Never Too Old to Learn

by Mama Shakes: Writer, composer, retired teacher, responsible party for What the Poop?, and mother to Liss.

I've worn a lot of hats in my life, many of them involving teaching. I've been a professional educator, a Sunday School and Vacation Bible School teacher, leader of a music group, a parent, and a grandparent. Each of these roles, however, has given me the opportunity to be a student—still one of my favorite hats I wear.

I was 21 years old when I started teaching. I had six classes, each with 30 – 36 squirmy seventh graders. That was long before governmental regulations on class sizes and the diagnosis of ADHD. I expected to be able to share the knowledge the past 13 years of schooling had crammed into my head. I didn't expect to learn so much from my students.

Two lessons that stood me in good stead for when I had children of my own were ones I learned my first year of teaching: not making snap decisions and not making threats I wasn't prepared to carry out.

I learned early on that once a "Yes" or "No" left my lips, I was stuck with it and so was the student who had made a request. I learned to say, "Let me think about that before I give you my answer." I'm sure my students and children got tired of hearing that. Sometimes one of them would demand an immediate answer, but I'd say, "If I answer now, I'll probably say 'no.' If you give me a chance to think it over, there's a 50-50 chance I'll say 'yes.'"

That was usually enough to buy me some time. I never was a quick decision-maker.

The other lesson I learned rather painfully, for one of my students.

It was over halfway through the year. I'd handled most discipline problems myself, sending students to the office for only the worst offenses. The assistant principal, Mr. L, wielded a lot of authority, and for problems that warranted more than in-class discipline, all I usually had to do was ask, "Do you want to go to the office?" That was enough to get most students to behave.

I don't know what was going on one day—spring fever? A full moon, perhaps?—but for some reason my seventh period class was particularly unruly. We were doing group work that involved the students pushing their desks together in groups of four. It was noisier than normal, but that was to be expected, since lots of students were talking at once. What irritated me was that several of the boys were using the more relaxed atmosphere to create some minor havoc.

Instead of staying within their groups as they had been instructed, they were wandering from group to group, talking with their friends, taking other students' books from the wire racks under the chairs and putting them under other desks, and moving girls' purses from where they hung on the backs of the girls' seats and hiding them around the room. (This was before the years of the ubiquitous backpack.)

I was annoyed that they showed so little respect for other people's property, as well as for my instructions, and that they were ruining a good lesson plan and a fun activity for the others with their shenanigans. After two warnings, I'd had it. I made a threat I had not made all year, loudly and emphatically: "All right, that's it! The next person who gets out of his or her seat without permission is going to the office for a paddling!"

Surely that would solve the problem. No one was going to risk that. Right?


It wasn't two minutes later that I looked up from a group I was helping and saw Tom standing behind a girl and carefully slipping the strap of her purse from the back of her seat. I couldn't believe it! I looked at him, he looked at me, and then every eye in the room turned toward me. I could see the question in each eye: Is she going to do it? Is she going to paddle him?

There was a tense, expectant silence as they looked at me. The air was heavy with that delicious, licking-one's-lips thought, Somebody's really gonna get it, and it isn't gonna be me!

All I could think was, Oh, sh*t.

I really didn't want to paddle this kid. I had never in my life hit another human with the intention of inflicting pain. But I knew that if I didn't make good on my threat, I'd lose all credibility with this class, and, once the word spread, probably all my classes for the rest of the year or longer.

I didn't want to paddle him, but I could have cheerfully strangled him.

After a pause of several seconds that felt like several minutes, I said, "Ok, Tom. Let's go."

My classroom was on the second floor. All the way down the stairs to the office on the first floor I was trying to think of a way to get out of this without losing face.

As I glanced into the office from the stairs, I thought I saw a glimmer of hope: Mr. L wasn't in his office.

Speaking with a bravado I didn't feel, I said, "Get into Mr. L's office!"

We walked into the office, and I said, "Well, Mr. L isn't here, and I don't know where he keeps his paddle, so…"

"It's up here behind these books," Tom said, helpfully, reaching up and extracting it from a high bookshelf. This obviously wasn't his first trip to Mr. L's office.

Now I really wanted to strangle him.

I knew I'd have to hit him hard enough to make an impression, but I had absolutely no idea how to go about it. I didn't want to hit him the wrong way and really hurt him or swing and miss him completely or wind up giving him a tap that wouldn't bother a fly.

