School of “Hire” Learning

School of “Hire” Learning

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Book of Christmas Virtues

School of “Hire” Learning

I wrinkled my nose and sniffed the air as I closed the classroom windows; still, I couldn’t identify the faint odor. But it was Friday afternoon, my first week of teaching, and—although already in love with my hardworking students—I was exhausted and ready to leave the building.

For the most part, my twenty-four fifth-graders were the children of seasonal agricultural workers on Long Island. Their parents were employed at the local duck farm, many on welfare. They lived in converted duck shacks, with outside privies, cold-water hand pumps and potbellied, wood-burning stoves.

So odors weren’t that unusual.

However, by Monday morning the foul smell overpowered the hot room. Like a dog scenting its prey, I sniffed until I found it: a rotting sandwich in Jimmy Miller’s desk, the bread smeared with rancid butter and the meat green. I rewrapped the sandwich, put it back in his desk and threw open all the windows before my students filed in.

At noon, the children got their lunch bags and fled to the playground picnic table. I saw Jimmy unwrap his sandwich and pretend to eat. Making certain the kids didn’t see, he wrapped it again, put it in his pocket and slipped it back into his desk when the class returned.

My stomach knotted in empathy over Jimmy’s poverty . . . and his pride.

After a private discussion, another teacher and I “hired” Jimmy for classroom chores like cleaning the chalkboards. As payment, we treated Jimmy to lunch with us each day. We also encouraged him to study and provided him with after-school tutoring. Before long, Jimmy took pride in his special lunches and earned top grades in all his subjects. As word traveled through the faculty grapevine, Jimmy was “rehired” by each year’s succeeding teacher.

After a time, however, I accepted another teaching position and moved away.

It was on a trip back eleven years later that my friend Chris asked if I remembered Jimmy. “He’s attending college now and is home for Christmas break. When I mentioned that you were coming, he asked to see you. “

“Really? He was just a little shaver when I knew him.”

“He’s grown some since then.” Chris tried to hide a smile. “Says he has a Christmas present for you.”

“A gift? For me?”

Jimmy drove up a bit later, and I walked out to meet him. At 6'6" and pushing 280 pounds, he certainly was no longer a little shaver.

“Happy holidays.” Jimmy stuck out an oversized paw. “I hear you got your doctorate. Congratulations! Do you mind if I call you Doc?”

“It’s all right with me, Jimmy.” I tilted my head and looked up the full length of him. “What have you been doing?”

“Well, I got a four-year football scholarship, and I’ve made the dean’s list every semester. I graduate in June.”

“Great work. I bet you’ve signed a pro contract already. Big bucks, you know.”

“Yeah, I’ve had a few offers, but I’m not goin’ into the pros.”

“No kidding. Why not, Jimmy?”

“I have other plans.”

“Oh?”

“I finished my student teaching last week, Doc.” He smiled when I registered surprise. “I’ve decided to be a teacher—just like you.” For a quiet moment, Jimmy gazed over my shoulder . . . and into the past. “I know you fellas invented those classroom jobs for me.” He cleared his throat. “You helped me keep my dignity, and I’ve never forgotten.”

I felt a lump in my own throat as Jimmy looked me full in the face.

“When teachers really care, students know it,” Jimmy said. “That’s why I want to teach. I want to be there for my students the way you were there for me.”

What a Christmas gift, I thought. And, a little teary eyed, we shook hands.

No longer teacher and pupil, we were now two men with the same hopes—and the same goals.

Edmund W. Ostrander

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