Teachers Will Keep Praying

Teachers will keep praying
Teachers will keep praying

Originally published in The Dallas Morning News September 17, 2000

When the Supreme Court announced its decision that prayer wouldn’t be allowed in the schools, I couldn’t help but smile. I work in the Dallas public schools, where controversy seems to be a mainstay.

During the debacle with the district’s most recent superintendent, I prayed for our district and the school board and enlisted the prayers of people all over the world via the Internet. But that wasn’t the first time that prayer had entered the schools.
When I began my teaching career at the age of 40, I was as hopeful, bright-eyed and energetic as any 20-year-old. Little did I know what awaited me in an inner-city classroom. Upon my first day, a tiny kindergartener no higher than my belt buckle pummeled my back and yelled words at me that grown men shouldn’t know. Welcome to the real world.

Now, prayer had gotten me through college, and I knew I needed it here. This particular one was simple and to the point: HELP! I turned and faced my adversary, a golden-haired, blue-eyed bombshell with the face of an angel and the disposition of a … well, need I say more?

He glared at me with steely blue eyes and dared me to strike back. “Well, hello to you, too!” I said, “What’s your name?” He eyed me warily. “Chris,” he mumbled under his breath like a threat. I extended my hand. “Well, I’m Mrs. V” (short for an impossibly hard name for a kindergartener to pronounce). He drew back at first, as if expecting the hand to strike him. Then, he grabbed it with all the fierceness he could muster in his 5-year-old body. “Nice to meet you, Chris,” I said, smiling. The prayer continued on silently. “Would you like to read a book with me?” He nodded reluctantly and snatched one from the nearby shelf. I sat at a table with several chairs. Chris sat at an arm’s length from me, just barely close enough to see. I held the book between us and began to read. By the end of the story, we were shoulder to shoulder. I knew this truce was fragile and temporary at best.

The prayer continued but more fervently now. “Can you write your name?” Chris’ face clouded immediately as he shook his head. I continued on hurriedly. “Oh, I bet you can! Let me show you how.” I finally was beginning to feel like a real teacher. Little did I know that I had lots to learn. I quickly grabbed a piece of paper and stopped just as I reached for a crayon. “Hey, Chris, what’s your favorite color?” He rummaged through the box and scooted one across the table to me. “Oh, yellow, I like yellow,” I said. The tiniest hint of a smile appeared on his face. “That’s not yellow, that’s blue!” he said. “You know, you’re right,” I agreed. Most children enjoy being able to “teach” the teacher. “Now, does Chris start with an R like rrrabbit or a C like cccat?” I sounded out each letter and traced each carefully. By the end, Chris was beaming. “That’s my name!” “Yep,” I agreed, enjoying the moment. Now, the hard part began. “Can you show me your pointer finger?” Up it popped, the nail dirty and bitten down to the quick. “Let me show you a trick.” I took his hand, and we carefully traced each letter with his fingertip. Chris nodded thoughtfully when we finished and agreed to try it with a crayon. He held it like a miniature spear in his fist and carefully copied each letter.

There would be time for learning how to hold a pencil later. For now, each attempt at a letter was a reason to rejoice. He smiled when he finished. His teeth were discolored and broken, but it was the most beautiful smile in the world.

I was hooked. My long journey as a teacher had begun. Yes, there is prayer in the schools. It is coming in through a means not even the Supreme Court envisioned: in the hearts and minds of the teachers as they walk in the door.

Tadpole Heaven

 

Change is an inevitable and important part of life. When I brought live tadpoles into my classroom that was the lesson I had planned to teach. Too bad it didn’t turn out that way.

These were not ordinary tadpoles – they were large, green, bullfrog tadpoles I had purchased at the local Walmart for a whopping forty-nine cents apiece.  “Oh, they’re easy to care for,” the young salesgirl assured me as she placed the precious cargo in a see-through plastic bag.  The tadpoles eyed me warily with big, bulbous eyes and I smiled back confidently.

Sure I could raise them.   I had a rabbit and crickets in my classroom, didn’t I?  Tadpoles would be a cinch, a snap!  Yeah, right.

I placed the tadpoles in an aquarium filled with water and colored rocks (primary colors at that).  For a while, the tadpoles swam about enjoying their new home.

After a few days, the children started to complain, “The water smells funny!”

Knowing I had to take care of it that day or walk into the smell of a fish market the following morning, I placed the tadpoles in a bowl and poured out the filmy water.  Then I filled a bucket with clean, fresh water and poured it into the aquarium.

The next morning the tadpoles seemed listless and depressed.  I threw in some fish food and kept my fingers crossed.  But by the time the children went to centers, one of the children tugged at my sleeve and announced.  “Teacher, the tadpoles are standing up!”

I walked over and, sure enough, the tadpoles did look like tiny green soldiers at attention with their noses pressed against the water line.  “Hmm,” I replied nonchalantly even though my heart raced, “Maybe they’re lined up to go to lunch.”  The child nodded thoughtfully and continued to study them.

As soon as the last child left for the day, I rushed to the grave site only to find our “new amphibian friends” still modeling correct posture in the now murky green water.

I’ve seen dead fish before but never a tadpole!  At the age of six I petted one of my father’s prized Black Angels and the next morning it lay on top of the aerated water glaring accusingly at me with its one visible fishy eye.

Forty years of guilt dragged me back to my parents’ living room in McKinney, Texas.   Reluctantly I picked up the largest tadpole and laid it in my hand.  It didn’t squirm or wiggle but lay in sweet repose and (dare I say it?) at still as D-E-A-T-H!!!

“Oh Lord,” I prayed – a full-blown panic attack setting in.  How was I going to explain this to twenty-two five-year-olds who trusted me implicitly?

After cleaning out the aquarium and flushing the tadpoles along the way that many good little tadpoles go, I called my “lifeline” – Walmart.

This time an older, more experienced saleslady helped me.  I told her step by step what I had done to care for them.

“Well honey,” she said, “Was there soap or some kind of cleaner in the bucket?”

I shuddered.  Only a few months before, I had mixed bubble solution in that very same death trap complete with three tablespoons of glycerin for strength.  Once again, I could feel the accusatory fish eye glaring at me down through the years.

The next day I was assailed with, “Where are the tadpoles?”

Should I lie?  NO!  Make up a story? NO!  I had to tell the truth.

“Oh, they went to tadpole heaven last night,” I replied fudging the truth just a little.

“But where is tadpole heaven?” One of my brighter (and obnoxious) students asked.  Sure – tie the noose good and tight!

I envisioned the swirling of the water as the tadpoles received their sailor’s burial and could not bring myself to divulge that much information.  “Well, it’s a nice, cool place where they’ll never be sick again.”

Then I took a deep breath and began to explain environmental pollution to a classroom full of anxious young biologists.