Umbrella/De-Icer/Scraper/WD-40 / Tales Out of School


Umbrella/De-Icer/Scraper/WD-40 / Tales Out of School

I kept emergency supplies in my cabinet, and colleagues knew where to find them: broken but usable umbrella, for when all the good ones were in the car or at home, De-Icer and scrapers to help get cars cleared after winter storms, WD-40 for squeaky doors not serious enough to call maintenance. When I left, I bequeathed supplies to my next-door neighbor, so she could continue the mission.

In the grand Wopila* (give-away) teachers, students, and out-of-town friends took books, posters, step ladders, podium, and sundry other gifts, contributions to the work of education. First item claimed was a poster of Rapunzel from the Rep’s production of Into the Woods. Funniest was a little pink step stool, taken by a friend who scolded others for being “vultures” and then, spotting the pink ladder, exclaimed, “Oh that’s so cute!” to which I replied by giving her a post-it on which to write her name to stick it on the ladder.

On the last work day, student volunteers helped teachers pack and clean, and some of them gladly delivered my treasures to the appreciative recipients who had claimed them. A long extension cord and the hammer from a student’s project on “The Parsley Garden” went to the drama department. She hadn’t had time to come lay claim to anything, but with set-building and such, I knew they’d be well used.

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Typing / Trust / Tales Out of School

Typing / Trust / Tales Out of School

I was a secretary for Prudential right after college. Most female liberal arts graduates in the ‘70s became secretaries, back when want ads were still divided by gender.

When teaching jobs finally became available after a few years of school Reductions In Force, one of my students looked at one of my blue dittos and said, “I see why you aren’t a secretary any more.” Hats off to those who work in offices, and appreciation for the students whose humor put smiles on my face . . . and hurrah for computers and word processing and no more scraping the back of blue dittos!

I remember when all teachers had autonomy to plan and implement lessons as needed to reach and encourage the unique students in our classes.
I remember my very favorite principal entering my room amidst apparent chaos, blinking, giving me whatever he’d come for, and never even asking what it was all about because he knew/trusted it was something worthwhile.
I would sometimes ask reluctant scholars to trust me on a lesson for which they could not immediately see the value.
When I first heard of scripted curriculum, I was appalled. Human beings, teachers and learners, are not cogs in a machine.
I left several copies of Donald Davis’ Ride the Butterflies in my school as hope for a return to creativity.

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Sleeping Students / Tales Out of School


Sleeping Students / Tales Out of School

My high school students used to beg for the naps they’d refused in kindergarten. High school students, guys especially, love to sleep in class, and can do so, propped upright, without falling. Male center of gravity must be different, because a few female students and I tried and toppled as we relaxed.

Once we put together an elaborate trick, setting the clock ahead, turning off the lights, and waiting in the hall while a custodian went in to ask a sleeping student, “What are you still doing here? That was a bit mean of us, but fun.

One boy claimed, “I wasn’t sleeping,” to which I replied, “Okay, but since that is the school’s book, not yours, could you please wipe the drool off of it.”

My favorite, though, was smiling as I gazed at a sleeping macho student, then when the whole class was paying attention, quietly saying, “My mother was right. They are all angels when they’re asleep.” Loud laughter and very puzzled awakening.

Sad but true story: I called a mother to discuss her son’s repeatedly falling asleep in class and was told the family had just been diagnosed with carbon monoxide poisoning. Happy ending, they were all going to be fine, and I cancelled his detentions.

Some propose high schools starting later in the morning so the students could get more sleep, which sounds good to me. I know that I have not, not even one time since retiring, awakened with the desire to get to school by 6:55 a.m.


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Retirement/Graduation / Rainbows / Tales Out of School

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Retirement/Graduation / Rainbows / Tales Out of School

I always said I’d teach until I got tired of the students, which I never did. In fact, I truthfully told my final year’s students that they were the best students ever and I had to retire because the school couldn’t possibly give me such good students the next year.
(They didn’t need to know about the sarcoidosis from the mold in the building or the administrator determined to make my life miserable).

It was a wonderful adventure, beginning with my decision, in kindergarten, that “I want to do that!” Rainbows

Some of the parents, bless them, said they were sorry I was leaving but, “Thanks for being here for my child.” A former student sent a lovely email crediting me for some of his success, so wonderful that I shared it with the principal.

One of my favorite students was upset at news of my retirement, until I pointed out that she would be graduating. “We can graduate together!”

Just a week or so before graduation the same student was asked to remove or cover a “Stop the Bush-It” bumper sticker on her car, a relatively tame witticism which had been on her car for two years. She said, “Ill have to think about it.” After consulting with me and a few others, she opted to simply ignore the request. The administrator had fulfilled his promise to “talk to the student,” and we knew he’d be too busy to follow up in the busy final weeks of school. I wish I had learned earlier to “fly below the radar.”

