Gaseous Explosions for $400, Please

Steve Holland

© Copyright 2006 by Steve Holland


 I dreaded traveling up that hill. Understand, it was nothing personal against the hill. As far as hills go, that particular central Indiana slope was top-notch. What was lurking just over the horizon was what I truly dreaded. How I felt about ascending the hill was merely dread by association. I knew waiting beyond the top of the hill was hardship, anxiety, and plastic lunch trays. In simplest terms, awaiting me was a form of slavery disguised as a rite of passage. To me, that made the hill like the doormat to a sweatshop.

I grimaced each weekday morning as my three fellow Purdue University students and I traveled together up that hill. For six straight spring weeks in 1987 we drove up the ominous slope, each day with me watching in apprehension for the large building that would slowly emerge to our right. Only hearing the eerie “doo-doont, doo-doont, doo-doont” melody from Jaws could have made those uphill voyages more foreboding.

The menacing site perched just beyond the horizon was North Montgomery High School. The building eventually arose into full view each morning, signaling it was time to park the vehicle and have my three travel mates drag me kicking and screaming to the school’s main entrance. From that point, I would compose myself, enter the building, and prepare to swallow my daily dose of hands-on learning.

It was at North Montgomery High School that I received my first taste of my future career. To fulfill the last of my graduation requirements in the field of secondary English education, I taught high school English classes there while under supervision. The college course was officially designated as “EDU 424,” but my fellow sufferers and I just called it “Student Teaching.” Student teaching is the college education system’s version of boot camp, but without a volatile sergeant getting in a future teacher’s grill screaming, “YOU CALL THAT TEACHING, BOY? WRITE ON THE BOARD 100 TIMES ‘I WILL NOT SMILE AT MY STUDENTS BEFORE CHRISTMAS’!”

 As part of EDU 424, each of my four-member carpool was assigned to a separate North Montgomery High School teacher who had volunteered to supervise a college student’s six-week training. In return for volunteering, the four teachers received the strenuous task of sitting back and watching us teach their classes. Actually, the real teachers were frequently not in the classrooms and were content to make occasional surprise inspections. So while we slaved away instructing students, enforcing discipline, and grading papers, our mentors got caught up on some leisurely reading.

 In a truly ironic twist, I was assigned to the wrong supervising teacher. One of my travel mates, Diana Toonan, was also at North Montgomery High School to teach English, and she was accidentally assigned the teacher intended for me. I, in turn, was mistakenly assigned the teacher arranged for her. I have no way of proving this, but it seems the best explanation for the bizarre combination of clashing dispositions. My laid-back disposition was a direct contrast to the stern demeanor of Mrs. Ramsey, my supervising teacher, while Diana’s anal ways were a direct contrast to the easy-going style of Mr. Allen, Diana’s supervising teacher.

 Mrs. Ramsey was a large, intimidating woman who was hard-nosed, demanding, and organized, all qualities I failed to possess. She wore her long brown and grey-streaked hair squeezed back into a ponytail, adding to her intimidating look. The combination of her imposing stature and unyielding disposition made it clear that Mrs. Ramsey was in control of her English classes. Students failed to backtalk or act belligerent because they were scared of Mrs. Ramsey. I shared their sentiment.

 I, on the hand, was an easy-going guy who was as intimidating as a Cocker Spaniel puppy. When it came to my studies, I normally exerted the minimum amount of effort to secure a “B” or “C” in my classes. Since I waited until the last minute to complete most assignments and study for exams, some of my professors assumed I majored in Procrastinating. My theory was if I conserved my effort in schoolwork, I would be able to devote more time to my minors, Beer Drinking and Bar Hopping.

 Considering my minimalistic approach toward schoolwork, it seemed inappropriate to team me up with Mrs. Ramsey. I was more suited for Mr. Allen, a man who would feel right at home slurping half a dozen margaritas at a Jimmy Buffett concert. Mr. Allen was loved by both students and liquor store owners, and he would have been the ideal mentor to teach me the tricks of the trade and to show me how to perfect difficult-to-concoct mixed drinks.

 Because of the mismatch, I was forced to follow guidelines far stricter than those set for my studious and organized female counterpart. Mrs. Ramsey demanded that I have the week’s detailed lesson plans typed and ready to hand in each Monday morning. This would include any worksheets or tests given that week. Mr. Allen wasn’t quite so structured. He only required that Diana show up sober.

