Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Class of 2000

As many of my friends (and my long-suffering wife) realize, I’ve been working for a long time on a book about teaching. If I had earned minimum wage for all the hours spent tapping at the keyboard I’d already have $50,000 in my pocket.

I tell my wife that when they make my story into a movie, Brad Pitt will be tapped to play me. For some reason she scoffs.

I’m a decent writer, I tell myself. (And let me assure former students, who will remember my writing rule, that the words “things” and “stuff” do NOT appear in my book.)

I loved teaching and loved working with kids. I wish I could explain to readers what those kids were like, by the hundreds, by the thousands.

I felt lucky. I felt like I was part of a noble profession.

Still, no one should imagine that teaching is easy. Teachers face all kinds of problems and deal with serious issues every day. At the middle school level I saw kids wasted by drugs, kids who were bullied, girls who turned up pregnant, and one poor young lady who, it turned out later, was being sexually abused by her father. One year I had a young man in my sixth bell class who had the longest juvenile criminal record of anyone in Hamilton County.

In other words, some kids were hard to teach or reach or help.

In one early version of my book I tried to pick one class, the kids I had during the 1999-2000 school year, and use them to explain what it was like to be an educator. I wanted to see if I could say something positive about every kid I had that year. As I suspected, it was, with perhaps exception. I decided the section didn’t quite work for my book; but here’s what I wrote about a fairly typical group of middle school students in Loveland, Ohio:

Class of 2000

(They would have graduated from high school in 2005.)

Had I known I would try to write a book about teaching someday, I would have kept better notes. Today I recall hard times in a classroom like a combat soldier recalls traumatic events. The good moments, the good days, the good students number in the thousands but don’t always stand out to the same stark degree.

Had I kept notes I could have filled volumes with stories about wonderful kids: but they often blended together, like a series of beautiful spring days. I can mention stars in the class of 2000, however, because I did take a few brief notes during that year.

I started to anyway; but like any good teacher, I never had enough time.

I wish I could say more about all these young people—about all the kids I had other years, too—but this will have to do for a sampling. Chris had failed the seventh grade the year before and got off to a poor start in my class. I finally convinced him to stop making excuses and start working. And once I realized he had a good sense of humor we hit it off fine. I found with Chris (and many others who had failed over the years) that he had a little extra maturity in how he thought. I encouraged him to speak up in class and he turned out to be a leader in discussion. I loved his effort in his second time around in seventh grade. He was still only a “C” student but his attitude was excellent.

Robert (pseudonym’s used where examples might embarrass) was an interesting young man, filled with good ideas and a desire to please. Unfortunately, he had a knack for going too far when he spoke his mind and often antagonized peers. He would stick it to them, verbally, and they would stick it to him back, and I would have to cut off the insults as quickly as I could. Often it was Robert against the world. So I spent time trying to convince him to ease off and did what I could to protect him from attack if he forgot. I liked Robert and hated to see him get bullied. 

I can’t highlight every student I had that year; but I can give you a quick idea of how much potential there was. My Class of 2000 included Michelle, who spoke up for justice in every discussion we ever held.

There was James, who worked hard like his father, who had been seated in one of my chairs a generation earlier. James could do a perfect imitation of a cricket, something none of his teachers had ever heard before and I suspect have never heard since.

Ellie had the same smile her mother brought to my history class two decades before. When I met her mom at Open House she was—of course—smiling as she always had before.

Most of these kids made my life easy. There was Laura, talented, positive and mature. One evening I attended a school musical and had trouble imagining a better voice coming from a young lady her age. (And let me note:  that Loveland had an excellent choir and drama teacher at the time, Mr. Shawn Miller, and a band instructor, Mr. Bruce Maegly, without peer.)

Mitul and Zac are forever paired in my mind. Top students, they worked together on a history project and built a Nazi death camp to scale. (Zac is now an architect.)

Joe had grades that were…um...somewhat lower. Still, he was one of the funniest kids I ever taught. He reminded me of me at the same age. I told him so and think he took it as a compliment.

In one year I had Becky, a brilliant young lady, and Greg, who excelled at skits. Becky went on to Ohio State and Greg called years later to thank me for all I had done. (I meant to call him back but erased his message by mistake.) Elizabeth looked like the studious young woman she was and had the ability to go on to be a college professor if that was what she desired. Kelly was talented and vivacious. My wife and I used her to babysit our two youngest daughters. In my notes, I said Kelly was “argumentative;” but by that I meant she was always ready in class to express opinions and knew how to think. Kristina, a sweet young lady, wanted to be an actress. Kelly #2 was an avid reader. Kelly #3 was one of my absolute favorites. I described Lindsay as “my HARDEST worker.”

That’s the highest praise I can give.