Retirement came a bit before I planned it to, but I was fortunate that I had left the retirement contribution from my first two years of teaching stay in place when I went off to teach a year for a private company, and that a former colleague had become a savvy broker to advise on retirement savings, reminding me a bit of this piece . . .

BTW, when I retired from teaching, I thought I was finished with red pens, but a student gave me a whole package of them in the final weeks of school. Turns out they are perfect for puzzles, much easier to see than pencil, and blue can be used for changes . . .



Quiet / Quitters / Tales Out of School


Quiet / Quitters / Tales Out of School

Early on I was advised to “decide the level of noise you are comfortable with” . . . and then try to achieve that. During my enthusiastic student teaching, I encouraged a greater degree of noisy participation, and received complaints from the next-door teachers’ lounge.

I did learn to match expectations to the needs of an activity, silence for tests and quiet reading time, “12 inch voices” with desks touching for group work, respectful listening to anyone, student or teacher, presenting to the class. Overall, a fairly sedate atmosphere, to the degree that two young men once stormed out of the short stories class when asked to do silent reading, no talking. The rest of the class laughed . . . and returned to reading.

I said once to a student whose class the previous period had been with a very energetic colleague that I admired her and wished to be more like her. He said, “No, don’t! I can’t take that every hour.”

Picture 1

A student recommended Stephen King’s “Quitters’ Inc,” from Night Shift. “I know you don’t like Stephen King, but you’ll like this.”

We know when to trust our students. King’s work was often too intense for me and was the warning example of my “G-rating” request to writing students.

She was right. That story was definitely a welcome exception. Good discussions came from that story. Do the ends justify the means? How high are the costs of smoking? Would a wife really be so forgiving? One year I was given “Stop smoking” stickers to hand out, and most of the students took one.

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Poetry/Positive / Tales Out of School


Poetry/Positive / Tales Out of School

I loved discussing Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” with my students, including the contradictory passages and double meanings. They had so many crucial decision right in front of them, and I had so many past decision to reflect upon, but had not, as one student blurted out, “made all of them already.” As long as we live, we are making those choices. I had it on a poster in the classroom, a reminder of choices to be made.

The beauty of poetry is the conveying of many meanings in one short piece. A class discussion of Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” would elicit many varied responses. Then I’d tell them my high school teacher’s “official” take on it as a longing for death. Students would look again and typically one would offer, “Well, I see how someone could think that, but . . . “ Serious work established, we’d go on to a witty piece definitively proving that it was about Santa and the English major party piece of singing it to “Hernando’s Hideaway.”

Poetry is such a good companion. I memorized Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech in high school and found it a good friend in times of giving or receiving judgements.
Just think if we could turn all our creativity and energy to positive ends . . .

Learning from each other is one of the best parts of teaching all ages. Anna in the King and I sang, “if you become a teacher. By your pupils you’ll be taught.”

Once a student said that for the first time ever female students would be joining the Outoor Ed. class at the shooting range. In her honor, I borrowed a copy of Annie Get Your Gun so we could share the wisdom of “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun”

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Outdoors / Tales Out of School


Outdoors / Tales Out of School

Sometimes being indoors is just too confining, and with no recess at the high school level, students have to work at getting what they need. The very best was when FHN had an outdoor classroom, maintained by the science department but available to all. It was a perfect place for writing poetry on a warm spring day. Once my students were settled and writing, I thought of a poem myself, and had to borrow paper so I could write mine, sharing the experience.

The school had two courtyards that were good places to sit and read, if the nesting birds weren’t too territorial. My Shakespeare students used the courtyard to enact scenes. The cement benches seemed fitting, and there was space to move around. Once our regular location, right outside my room, was locked up, so we went to the courtyard closer to the principals’ offices. The final scene of Julius Caesar went well, but not one administrator turned to look, as multiple deaths were enacted right outside their windows.

One spring fire drill was on such a beautiful day that students begged to stay outside, but the books were all inside. Two young men volunteered to bring the class set of Of Mice and Men, and soon all were seated on a curb, quietly reading. The principal gave us an odd look when we didn’t go back in, but seeing all well in hand, didn’t even come to question our tarrying. It helped that Mice and Men is so engrossing. We once were reading in guidance, as students were called to double-check their registration for the next year’s classes. A distraught student had a loud and active meltdown right outside the room, and not one student even looked up.

Some fire drills were less comfortable. I kept a small afghan in the room for anyone needing extra warmth. It would sometimes accompany a student out on a chilly day. Once it was so cold that I put my ESL students, not yet acclimated to the cold, into my nearby car with blankets (not turned on, because that introduced other temptations and risks).

