“Repite, por favor.”
I heard my professor tap into the headset asking me to repeat the phrase that was just spoken on the tape we were listening to.
“Senorita, verme despues de clase.”
See me after class.
For some unknown reason, I advanced placed out of two Spanish classes from high school and landed in a second year Novella class in which I did not belong. Because I had sailed through high school with little studying, I was ill-prepared to keep up with this high-level Spanish class at Baylor University.
I slithered into the Professor’s office after class, and he wasted no time:
“Senorita? I will let you withdraw passing if you will just get out of my class. You simply cannot continue.”
His chair-side manner would never win a compassion award. He offered no remediation or helpful guidance, as I was evidently slowing him down.
“But my major. What about my major? I wanted to be a Spanish interpreter and travel the world.”
“Oh, Dios mio! No Miss. You must not continue.”
“Ok.” I said, “But, what do I need to do now?”
“Just go. I’ll take care of the withdrawal.”
And so, I went back to my dorm room to pour over the curriculum courses trying to find a new major. Becoming a Spanish interpreter and traveling the world was no longer an option. How do you say, ‘end of the line,’ in Spanish?
Because I had learned to sew with my grandma growing up, I thought I could be a fashion designer, which sounded as exotic as a Spanish interpreter. I did love fashion and as far as I knew I would not have to take any foreign language, so it seemed the perfect fit. I called my daddy that next weekend to tell him my news and shockingly it did not go the way I predicted. I explained the Spanish class situation and that I withdrew with a passing and not a failure. Then I told him my grand plan to become a fashion designer and see the world.
“No, you will absolutely not become a fashion designer,” he said.
“But Daddy…” I interrupted.
“No buts. The only acceptable majors are teaching, or nursing. That way, if your husband dies later in life, you will have a career to fall back on.”
“But, Daddy, a fashion designer is a career.”
“Nancy Lynn, you need to become a teacher or a nurse, marry a nice, educated man when you graduate, be a stay-at-home mom and live happily ever after. That’s what you need to do unless you want to start paying your own tuition and then you can waste your own money on fashion designing. Comprende’?”
“O.K. honey, get this taken care of as soon as possible. Love you.”
“Love you, too, Daddy.”
My exciting idea about fashion designing morphed into a Bachelor of Science degree in Home Economics. My certificate would allow me to teach grades 8-12 Home Economics and Science: and also, Kindergarten. And although I had never ever, even once thought about being a teacher, it seemed that was my best option.
In my junior year at Baylor I met and fell in love with a law school student who was also a widower, ten years my senior and had a six-year-old daughter. We fell for each other in lightning speed and got married six months after our first date. “We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout!” as Johnny Cash would have said.
His mother had been a teacher, so he was as happy about my teaching certificate as Daddy was. We got married before my senior year, and Daddy even agreed to finish paying my tuition as long as I graduated at the end of the year, and that is exactly what I did.
After my graduation, my ‘then’ husband still had two more semesters of law school, so we decided that our daughter, Lee, and I would move back to his hometown of Killeen, Texas and I would apply for teaching jobs. My interview with the Killeen Independent School District happened to be the same day we drove from Waco pulling a U-Haul trailer. Sixty-one miles of pulling a trailer and entertaining a six-year-old left me a little less than fresh as I pulled up to the Human Resources building,(trailer and all) and after a short introduction, I was told to head straight over to the junior high school.
“Go on over to the junior high and I’ll call the Principal to expect you. This could be your lucky day,” the Human Resource Director said.
When we arrived at the junior high, Lee and I went into the front office, and I introduced myself to the secretary.
“Mr. Lawson is expecting you. Your daughter can wait out here with me if you like,” she said.
The school was old and definitely across the railroad tracks. I just didn’t know if it was on the right or wrong side of those tracks. And since Killeen, Texas was near Fort Hood army base, I knew there would be a large population of military children attending the school.
Before I knew it, Mr. Lawson came out and introduced himself to me and Lee.
“Be good, sweetie, and I will be back soon,” I said to Lee and sat her in a chair by the counter in the front office.
Mr. Lawson and I had polite chit chat and he asked questions about my teaching philosophy. I had no philosophy about teaching or anything else, really. I was barely twenty-two years old and well, quite frankly, I thought this teaching gig would be a breeze.
Five minutes into our interview we heard ‘click click, likity tickity, click, click.’ We continued talking but when the clicking sound kept on he said, “Maybe we better check on your little one.” Opening his office door we saw Lee, singing softly to herself and tap dancing on the freshly waxed office floor. The secretary clapped and cheered, “Bravo!” and Mr. Lawson turned to me saying, “Well, I have to offer you the job now after a performance like that! School starts in two weeks, what do you say?”
“Yes,” I said hugging Lee. And just like that I moved to a new city, with a new family and a new career.
I became a teacher, something I never aspired to be or dreamed of being. It was by default from a Spanish Professor who wanted me out of his class as much as I wanted to be out. It was a life decision I fell into by sheer chance and because my daddy had a vision of what a woman should and should not do. Was it luck? Would you call it fate? Both sound too romantic for what it really was, happenstance.
I became a teacher, averaging way more than the “forty hours a week and summers off,” that a few foolish people believe is true. My heart was captivated by the sometimes hopeful, sometimes hopeless faces I would meet each year. Come August, I planned to do better than the year before and create an atmosphere of learning and respect, and each May I looked forward to time away from the constant responsibility and work, which is teaching. It was a rhythm I would repeat for thirty-six years.
In 1990-91 I taught Kindergarten at Clear Creek Elementary School on Fort Hood army base in Killeen, Texas. The Gulf War had just started when we began school that year and what I remember most are the children and mothers crying each morning as they separated for the day. In my classroom, our main windows faced the highway, and right next to the highway were the railroad tracks. The trains ran all day and all-night loading and unloading equipment, tanks, and personnel and often my twenty-five little charges would be gathered three deep looking out the window hoping to see their mothers or daddies.
“Come away from the window now,” I would say. “Let’s read a book.”
“But I think I see my daddy,” one child would say, and the rest would press close, hoping for a glimpse.
Our school was on high alert and the MP’s (Military Police) were positioned by the doors while nearly every day a young mother would come to check out her children in hopes of moving back home where they could be near family. It was a chaotic year, yet one I felt most honored to be a part of. I felt my calling to not only teach these children but also to love and nurture them, providing a safe, calm oasis during their otherwise stressful days.
As time went on, I became the kind of teacher I could be proud of. I became a teacher with a heart. A heart for students from all walks of life, backgrounds, and nationalities. A heart for loving the hard to love and a heart to bring discipline to a troubled spirit. I enjoyed each grade level, each school, and each role I played from Kindergarten teacher to Assistant Principal of a large high school. The job requirements might change but the essence of a teacher stays the same. Connection.
This connection changed my life in a million different ways, all better than I could have ever imagined. My heart learned when to be tough and when to be tender. My patience grew by leaps and bounds as eventually, I became exactly what I was always meant to be.