 Like most student teachers, I observed my supervisory teacher in action for a few days before I was given the reins. When Mrs. Ramsey surmised I wasn’t entirely incompetent, she began leaving the room off and on during the class periods. These excursions increased in both length and frequency as the days passed. I, of course, tried to monitor Mrs. Ramsey’s movements, and I always turned my professionalism up a notch whenever she was around.

Interestingly, I discovered I wasn’t the only one keeping close tabs on Mrs. Ramsey. My four classes of sophomore English students were also aware of their female dictator’s entries and exits. Each class would release a collective sigh of relief whenever Mrs. Ramsey vacated the room. The students would then exchange mischievous smirks, realizing the fledgling teacher was left unprotected. I was like a fluffy bunny surrounded by pit bulls. I knew these were the moments when I would discover if I was cut out to be a high school teacher or if maybe I should try something less stressful, like greeting Wal-Mart customers.

 My flock acted like typical high school students, testing my fortitude for any signs of weakness. They immediately exploited my inexperience by talking more in class. The students goaded me to reprimand them so they could discover the new boundaries for acceptable behavior. For the most part, they behaved, but a few students took the opportunity to pull off their sheep disguises to reveal they were actually obnoxious, acne-infested wolves. They would say things they knew were inappropriate, but with only skinny ol’ me there to reprimand them, they weren’t too concerned.

 One wolf in particular would occasionally forget to call me Mr. Holland and would call me “Bones” instead. Bones was my college nickname which one of my travel mates foolishly leaked to a classroom of students. That tasty tidbit spread like a brush fire. Unfortunately, Jack, the wolf in question who wore a blue SPAM t-shirt virtually every day, discovered my secret. He used it during English class on more than one occasion, and he earned the responses for which he was hoping; his fellow students laughed, and I appeared aggravated.

 Since politely telling Jack to call me Mr. Holland wasn’t working, I decided one day to change my tactics. SPAM Boy had called me Bones once too often, and he had earned a blunt response. The next time he called me Bones, I said, “Quit being a smart-ass or I’ll kick you out of this room.”

That grabbed the attention of Jack and every other student. By their reaction, I concluded they were more shocked about my cussing than of my threatening to kick a student out of class. I thought nothing of calling SPAM Boy a “smart-ass”, but the students’ glares of astonishment notified me “smart-ass” was a word which had been banished from the halls and classrooms of North Montgomery High School. “Smart-ass,” however, was an essential part of my vocabulary so I used it on a few other occasions, but only when Mrs. Ramsey was out of hearing range.

 My cussing aside, I soon discovered I was a hit with most of my students. Some of them even informed me they liked me more than Mrs. Ramsey, but these confessions came as no surprise. I was a pushover compared to the polished veteran who supervised me. Mrs. Ramsey was the real deal, an educator who was more concerned about earning respect and accomplishing actual teaching than she was about making sure every student liked her. I, on the other hand, was a novice teacher who had yet to learn the benefits of creating a disciplined classroom environment. The students did things while I was in charge that they would have never done if Mrs. Ramsey was in control. This includes the time I left one of my classes unsupervised so I could go to the school library and check on students doing research. When I returned to the classroom, all the desks were empty! The remainder of my class had vanished like cake at a birthday party.

 I looked up and down the hallways, but my missing students were nowhere to be found. I considered sprinting to the main office and nonchalantly asking the secretaries about my missing students.

 “I seem to have misplaced my fifth-period class,” I would say. “Has anyone seen my students or turned them in to Lost and Found?”

Upon further reflection, I decided telling others about my problem would make me appear unprofessional. I returned to the classroom and stood dumbfounded. I was clueless what to do next, and hunting down and informing Mrs. Ramsey was not an acceptable option. Fortunately, I heard giggling coming from the Journalism classroom next door. I turned to look at the door adjoining the two rooms. I saw the laughing faces of some of my deserters in a strip of glass near the door. With their joke concluded, the students vacated their hiding spot and returned to the English room. Although I found the joke amusing, I wasn’t certain what Mrs. Ramsey would think of it, that is, until I discovered Mrs. Ramsey was already in the Journalism room when my runaways had entered. I was relieved to know Mrs. Ramsey had a sense of humor and that she thought the incident was funny.

 Since Mrs. Ramsey found that humorous, it’s too bad she wasn’t around the time I whipped out an amusing activity for my third-period class. On that particular occasion, we played a review game to prepare for an upcoming test over Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. The game was patterned after Jeopardy, and each row of students formed a team. Hands darted in the air after I read each question, and points were rewarded for the first row that answered the question correctly. Because it was a competition, the adrenaline was pumping, and students excitedly blurted out answers. No one, however, was as excited as Stuart Jensen.