Then my notes fizzled out. I probably got busy on one of a thousand tasks that every teacher juggles. I did jot down a few words about every member of the class, however. Jessica was tall and a dependable hard worker. Brad did wonderful projects, combining historical themes and modern tunes, including Brittney Spears songs. Lura was smarter than me and if I remember rightly she did an art project, a series of water colors on the Holocaust. One showed a hand clawing out from under a pile of dirt, as a stream of blood ran to the corner of the picture.

One year of teaching—and so much potential. There was Neilo, enthusiastic and brimming with ideas. Her parents fled from Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, and came here to make a better life. She lit up a classroom with her enthusiasm. Jillian was daughter of one of our high school teachers, a basketball star, and rock solid in her efforts. Brad #2 was from a Mormon family, with the good values we tended to see in almost every Mormon kid.

Allan (pseudonym) had glasses and often wore a sad look on his face. He told me he was getting bullied. So, I talked to him about how to avoid getting picked on by peers. He had a tendency to fly off the handle when teased, even in cases where others meant no harm. Other times he blew up and cried when the jerks targeted him in the hall or cafeteria. 

I taught him the virtues of the “poker face,” how to ignore barbs, which took away the jerks’ fun. I was proud of how he responded and never once found him to be anything but a kind-hearted young gentleman.

I would have been happy to have an entire class filled with kids just like him.

I can offer only a taste of what this banquet was like. You probably have to be a teacher to fully appreciate Patrick—not to mention his love for Duke basketball and all things Duke. I think he probably owned Duke underwear. He never made it to his dream college on a basketball scholarship but did go on to play soccer and basketball at the Division III level. Tom was another star and later enlisted in the Marines. And there was Katie, who convinced me to allow seven students to take part in the same skit about women in the 1800’s. (Skits in my class were designed to last the entire period if students were doing them right.) I told her that with seven, someone was almost sure to be squeezed out and not get enough chance to talk. She had a plan—and it worked just as she promised. I remember the girls sat around, as if at a sewing circle, but I’m sorry to say I don’t recall who the other six participants were. I do know that within minutes I was sure all seven were going to earn A’s.

Although Kimball came to Loveland in the middle of the year, I somehow managed to take notes on what he did. His handwriting was “almost impossible to decipher” and he lived in California before coming to Ohio. That spring, Becky (already mentioned), came to me with a fantastic idea: Why not do a skit on the three branches of government? I told her I could have scratched my head a thousand years and not come up with that idea, but I could see the possibilities a soon as she broached the subject. The next day we put her idea out for every class to consider.

In seventh bell, Kimball immediately volunteered. When I called him back to my desk to discuss the idea he asked if he and three friends could be involved. My first question was how he intended to use four people in a skit about three branches. He explained: he would be Executive Man, Evan would be Legislative Man, and a third friend would be Judicial Man. The fourth would be People Man, representative of the citizens of this great land.

I could see how his plan would work and gave approval with a laugh. What I could not predict was the brilliant fashion in which the group put the skit together. The day they were set to perform they wore capes and t-shirts with appropriate letters, a huge P for People Man, an E for Executive Man, and so forth. I remember one of the boys had on gym shorts over a pair of red tights. Evan played Legislative Man as a schizophrenic. If he answered for the Senate he turned one way, and turned back to speak for the House, alternately arguing or explaining ways the two houses worked (or didn’t work) together to pass bills into laws.

I’m sorry I don’t remember who the other two in the skit were. All I can say is that we were working from a list of 150 questions which would be on the next unit test. Not one of the four young men messed up a single fact during their performance. 

It bothered me that I could not recall who the other two boys were. So I pulled out an old class roster and tried to figure it out. I think Jason (who went on to play baseball at Michigan) was one. Or it might have been any of these gentlemen: Dave, Charlie, Charles or Dmitry. All had talents of one kind or another and all were fun to have in class.

(Charles recently spoke to students at Loveland Middle School about his combat experiences with the U. S. Army in Iraq. He did a wonderful job, too.)

I scanned the roster for seventh bell and noticed Mandy’s name. She was a star in my class, like her brother two years before. I see in my grade book that she had a 93 on the first test of the year, a 90 on the second test (her friend Sarah, another star, scored even higher) and a 96 on the Samuel Sewall story.

Seventh bell—one class—one year. You had Kelsey, a bubbling fountain of enthusiasm. You had Jessica, who never missed an assignment and Amanda, who never ceased smiling. Chris #2 was brilliant as a Pilgrim “granny” in one skit. Stephanie scored a 60 on one test, retook it (because, as my students remember, I always made those who failed retake tests), and raised her score to 100. I thought the second grade was in keeping with her true potential.

