It’s Sunday evening and last year at this time I would have been thinking about and working on my school work for the upcoming week. But for now, retirement has allowed me to look at some things on my desk and wonder how things have changed.
On my desk there is a full jar of rubber cement, which when I was a child was a most prized possession. First, because I don’t ever remember having a full jar of rubber cement where the brush hooked to the lid actually reached the cement without tilting the jar. Second, because you could make gluing mistakes and correct them or just rub them away and then when bored with gluing things, you could make little rubber balls out of the cement that you could bounce or use as erasers. Third, you could make fake fingerprints out of rubber cement if you were careful and it had a strange, almost exotic, intoxicating smell. That smell, amongst other things, is probably why it is now banned at most schools because it is considered “too dangerous.” The very schools I attended and taught at in my early years find rubber cement too dangerous for children to use. As I look at the bottle on my desk I wonder, “Why wasn’t it too dangerous when I was eight? Have they changed the formula or has something else changed?”
Also sitting on my desk are three Amos Hiatt Middle School coffee mugs. Having never worked hard enough or studied long enough to learn how to drink coffee, my mugs function as pen and pencil holders. I note that there are at least a dozen overhead pens in the mugs. These pens replaced the grease pencils that were first used when the Eisenhower grants brought the technological wonder of overhead projectors into the classroom. If you are a teacher with 10 years of experience or more, you have certainly seen an “Eisenhower” overhead. They were brown and cream colored and always had an electrical cord that was too short to reach either of the two plugs in your classroom. We didn’t really need plugs back then, as most times the only things electrical in the room were the bare fluorescent tubes over your head. Occasionally you would need a plug for a 16 mm projector, a filmstrip projector, or record player. If you were really lucky, you might have a filmstrip projector/record player combo that actually changed the still picture every time a certain beep occurred on the record. It’s hard to believe that overhead projectors at that time seemed to be as big a leap forward to us oldsters from the black board as smart boards are from whiteboards now. And it’s interesting to note that what we used to do with a slate black board that never wore out and a box of chalk that cost 10 cents, now requires a computer, projector, and pressure sensitive electronic board. It should also be noted that “high-tech” 40 years ago was as simple as a box of colored chalk, rather than white chalk.
Now, Elmo’s are becoming all the rage. They aren’t really new; we had Elmo’s 40 years ago. The main differences being that they were called opaque projectors back then. They often came with their own set of wheels since they were the size of a Mini-Cooper and there was only one in the building. Expense was another difference. Now, just the bulb for the Elmo found in many classrooms can cost as much as several hundred dollars apiece.
But I digress, back to the mugs on my desk. They are filled with old ballpoints, something that didn’t exist until I was in junior high, several well chewed pencils with worn out erasers, and three staple pullers, as my co-workers and wife will attest. I often take risks and I make lots of mistakes because of that. The important thing is not that the mis-used mugs are sitting on my desk and are filled with old pens and pencils with worn out erasers, but that the mugs are there at all. They were given to us each year by our principal with heartfelt thanks for being teachers and as such, they are filled, not with dying writing instruments, but with living memories. They remind me that school administrators used to really care about and work with the people in their building as a team. Today, administrators often, because of pressure from above, (and I’m not talking Heaven) find themselves thinking only of the NCLB and student test scores.
All my ancient pens and pencils will continue to sit in my old Hiatt Middle School mugs, symbols of a time when teachers were allowed to use their brains, and students and parents were more concerned about their children’s education than their test scores and which college they might attend. And I fear that if we continue to worry only about numbers instead of people, our public schools and the teaching profession may soon dry up just like those unused pens sitting on my desk, only to eventually be discarded without ever being allowed to once again reach their full potential.