I did not find retail sales creative.
Eventually I wound up divorcing and then marrying again, David Ettlin, this second time for 34 years now. I taught photography classes through the camera shop, wrote photography columns for The Evening Sun and two more papers in Arizona and Indiana. I also wrote photography articles for Darkroomand Petersen Photographic magazines. My daughter was born and I became a stepmother, both within a year. When my daughter was around eight, I took two required classes at AACC and applied for teaching jobs in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County. Even though the pay was less, I was open to teaching in the city. However, the interviews made the decision for me. For the Baltimore City interview, the interviewer was late and arrived with no apology. She treated me as someone definitely beneath her and then did not take into account that I had been making money writing both locally and nationally for newspapers and magazines. I was required to take a writing test! For the Anne Arundel interview, I was treated with respect and my large portfolio of published writing was enough evidence that I knew how to write. I had a second interview in Annapolis for an opening that six people had applied for. Thinking back on that interview with principal Charity McClellan, I think part of the reason I was offered that job over the other applicants was because I carried with me examples of work my students had done, things that made them and their teacher proud. I couldn’t help bragging about my students. I was offered positions both in Baltimore and in Annapolis, but without hesitation, I chose the place where I was treated with respect.
I taught 7th-grade language arts at Annapolis Middle School for two years and then transferred to George Fox Middle which was a much easier commute for me. At first, I taught 7th – and 8th-grade language arts but for three years I was enrichment teacher. During this time, I bought a Web domain name, Reaching Minds, and kept a Web site for my students and their parents. After spending every day during one Christmas vacation working on the application, I applied to the Fulbright Memorial Teachers Fund and became the first teacher to represent Anne Arundel County in this fantastic program. The Japanese government paid for 200 U.S. teachers, four from Maryland, to travel to Japan for three weeks and learn about the Japanese culture and educational system. Soon after that, I decided to become a student again, applied for the Doctor of Communications Design degree at the University of Baltimore, and was accepted. For several years, I existed on very little sleep between teaching 12-year-olds all day and going to graduate school at night. Finally, when I could no longer maintain the grueling schedule, I retired from teaching in 2003 and earned my doctorate at age 60 in 2005.
Parents Were Right
When my parents many years ago told me that girls did not become doctors, they were trying to help me be realistic. In those days, there were lines—barriers—between male and female careers. Even if I had had the aptitude, my parents could not have afforded to send me to medical school. When I signed an agreement to teach for two years in Maryland after I graduated from Frostburg, I received free tuition and I paid for room and board and books with money I earned working summers and working on campus.
Today former students are part of my Facebook friends network, even one who sent me a friend invite saying, “I was a son of a bitch. I hope you’ll be my Facebook friend.” That’s another story for later.
As it turned out, teaching was a good choice for me.
~~~~~~~~ A Few Links ~~~~~~~
The Port Welcome
Bonnie Schupp’s photos from her early teaching days
Student Delbert Williams is published in Scolastic Scope.
The Negro American in History – A teacher’s guide published by the Baltimore City Public Schools in the 1960’s