Finally, you had Karlie (pseudonym). Karlie was a solid writer and excellent in skits. Still, her grades were poor and she had already failed once. One day, I took her and three classmates out in the hall and read them the Riot Act. I warned that they might not graduate if they didn’t turn it around in school. I’m afraid I made her mad when I said that. Regardless, she proved me wrong. Or, perhaps she proved me right. One way or the other she got herself going in the right direction. Five years later she stopped by room to hand me an invitation to her high school graduation.


That’s as far as I got on this post a year ago. Then, by chance, I was working on this same post yesterday when I received a Facebook “friend request” from Matt, a member of this same Loveland class. He mentioned my writing rule about “things” and “stuff” and seemed to hint that he tried to follow it.

So I checked a database I keep to remind me about who all my former students were and what they were like in class.

According to what I had recorded Matt was “very bright” and “I liked him.” Not a bad way to start. I decided to check out every other member of this group and here’s what I said about other students, all in one year:

Matt #2 had a fine attitude and was a wizard with computers.
Sara was “a hard worker” in my class and when the stock market took a dive she told me her mother, a broker, suggested I buy P & G stock. (I should have listened!)
Sara #2:  “very funny; big smile and always helpful.”
Sarah (already mentioned above):  “first class worker; great in skits; could act.”
Danielle had a “dry wit” and was “talented” without doubt. She was from England and I describe her as “a fine kid to have” in class.
Mike was always funny and did some great work when prepared. Brad #3 was a nice young man—and I think liked basketball.

Geoff was always pleasant and polite in my class—sort of what you expected from all members of his family.
Molly was very smart and did great work in skits. Theresa was a great worker and a favorite student of mine.
Jessica #2 was “highly creative” and wrote some fine poetry for a history project.
Jessica #3 followed her own drummer—never easy for a teenager to do.
Dan was witty and for a project “interviewed” famous Americans in heaven.
Adam had a great Southern accent and was very serious about his religion. I’m not religious myself but I respected his viewpoint.
Zac (girl version) was sweet and smart, too.
Misty was a fine student and I use the word “perky” to describe her in my database. I’m sure my former students will remember how perky I was, too!

Ha, ha. No.

Brendan was a big kid with curly hair and learned how to handle teasing from his peers. You could see him mature. I liked seeing that.
Justin:  “very nice; quiet but good worker.”
Stefanie could be extremely funny; when we were talking about a Native American culture that flattened babies’ heads for beauty she said, well that wasn’t any dumber than women in our culture who pay for “fake boobs.” That comment made her class erupt in laughter. I did too.

Jeremy was “a good artist.”
Christina:  “artistic and nice.” Laura #2:  “smart” and “nice.” Tony had red hair and I found him to be a good thinker.
Alex:  I’m going to say he reminded me of myself in seventh grade and I liked him a lot.
Alex #2: “talented.”
Alex (the female version) was very creative and I think liked my class. (Hard to believe but not everyone did. Ha, ha, former students, my great jokes are as funny as ever.)

Sean:  “wry sense of humor; a lot of fun to have in class.”
Michelle #2 was quiet and shy but a very strong worker in my class. I’m willing to bet she went on to college.
Christy was “good for me.” Crystal was excellent in skits. Roger was a young man I liked.
Amy:  “always nice, did a good job for me; big smile.”
Angie “worked well for me.”
Amanda #2 was “quiet and nice.”
Amanda #3 had a “sweet personality” and was always “a good worker.”
Brian:  “great humor and creativity.”
Drew:  “very bright; creative thinker; wry humor.” 
Neil was never serious in class but I “liked him” and couldn’t entirely blame him if he spent time flirting with the ladies. We will not mention which ladies.

Eric was “bright” and from what I could tell several girls thought he was handsome. Eric #2 is listed as “a good worker” in class. You can never have enough of those.
Jake was funny—as so many kids are—and also a “star worker.”
Ashley was sometimes hard to motivate but clearly had “college potential.” She was nice, too.
Chris #3 had also failed the year before; but in my class he had a good attitude and I remember he torched the other side in a debate we held on some topic. He kept puncturing their arguments with funny comebacks and they never knew what hit them.
Chris #4: “always polite and pleasant.” He was quiet in class. 
Chris #5 did “great drawings” in history.
Chris #6:  was funny, quietly good in his work and fun to have in class.
Randall was very quiet but a “good worker.” A nice young lady at all times. She did twenty-five full-page color pictures for a project on the Iroquios people.
Dillon:  “great in participation; always fine attitude.”
Jenny liked to talk and my notes say she was “a good kid.”