 Stuart was a member of Row 3, and he shot his hand up repeatedly. He knew his fair share of answers, and the stocky, brown-haired youth was determined to score as many points as possible for his team. He was particularly focused when I announced the next question was under the category Characters and was worth 400 points. His blue eyes locked onto my face as I raised my sheet of questions. With his right hand resting on his desk, waiting to spring into action, he waited for my question.

 “What is the name of the character who leaves Pip a large sum of money?” I asked. Stuart’s hand and the hands of many other students launched into the air. Stuart, however, was the only student who simultaneously farted. At the exact time his right hand rocketed upward, Stuart let out a gaseous blast, NOT a little squeaker. This was not a fart you could politely pretend you didn’t hear. Heck, the office secretaries on the other end of the building may have heard it. I’m fairly certain the man mowing grass near the open classroom windows heard it. I caught him eyeing the riding mower hood as if the engine had backfired.

 There was momentary silence as students exchanged amused looks. The class then erupted in laughter. They looked at me for guidance, but I was too busy laughing to explain proper fart-response etiquette. Actually, I didn’t know what the polite response was to hearing an atomic fart. I doubted laughing so hard my upper body jiggled was deemed polite or professional, but I couldn’t help myself. I also couldn’t be held directly accountable for my childish behavior. How to react when a student blasts a thunderous fart wasn’t covered in any of my education classes. I felt my professors had deprived me of vital, need-to-know information.

 Luckily, Stuart was a good sport who was not offended by the ongoing, raucous laughter. His face turned as red as a stop sign, and he wore a huge smile which exposed his front teeth. The laughing continued for five minutes before order was finally restored. With everyone now catching their breaths, Stuart delivered one of the best one-liners I have ever heard from a student.

 “I guess I should have raised my other hand,” he informed the class. Laughter again erupted in the classroom. Students were so caught up in the moment they probably had forgotten the question I had asked which set this comical incident into motion. Instead of interrupting to remind the class about the review question, I waited a couple minutes for the laughing to subside. As I stood grinning in front of my amused flock, I thought I was fortunate Stuart’s fart wasn’t accompanied by an odor. A foul stench would have created pandemonium.

 Sharing a laugh with my students about an unscented fart proved student teaching wasn’t all bad. There were plenty of good times, but there were also days when I returned to my Purdue University apartment wondering how many beers I had drunk the night I decided to become a high school English teacher. Teaching high school English was a job that sometimes made me confront smart-mouthed students and that would leave me and eventually my bartender in a sour mood. The amount of effort I devoted to preparing lessons, creating tests, and grading papers was also more than I was accustomed to exerting. Through perseverance and beer, I survived my six-week training, and I still have vivid memories from my last day with my students.

“Did you learn anything while I was your teacher?” I asked one of my classes that day.

 A tiny, cute-as-a-button blonde in the far right corner of the room raised her delicate hand.

 “Go ahead,” I said.

 “We learned how to say ‘smart-ass’,” she said with a smirk.

 “Smart-ass,” I thought, but wisely kept to myself.

 In my last class of the day, the students threw a going-away party and brought powdered doughnuts and pop. Noticing there were leftover doughnuts the last few minutes of class, I took one from the container and created my own game.

“Let’s see what a powdered doughnut exploding against the wall looks like,” I said. I then winged the doughnut across the room and watched it disintegrate against the yellow wall. This was my last desperate attempt to remind the students that “Hey, I’m O.K. I’m not one of them. I’m cool like you guys.”

 I don’t know if they thought I was like them, but they definitely thought throwing doughnuts against the classroom wall looked like fun. Three students grabbed the remaining doughnuts and detonated them against the wall. Bits of doughnut and white powder flew outward and littered one side of the room. I then quickly cleaned up the mess before Mrs. Ramsey returned to the room. This seemed the wisest course of action since it allowed me to avoid explaining to Mrs. Ramsey the educational value of chucking powdered doughnuts against the wall.

 Although I didn’t think so at the time, I lucked out when I was assigned the stern, demanding Mrs. Ramsey. She taught me the importance of being organized and prepared, and she molded me into the disciplined teacher I eventually became. If I had Mr. Allen, things may have turned out differently. I may have ended up serving margaritas at Jimmy Buffett concerts. I have no way of knowing if having a different mentor would have changed my life. All I know for certain is thanks to Mrs. Ramsey, I proudly became one of them.

 I am a graduate of Purdue University, and I taught English and Journalism for 16 years at a high school in southeastern Indiana.

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