I knew, by law, I had to have a witness. Just then, Mr. J, the principal, came into Mr. L's office and asked, "What's going on, Mrs. Shakes?"

I briefly explained, and he said, "Do you want to witness while I do the paddling?"

Wow! Perfect solution. He'd been an administrator for years. Surely he knew how to swing a paddle. But he was a nice, kind of grandfatherly type; he wouldn't be too hard on this kid who was only down here because a green teacher had given an ultimatum.

From the look on Tom's face, his thoughts were running in a similar vein. He didn't seem scared or anxious.

"Sure," I said, relieved.

Mr. J had Tom empty his back jeans' pockets and lean over Mr. L's desk. Then he hauled off and delivered three very hard, perfectly aimed, full-swing swats to Tom's backside.

I almost fainted.

Tom stood up, gulping, moist-eyed, and the two of us looked at each other. I don't know whose face was paler. I think we were both thinking, "I don't believe what just happened!"

"Now get back to your class and don't give Mrs. Shakes any more trouble, or you'll be right back down here again for more of them same," Mr. J warned Tom.

We walked back upstairs, Tom moving very stiffly. I walked behind him, so he wouldn't see how hard I was shaking.

The other students were totally silent when we walked back in. They could tell by looking at Tom that something serious had happened. They were all pretty subdued, and no one challenged me for a while.

Tom wrote in my yearbook at the end of the school year, "To Mrs. Shakes, the teacher who should have had me paddled a long time ago."

Despite situations like that, I really loved teaching. And one of the joys of parenting is being able to teach our own children. From nursery rhymes to favorite recipes to family traditions to values, we have so much to share with our young, impressionable progeny.

One of the other joys of parenting comes as our children begin to teach us. Few parents haven't experienced a renewed sense of wonder and of "living in the moment" as they watch their children experiencing life for the first time.

Very fortunate parents have children who, as they get older, teach their parents other important lessons about life. I have teased Liss in the past that she is the one who taught me the pleasure of using the word "fuck" playfully and who gave me cause to use it in all seriousness. (Even for the best-intentioned parents and the most beloved, delightful children the teen years can be trying times.)

In Liss's recent "Hey Your ^Not Gay" Post, she mentioned that I would not allow my students to use the expression "That's gay" when they meant something was stupid or ridiculous. In comments, I pointed out that she gave me the impetus for my stance. Before she pointed out how demeaning it that expression is, I didn't use it or like it, but I didn't make an issue of it. I should have realized on my own that I needed to take a stand, just as I had taken a stand in the 1970's when one of the insults of choice between my seventh grade male students was, "You're such a woman." Interestingly, the boys' defense then was the same as it is now: when I would say, "I'm a woman, and you're using that word as an insult," they would respond, "I don't mean you," or "It's just an expression. I don't mean anything by it." Often a sign and eye roll would accompany their explanations, indicating just how ridiculous and picky they thought I was.

But I didn't realize it on my own. I needed her well-chosen words to make me think about it in a different way.

I can think of two other examples of instances in which Liss illuminated my thinking, and in both cases she did it in two words.

We were watching some entertainment news program, and the hostess announced that some young, attractive actor had just come out of the closet. I shook my head and said, "Wow! What a waste!"

Liss said, "For whom?"

I muttered something about all the woman who would be disappointed that this fellow was out of their dating pool, but I knew I'd been caught letting my ignorance show.

Another time I was bemoaning the fact that I had a bridal shower to go to. I used to think that somehow my mother missed passing down the "Love-of-'girly'-parties" gene, but, in thinking back, I don't think she had it either. What she did have was a hugely dominant "Social Obligation" gene that I got as surely as I got her proclivity to gain three pounds by just walking by a bakery.

Anyway, I was whining that I didn't even know the "guest of honor" that well, that she was the daughter of someone I hadn't seen for a long time, that I didn't want to play stupid party games, and Melissa looked at me and said, "Don't go!"


"If you don't want to go, don't go!"

"But…but…I've already bought and wrapped the gift."

"So? Send it with someone else, if you feel you have to. That's probably all they're looking for anyway. You just said you barely know this chick. Do you really think she cares if you're there or not."

Wow. Where was that advice 30 years ago? I could have skipped a whole bunch of showers and home sales parties that I went to simply because no one had ever given me permission to skip something if I didn't want to attend.

She's also taught me a lot of what I know about computers. But that's a whole other post.

You're never too old to learn. There are teachers all around you, if you're willing to be taught.

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