Title: A Place of Learning
A Teacher's Story
Author: Catherine DePino
Genre: Fictitious Memoir
Excerpt Heat Level: 1
Book Heat Level: 1
This tell-all book about teaching relates triumphant stories of kids achieving against all odds and staff members who refuse to give up on their students.
Imagine what it would be like if you could see everything that goes on during one teacher’s day. A Place of Learning: A Teacher's Story, a fictionalized account based on my experiences in three city high schools, spans three decades. Those who have read the book tell me the anecdotes are outrageous, poignant, funny, and sad all at the same time. Best of all, the book comes off as wild and quirky. Events similar to those in my story continue to play out every day in urban classrooms across the nation. The players are different, but the events remain the same: violence, teenage pregnancy, drug addiction, and rampant academic failure due to lack of school funding, pervasive poverty, and dysfunctional families.
There's a picture on my wall, faded now, of my students marching down the aisle of our city's largest university's auditorium where our local high schools stage their graduations. Parents, grandparents, and children wave lollipop colored balloons in the bleachers. Sophomores and juniors jump up and shout out names of seniors as they enter the massive hall in their blue and gold robes. "Sheree, Willie, Jonette..."
The graduates march slowly down the aisle, right foot first, then the left foot meeting the right, then the left again, like a quaint wedding march. Mendelssohn isn't playing. Instead, it's the Sounds of Blackness singing "Optimistic."
Dr. Leeds strides up to the podium. He doesn't shout out his usual, "Looking good, feeling good, and smelling good." Instead, he tells the graduates how he knows many of them are the first in their families to earn a high school diploma and that the act of their coming to school each day in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, such as teen parenthood, poverty, violence, and drug addiction, is an act of profound courage on their part.
"So, stand up now and applaud yourselves." He is openly crying and gesturing with open arms to the audience. "Applaud each other."
The crowd waves banners and balloons in a flurry of crayon colors. Restless babies squirm in their mothers' arms and cry out for it to be over. Weary grandparents fan themselves. Dr. Leeds calls the graduates up one by one. He tries to say something personal to each one as he hands them their diplomas.
"Anna, you come back and see me when you finish community college. Maybe we'll have a job for you here."
"Demetrius, if I ever need a lawyer, I'll be sure and look you up." He smiles and whispers. "First, you need to go get a new haircut, and get rid of those ugly plaid shirts."
Demetrius smiles widely. He is proud to be valedictorian.
Next Dr. Leeds moves toward Samuel, who beat up Mr. Parks, the security guard. He speaks in a low voice so the audience can barely hear. "Personally, I don't believe you deserve to graduate, but I'm sending you off anyway. Got no choice. Others need to take your place, but if I see you anywhere near this building, I'll take care of you myself. You hear?"
Dr. Leeds ambles back to his seat, his red velvet-stole draped over his black doctoral robes. Miss Janel, the choir director, approaches the dais. Mothers rub their babies' backs to keep them from crying. Sisters and brothers stop waving their balloons. Relatives stop calling out names of their graduates. Their voices trail off. "Terrelle, Rosita, Malik..."
Miss Janel's lone alto voice resonates through the hall. "When you walk through the storm, hold your head up high. And don't be afraid of the dark..."
Everyone stands. We join hands and sing along with her. Dr. Leeds gives the signal, and the graduates begin to stride slowly down the center aisle.
No pomp and circumstance. No hoots and hollers, merely the hushed bustle of shoes brushing the glossy hardwood floors and voices in synchrony singing "You'll Never Walk Alone.".
Purple and gold robes blur into sun and sky as the class of '93 marches out onto the city sidewalk and into the world.