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Teaching About Life
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In my former incarnation as an elementary school teacher, I taught 5th and 6th grade (10-12 year olds) for eleven years. Thinking back on it, I now realize how different I was as a teacher; no wonder my peers and my principals regarded me with some apprehension.

I taught in what used to be called the inner city. The school was located in the center of blocks of apartment buildings, densely occupied. Many of the children had "uncles" who visited in the evening and stayed all night. Quite a few of the mothers were absentees; when I would visit the child's apartment, it looked as if no one lived there--nothing in the cupboards, nothing in the fridge, just a few children's clothes, no books, no toys, and a giant TV.

The girls, in particular, attached themselves to me as a surrogate mother. Once, before school started in the morning, I remember a group of them brought me a Sears catalog and asked me what kind of underwear they should buy. I suddenly realized that they really had no mothers, and no one to guide them through the early maturation years.

After that, we met regularly, and talked about a lot of things. Mostly my message was, "Your mother lives her life, and that's what she does. But you don't have to live that way. There are other choices you can make."

That kind of speech is useless, though, unless there is a way to make choices available. I brought newspapers to school and showed them the want ads. I went to the DMV and scooped up a whole bunch of driver's manuals, brought them to class and used them as reading material (they are written to a 5th/6th grade level).

I went to a local pizza joint and got a sheaf of application forms. I used them to teach the children how to fill out a form, one form being very much like another.

To my amazement, a few mothers contacted me, asking if they could join the group, so I started an after-school class once a week for them. Just basic stuff: fill out forms, look for jobs, how to answer the interviewers' questions, get a driver's license.

At the end of each year, we were sad to say good-bye. But I told them (the children) that their improved test scores on the standardized test weren't just a one-time thing. That if they kept on learning (reading), they could graduate from high school, they could get a job or go to college on a scholarship, they were not condemned to repeat their family's pattern--their choice.

I've often wondered what happened to them. Over 11 years, with 35 students per class, did I make a difference? I hope that at least one child's life was touched. In some sense, I was their mother, too (occasionally a child would call me "Mom" inadvertently).

When you get to my age, you start wondering/hoping, "Did I make a difference at all?"

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