First Year Teacher, A

I learned from Miss Palmazano, my third grade teacher, that the world is divided into seven continents.  So you can imagine my concern when discovering that the students in the Central African Republic wrongly believed there were only six.  They took great pleasure in correcting me. "Excusez moi, Madame.  Mais vous n'etes pas juste."  I was appalled that they didn't know such a basic fact, that the Ural Mountains divide Europe and Asia into two continents.  I felt fortunate, as I often did in C.A.R., to have come from an enlightened education system.  Miss Palmazano, standing in front of the Mercator projection, slowly running the end of her wooden pointer along the brown ridge that cut through the U.S.S.R., gave me the tingles.

In those days, I didn't so much want to become a teacher as to become those teachers who I studied more carefully than I ever did any book or worksheet.  Each had her own puzzling elegance, the way Mrs. Fieldhaver's eyes drooped when her painted lips smiled, the way Mrs. Peters scowled as she marched down the hall in her wavy soled platform shoes, her shoulders hunched, her hair freshly permed, the way Mrs. Jones twanged the rubber band that was always woven between the fingers of her right hand as she wrote sentences on the overhead projector with her left.

But what I enjoyed most about grade school, even more than watching Tracy Pierce write on the blackboard*, was watching my teachers pass out papers.  Their eyes darted up and down each isle as they fingered the corners of dittos, counting out five, six, seven, to "take one and pass it back." I did a lot of passing out papers, alone in my bedroom on 51st Street, using the dittos of absentee lists my grandmother brought me from Benson High School where she was secretary.**

But all that practice passing out papers didn't help a damn when I found myself, barely 23, on the far side of the world, teaching middle school math and biology in French, a language neither I nor the students had a very firm grasp on.  There were no papers to pass.  I wrote on a crumbling blackboard everything the students were expected to learn, and they copied, a hundred heads bowed with astonishing seriousness over their cahiers.

It was the most formative moment of my two years in C.A.R. when I went to use a friend's latrine to find they were using cahiers as toilet paper.  I tore a sheet from the notebook and wiped my ass with the notes on metamorphosis I'd given the previous term.

Strangely, it didn't occur to me until months after I had returned from Africa how right those students were who I had so sharply judged.  While serving lattes at a crappy French restaurant in San Francisco, it struck me like a slap, the "fact" of the Ural Mountains dividing the European Continent from the Asian Continent was nothing but a racist construct.

*Tracy was the fiercest, wiliest kid in the class and yet he held the chalk so delicately between thumb and forefinger, that when slowly forming his looping letters they were nearly invisible.

**For those of you who don't know, dittos were the precursor to photocopies. Teachers cranked out dittos, the heavy chunk of the churning crank echoing down the wooden hall.  We rejoiced freshly dittoed papers which we pressed to our faces soaking in the warmth and intoxicating smell of the purplish-blue ink.

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