Caroline did a Pilgrim skit and even faked an English accent to make it more fun.
Taylor, I noted, was “a great kid; very funny” in class. Bessie was just plain “bright.” Heather “did her best.” I was always happy to see that.
Joel:  “creative thinker; loved his attitude.” I said almost exactly the same about Andrew, but added “star student.”
Lauren was nice like every member of her family that came through my classroom door; she often scored A’s on assignments and tests if I made her do them over. 
Shannon: “always liked her; great effort.” Great effort was the real mark of a great student.
Melissa was “sweet” and a “hard worker.” I think she was serious about being a Girl Scout. (She probably sold me cookies since I’m kind of a pig.)
Buchi came to Loveland from Nigeria. I thought all year she kept improving in her work; that was always a pleasure to see.

Brian had a good attitude and I liked him a lot. Chelsea was a good athlete, smart, quiet and I liked her a lot, too. Kayla was fun to have in class and a good student, one who loved to talk. Ann was “super dependable” and a “nice girl at all times.”
Ashlie was a quiet young lady but a good student.
Mike had failed the year before but did a phenomenal turnaround—so much so that we moved him up to be with his regular grade at midyear. I was proud of that young man.

Devon wore glasses and did a “great job for me.” Evan #2:  I have him listed as a “super student” and also a “good basketball player.”
Maranda was present in our school only briefly that year. Jeremy was also present for only a part of the year.
John was a nice kid with a funny streak, too. Raymond was funny and creative and in my notes I say he was a “piano star.” (I must have seen him play with the school band.)
Gerri:  I thought she was wonderful to have in class; she was always lively and worked hard.
Melissa #2 was “a great kid” in my class. I remember when we read a packet about the Holocaust it made her cry.
Jessie was “a favorite” of mine, a personable young lady and a strong student.
Jessie #2 was a “nice writer” and I “liked her a lot.”
Jessie #3 was “a good B student” and a good soccer player, too.
Jessie #4: “Sweet and dependable; very lively.”
Jessie #5:  Okay, we had a lot of “Jessie’s” that year; this one was a good kid and liked to share ideas in discussion.

Kristin was another soccer player, a young lady with a sweet disposition, and a hard worker.
Jon was a “super talent, a creative writer, and a good athlete.”
Jon #2 was another funny kid and I liked having him in class.
Reid was “the funniest kid of the year.” Steve is also called “funny” in my notes; and I remember he liked to answer questions in class.
Kyle is described as “a good guy” in my brief notes. You can never have too many students like that.
Kyle #2 is described as “bright” and an “excellent student.” You can never have too many students like that, either.

Aaron: also described as “very funny; a favorite of mine.”
Erin was “sweet” and  “smart” and another favorite.
Josh was funny in class and very creative at all times.
Josh #2 sounds almost the same:  “about as funny as you can get; fine in skits.”
Josh #3 had some brains and started the year well; let’s just say he got in a bit of trouble later.
Tyler was a kid I liked. I tried to help him learn how to get along with peers.
Margaret was “absolutely wonderful, creative,” a thinker in my class and a star in school drama (and naturally in any skits).
Tim:  “funny” and “talented.”
Tim #2: did “great art projects; fine attitude.” All his siblings worked hard in my class over the years.
Graham:  “good worker; creative projects.”

Brent moved away early in the year. I didn’t get much chance to form an opinion. Kevin was “funny” but also moved away midyear.
Lindsay #2:  “diligent and dependable.” Loved having her in class.
Lindsay #3 I remember as “a great kid all around.”
Eric:  “a fine worker.” You have to be a teacher to realize what high praise that is.
Amy was “a good worker” just like her sister two years before.

Katelyn was another good student who moved to Ohio from Colorado midyear. A very polite young lady, as I recall.
Samantha was talkative and artistic and fun to tease in class. Samantha #2 was also fun to have and I could tell she was bright and had great potential. Samantha #3 had reddish hair. She was funny and a good student, both.
Andrea was very artistic and a very fine student.
Bryan had, I thought, more ability than he realized. I hope he’s doing well.
Elizabeth #2:  “great effort; cool to have” in class.
Carrie:  “fine artist, nice young lady.”
Katie was shy at first in class but a good worker. My notes indicate that a young man in her class (who shall not be named) was “in love with her.”

We did have one young lady expelled that year. So, I guess I’ll pass over her name.

And that, in an educational nutshell is what teaching is like. I made it a point to try to like every kid; and with rare exceptions during my career did.


  1. I really enjoyed that article! Always best to try and see the positives in all of the school kids. In my 37 years, I really had only one kid I found no positives for, he was a sociopath, as things turned out. You should not give up on the book idea, I spent one January a few years ago writing about lessons I learned from students throughout the years. Two years later I had self-published a book called It Wasn't in the Lesson Plan. Look it up on Amazon and read a couple chapters.
    Here's a link.

    I also have a blog if you want to check it out.

    1. Thanks, Philly Girl. I'm still writing the book. I call it "typing for no pay," so far. If you taught 37 years, are you like me? I'm really concerned about all the attacks on teachers today.