Living Where You Teach

It’s messy to live where you teach. By the time I had taught two generations in the district where I lived, my students were everywhere—parsing out pills at the pharmacy, running mammogram machines at the hospital, and always checking me out at Walmart.

I often felt too introverted for this. I’d sometimes leave town to buy medicine and nightclothes. And I felt embarrassed when students I’d see the next day in second period walked by my garden when my hands were covered with dirt or found me in the hardware store buying more paint with a splattered shirt.

But I gradually came to see that my students learned better and their parents connected with me more because they saw me as human. I heard questions about report cards in the grocery store and comments at the gas pump about why the proposed school tax failed at the polls. I got used to a student saying, just as class began, “Hey, Mrs. Swartz! I saw you and your husband eating ice cream cones last night. You were walking down Main Street.”

All this helped, for example, when we read The Outsiders. S.E. Hinton’s novel shows a divided town, an economically struggling East Side and a wealthy West Side. When the gangs from these sectors battle, no one wins. My students and I discussed the themes of The Outsiders one afternoon in a muggy classroom where the swing out windows caught heat radiating up from the asphalt instead of a breeze and where the stench of middle-school bodies just come from gym hung in the still air.

“What about our town?” I asked. And the word “our” made a difference. I understood, the students knew, about Dog Hill and Choctaw, about the town kids and the lake kids, about the North End and the South End. I cared about the school tax failing, not only because I was a teacher, but also because this was my home.

The longer I taught in my hometown, the more I saw benefits not only for the students, but for me, as well. One evening at Walmart, for example, I had the battery of my watch changed in the jewelry department.

“I’ll pay at the checkout counter,” I told the jewelry clerk, “after I pick up some cardstock.”

But they didn’t have the color I wanted, so I left the store.

Half way to my car, I heard someone calling, “Ma’am? Ma’am?”

Not thinking they meant me, I kept my brisk pace across the chilly parking lot.

Then I heard feet running and a new voice.

“Mrs. Swartz!”

Kelly Taylor, from seventh period English class two years before and now wearing a Walmart badge, was out of breath.

“I told security I’d come get you” she said. “I told them that you don’t steal, that you’re just absent-minded sometimes.”

I walked with her back to checkout to pay for my watch battery, plenty glad to have run into a student at Walmart.

With Regrets

I wish I had a second chance with Alex Cole. He was one of my first middle schoolers almost thirty years ago, when I didn’t know much about teaching. Looking back I see my mistakes, the biggest being that I didn’t like Alex Cole.

If he were my student now, I’d make myself learn to like him. I’d work at it until I could see that his hair tufted on his head like the straw in the windrow piles behind my grandpa’s combine. I’d keep looking at his face until I could find strength behind stubbornness when he set his jaw and spirit behind temper when his eyes blazed.

But I didn’t do this with Alex Cole. Instead, in an effort to help him be good, I collected evidence of his badness. I chastised his tone, filched the notes he passed, marked his tardiness, assigned detentions for defiance, and called his parents with complaints. When the school year ended, I was relieved I wouldn’t see Alex Cole again. And I didn’t, not for my whole teaching career.

A few days after I retired from teaching I took a walk and heard someone call, “Mrs. Swartz?”

A man pulled his greasy hands from a truck engine and said, “I’m Alex Cole.” As we chatted, he was friendlier than I deserved.

“Do you have kids?” I asked.

He pulled open his shirt to show me three kids, their portraits tattooed on his chest.

I planned to stop by Alex Cole’s yard on another walk, to maybe apologize for being a bad teacher. But I didn’t get a chance.

Two days later just as I drove by his house on an errand, two SWAT vans and three police cruisers pulled up in front. In my rear view mirror, I saw officers surround Alex’s house. The next day I read in the paper about drug dealing and the shoot-out. I sat there in sadness.

I wished I had liked Alex Cole when he was in seventh grade.