The short story class read a short story on “Snow” and listened to Carmen Deedy’s story of her first snow in the U.S. We promised our Mexican exchange student, who had never seen snow, that if it snowed during class time, we’d go outside. When snow did appear during class time, it wasn’t the first snow of the year, but when I pointed that out, the young lawyers said I hadn’t stipulated first snow, so I sent them to get coat and we went out. They enjoyed it, and just as with little children, they were ready to return in less than ten minutes.

We also shared this story “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” and agreed that teleporting might be convenient and tidy, but everyone should still be able to go outdoors . . .


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News/NEA / Tales Out of School

News/NEA / Tales Out of School

I was a member of NEA all my teaching years, for the shared knowledge and the professional support. One year two of my colleagues came to inform me, after they had fixed the problem, that paperwork had gotten mixed up . . . In a whistling past the graveyard mood, I wrote this poem.


News of My Death

by Mary F. Garrett

The National Education Association has declared me dead,
And Jim Garrett has been a dues-paying member all year.
My friends inform me after they have corrected the records.

I feel an eerie shiver, but mostly I remember Jim,
A friend and advocate for his deaf students;  
He taught my students to sign in his “free” time.

We were friendly, but not close, 
Although students were positive, because of our names,
That we were married.  
In fact, they said we were “a very nice couple.”
We agreed that at least we fought less 
Than any married couple we knew.

Our mail always ended up in each other’s mailboxes, 
In spite of my efforts to clearly label and personalize them.
I once received his health insurance claim with one of mine,
My first clue, though I didn’t try to read it,
Of the illness that would destroy him.

It seems fitting that his death
Should find a way to come to me,
Consistent avoider of funerals caught at last.

I decide I’d better tell my mother,
In case official word is sent to next-of-kin.
I joke that if anyone complains about a boring class,
I can tell them it’s the best they can expect
From a dead person.

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Mice and Men / Tales Out of School


Mice and Men / Tales Out of School

Of Mice and Men was probably my students’ favorite book in American Literature, partly because the language and story were clear, unlike the wordy prose of my favorite Transcendentalists. Also, the plot was so full of conflicts and dilemmas to be discussed and written about.

At one point, our department considered a proposal to move it to a younger grade. Those of us who taught American Lit. fought hard to keep it for the juniors, citing adult issues and harsh language. Ranch hands can’t be expected to keep to school-appropriate language, after all. My students understood perfectly that when they read the material aloud, taking parts as if it was a play, it was allowed because they were reading as a character.

The main reason we fought to keep it was that our students liked reading it, and we all, students and teachers, deserved this book after slogging through the likes of Moby Dick (not that there weren’t some exciting moments in that. Once the office called for a student and I refused to send him, “He’s Ahab, and we need him”).

I did have a little trouble living through the sad, realistic ending with five classes a day. I kept wanting all to be well. My students were very understanding of my teary eyes and would sometimes write me happy endings. In my favorite, the ranch hands all passed the hat to send George, Lennie, and Candy off to buy their little ranch with the rabbits, and all the hands would be welcome as guests. In another revised ending, Curley’s nameless wife ran off to Hollywood and stardom, finally getting a name, up in lights.


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Love / Tales Out of School


Love / Tales Out of School

I used to tell students who asked to call home that if they called during my class time, they had to tell their moms and dads that they loved them. One young man said, “I always do.” I predict he’ll do well. I also told them that if they were asking for delivery of something they forgot, they owed a return favor, and most agreed.

Sam Austin, my first principal, observed my class and said, “It’s clear that you love your students. You will be able to touch them with discipline because you’ve first touched with love.” I loved them so much that I didn’t want to let them go at the end of the year, but they gently informed me that it was time for summer vacation and I’d be okay.

High school students aren’t used to being loved, but they still need it. I witnessed a very angry sophomore become sweet and cooperative when I delivered a message from his fourth grade teacher, “Mrs. R. loves you.” Writing is a scary thing, putting one’s soul on paper, but he did all assignments for the rest of the year, with that message keeping him safe.

That transformation made me a believer in the power of love, even if it resulted in odd conversations like, “Here’s your detention, but I still love you.”
“You mean like.”
“ . . . no I like ice cream, a bit too much perhaps. People deserve to be loved.”

Mom for years had a Curtis cartoon on her fridge that began with Curtis complaining about his parents’ rules, then saying, “No one cares what my friends do,” and then hugging his mom. One of my students said he understood that his parents and I fussed at him because we cared, “but sometimes I wish so many people didn’t care so much about me.” I could tell he didn’t mean it.
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