The first day of my first teaching job was a faculty prep day right before the beginning of the school year. I was 22 and scared out of my mind, and had no idea what I was in for. I got the call about a week before; the details of my job were vague. It was unclear if I would be working in a regular classroom setting or if kids would be pulled out of class to see me or if I was to be helping another teacher. It didn’t matter; I was thrilled just to have a job.
That day was chaos. The administrators were new, and they had a lot of big new plans for the school. I got there twenty minutes early, only to find a mostly empty building. There was a lady in the front office, a no-nonsense military woman who I would soon become terrified of, and a few people rushing around. I was told to get acquainted with the building and wait for an announcement when there was to be a meeting.
I eventually ended up meeting a few other people who had the same job title as me, all of them just as confused about it as I was. They were all experienced teachers who had worked in other schools in the same district last year. One of them was Naeemah. I instantly liked her because she was so warm and friendly. I was really nervous, and didn’t know how to talk to people, I wanted to make sure I sounded like an adult they could respect as a coworker. At the same time, I knew no one would see me that way. I was closer in age to the students than I was to them, and I couldn’t hide the fact that I was scared shitless. Naeemah chatted away to me and the other teachers around us, and it made me feel like I belonged. I didn’t know it at the time, but Naeemah would become a huge influence on my life.
Our little group of “instructional support teachers” and a few teacher’s aides were left alone for most of that first day. There were a lot of small meetings and and things that didn’t include us, and we had to wait for our turn to meet with the principals so they could explain what we would be doing the next day, when the students arrived. Eventually we were called to the conference room.
We were told that we would be teaching students who had low test scores and were in danger of failing the HSPA. The HSPA is a state test they need to pass in order to graduate, and while there is a program students can go through to be able to graduate without passing the test, the program was being phased out. The students we were teaching would have a regular math and English class, and our class in either math or English or both in place of an elective.
At this point, someone raised the issue that we were a group of four English teachers and two history teachers, and the job called for three English teachers and three math teachers. The principals said they would make some kind of decision as to who would teach what and they would let us know. At this point the day was almost over, and we were all worried. I could feel my guts doing flips inside me. I struggled just to pass algebra. I just barely managed to pass the required math course my freshman year of college. Of the four English teachers, I was the youngest, the only one who was new to the district, and I had zero experience; while the others had years of experience. I knew they would pick me to teach math, and I was terrified. I wanted to run away and cry.
Eventually we were sent down to guidance to ask if there were classes assigned to us yet. As we walked to the office, one of the teachers in our group got a phone call and stayed behind. She was about my mother’s age, and had frosty highlights in her blonde hair and wore severe looking makeup. She came across a bit stuffy, but she was polite enough.
The head of guidance was frantically rummaging through stacks of paper and printing things out as she scrolled through her scheduling program on the computer. She looked like a ticking time bomb; you could just tell she was about to explode. As we all entered her office, we stood up straight and tried to delicately explain to her what we were trying to figure out. I could tell from the look in her eyes that I did not want to give her a reason to be mad at me. The principals had never told her which of us were to teach what, and the day was about to be over, so she just asked us what we taught. English – English – English – history – history.
“Fine,” she barked. “You three get English, and you two get math. Who wants freshmen?” We all looked quizzically at her, unsure if she had the authority to do what she was doing. I said I would be fine with freshmen. We were all a little stunned that she just decided on the spot what we thought was to be decided through careful deliberation by the principals, but we weren’t going to argue. She was printing out the last of the schedules when Her Royal Blondeness walked in. Once Blondie realized what had just happened, she lost her cool and started screeching at the Guidance woman with rage. The two of them were yelling back and forth loud enough to create a scene and cause one of the principals to walk in. Blondeness was loudly protesting that she had more experience than other people so it was unfair to stick her with math. She went on and on about how unfair the decision was and how she was better suited for teaching English than other people. She never said my name, and refused to even look at me, but it was very clear to everyone in the room she was talking about me. She specifically pointed out that she wanted freshmen after she found out that I had them. I agreed that the way the whole thing was handled was unfair and that she had a right to be mad, but I didn’t want to say anything at all because I was afraid of losing the new schedule I was clinging to.
I was stunned and unable to speak. I felt like it was all a bad dream. I felt like I was being bullied by a woman old enough to be my mother, and I was unable to defend myself. Naeemah stood close to me and rubbed my back while whispering reassuring words to me. It was almost as if she was trying to provide a physical barrier between me and the blonde volcano of rage. I would later find out that Blondie had double crossed her before, taking credit for her work and generally being an asshole to her.
The Guidance head flung a stack of papers and shouted, “I don’t need this, I’m going home!” The principal physically held her down in her chair as he tried to sort out the mess. It was like he was intervening on a kindergarden playground fight. Eventually, the other English teacher, a man who looked like Santa Claus, offered to give up his spot for Blondie and switch to math. I will be forever grateful to him for doing that because I am pretty sure I would have been stuck with math had he not offered. Blondie ended up getting my freshmen and I was switched to juniors.
Before we left that day, Naeemah gave me a big hug and some encouraging words. She told me to watch out for Blondie, because she could be a real snake. She also gave me some advice on how to handle the first day and wished me luck. That hug in the parking lot was the best part of the day. I felt like I had made a friend. The next day was the first day for the students, and I was relieved to find that my path crossed with Naeemah’s several times, and that we shared a break period. Knowing I would see her every day made the daunting task of facing my first year of teaching a lot easier.
I don’t know how I would have gotten through that year if it were not for her. She was like a mentor or a big sister to me, protective and kind and patient. I’m sure I came across as foolish and flighty; I was in way over my head. Even though the problems she faced that year were much greater than mine, she never treated my problems like they were trivial. She never rolled her eyes about how young and foolish I was when I talked to her about fighting with my parents, or getting back together with the guy who was obviously no good for me. She listened, she took me seriously and she gave me good advice.
She is such an amazing teacher and she somehow balanced her work with running after school clubs, working on her second graduate degree, and raising three adorable children. She was honest about the massive amount of work it took for her to do everything she was doing, but she made it seem worth the effort. I look at her and see the type of person I hope I can someday be. I’ll never forget how nervous and afraid I was on that first day, but what I’ll remember most is the lady that went out of her way to be nice to me.