Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Remembering "Norf"

In the midst of high school graduations this week, there is one school whose ceremonies I'm following with a particular sadness.

Northeast Catholic High School for Boys (or, as commonly referred to by locals, "Norf"), was where I initially cut my teeth as a teacher. And boy, was it a baptism by fire.

As I worked on my English education degree at St. Joseph's University, I had a hazy idea of who and where I would teach. Probably some idyllic private school on a bucolic campus...coaching my young charges (class size no more than 10, please) to write sonnets under an old willow tree as we drank deep from the well of literature. My students would be enraptured by my knowledge, my vintage clothes, my general coolness. I'd never raise my voice, or argue, or split hairs over a grade point. It would be a mutual admiration society for all.

Well, St. Joe's had other plans for me.

I received my student teaching assignment in the mail over Christmas break senior year: "Northeast Catholic High School: Cooperating Teacher, Joe Salvatore." A quick look at the map told me that North was at least an hour away by car or SEPTA. There were a number of high schools within twenty minutes of my house; wasn't there a closer option?

The answer was no--unless I wanted to teach in public school.

So off I trekked on the el every morning, landing bleary-eyed at the Erie-Torresdale stop. I'd follow the boys in their black sweaters to the stately old school, trudge up the steps, and make my way down to Joe Salvatore's classroom. It was a recipe for disaster. Here I was, barely 21, assigned to teach juniors and seniors in their second semester. These hulking boys were 2nd and 3rd track, which in 1998 meant they were generally not considering college. Most of them already had jobs lined up at their dad's auto body shop, or were planning to attend trade school. Not only that, Joe--or "Sal," as the guys barked at him in the halls--was a young, cool, beloved teacher. They were NOT thrilled with the idea of little Miss Kelly coming in and trying to teach them about analogies for SATs they would never take.

The first few weeks were hell. The principal, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, would rave about the "Salesian gentlemen" of North, but I had yet to meet one. Instead, I dealt with obscene gestures (and drawings on the back of tests), gaseous emissions (I dreaded the classes who came in after lunch), multiple double entendres, and eye-rolls/guffaws galore at my futile attempts. On more than one occasion, I entered the room to find all the windows open...which I found harmless, until Sal gently reminded me, "Donna, what happens to girls when they get cold?" Ai yi...

My classroom management was a joke. I'd clap my hands, bleat "settle down, settle down," and occasionally lose my temper. Lesson planning wasn't much better. Something that I was sure would take 40 minutes would be done in 5, leaving me to tread water until the bell rang while the guys shuffled restlessly.

After a particularly awful day (one which my supervising professor had visited, and left after a less-than-glowing review), I broke down. Sal tried his best to pick me up. "Kid, you're brand new at this. I can guarantee you'll be a master in a few years. Don't sweat it." He then started a practice of bringing me a Wawa coffee every Friday for surviving the week.

I needed to design a unit plan for my student teaching class, so we agreed that with my background in theater, Pygmalion would be a good choice. I started the unit with an exercise in stereotypes, which sparked a lively discussion about accents (being from Northeast Philly, the home of a distinctly horrifying if admittedly charming dialect, the boys loved this.) As we started reading and discussing the play and my comfort level grew, the boys slowly warmed up and began to humor me. They started turning in halfway decent work; I was able to appreciate their comedic timing (such as the day Peter went up to give a presentation, trailed by a dryer sheet stuck to his pant leg. "Hey Pete," Ryan called. "I see you have a little 'Bounce' in your step today!") Sal would often joke that I was the Eliza to his Henry Higgins--there was hope for me yet. And by the time my supervisor came for his final visit, he admitted that I made him miss teaching high school. "Would you accept a position at North if one was available?" I surprised both Sal and myself when I blurted out, "Oh, definitely." I had fallen in love with "Norf."

On my last day, Sal surprised me with a party--complete with donuts, Sinatra on the stero (I'd admitted my love for Frankie during class once), and an official North Catholic sweatshirt. After the dismissal bell, he turned to me, shook my hand, and quoted from the musical version of the play we'd just finished: "Kid, I've grown accustomed to your face. By George, you did it, Eliza!"

A few boys stopped by to say goodbye and wish me luck. We chatted for a while, and then I excused myself to run and catch the el.

But as I made my way down the main hall for the last time, my eyes started burning. Another teacher stopped me to ask if I was okay. "Ed, I just never--expected to actually like them. These guys were the best." He smiled and agreed, "North guys are pretty awesome." I then ran to the bathroom and had a good cry for several minutes.

These days, where I teach is a far cry from "Norf." I've finally reached that undergrad fantasy--small classes, idyllic setting, bucolic campus, and angelic students. But I still remember my North boys with the deep fondness.

I've often said that no education class can sufficiently prepare you for teaching except the actual student teaching experience. I am forever indebted to the boys of North Catholic for making me a teacher--the hard way. My "Salesian gentlemen" will always be in my heart.