100 Words on Teaching

©2008 Beret Olsen
©2008 Beret Olsen

I had vowed never to teach: unending hours, little pay, no glory, plus—most damning for someone in their early twenties—both my parents had done so.

Yet somehow I could not stop myself when the time came to choose a path.

Over drinks, I would hear about my friends’ glamorous lives. I would moon over their law degrees, paychecks, publications, and wonder what I’d been thinking.

Later I would reach into my bag for my wallet, coming across a crumpled note that read, “I love you Miss Olsen.”

It reminded me what I had instead…and why I would stay.


Shaniqua 1


Not her real name, but let’s say it was.

Shaniqua was what we teachers called a hard head—a stubborn, angry child. Her hands curled into fists without thought of consequences. She was tough and short, with chubby cheeks and an occasional toothy grin–an odd mix of Mack truck and teddy bear.

A little unkempt, she always stood out in a sea of school uniforms. Her white blouse was dingy, untucked on one side, and her navy pants were short enough to be last year’s pair. Her hair was not in meticulous cornrows like the other girls’. Brushed tightly against her scalp, it had been scraped into a tiny paintbrush of a ponytail.

Everyday I had my third graders write for fifteen minutes in their journals, but Shaniqua would not write. She despised writing. This frustrated me to no end. I provided prompts. And story starters. And incentives. I encouraged. I waited.

One day, I peeped over her shoulder and was surprised to see half a page of her strange, unformed scrawl. Thrilled, I bent closer to read:

“Today I am really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really bored.”

I was not getting through.

I tried to talk with her about the importance of her stories. She must have some truly amazing ones. And given the signals she was sending, she likely had some troubling ones as well.

“You have important things to say,” I told her. “We all want to hear.”

Still, she stubbornly resisted.

But one morning late in the school year, Shaniqua came into the room before the bell, flushed and breathless. Though this was strictly forbidden, I happily waived the consequences when she handed me a fistful of letters she had written to her classmates—one for each. I was overwhelmed. I was so proud and excited for her. SHANIQUA HAD WRITTEN TWENTY-SEVEN LETTERS.

I hugged her, and wrote “Shaniqua’s letters” on the daily schedule, just after recess.

“We will pass them out,” I told her, “and we will spend class time celebrating your beautiful writing.” She beamed and ran back outside as the bell rang for line up while I stowed her priceless bounty in my desk drawer for safekeeping.

During recess, ny curiosity peaked; I pulled them out, gingerly opening the first one.

“Andrea, why you think you all that?” she had written. “You NOT.”

I opened another. And another. Turns out, she did have something to say. She had something to say to everyone, but we couldn’t pass out her letters. I wonder if I still have them somewhere, in a box in the garage.


A few weeks later, there was a school assembly.

Imagine trying to keep 28 third graders silent and respectful for 90 minutes. Then, when they hear the recess bell ringing, still they must sit attentively–despite being unable to hear or see properly. Most kids try their best, many struggle, and some give up. I wouldn’t mind throwing in the towel myself, sometimes, but I’m pretty sure that’s not acceptable.

Not surprisingly, Shaniqua was having a tough time. She fussed, made annoying peeping sounds, and poked the students in the row in front of her. She leaned back and forth, purposely moving her head into everyone else’s way. She kicked chairs and booed one of the acts. I complimented the students on either side of her. I laid my hand on her shoulder and whispered in her ear. I gave fierce looks. I administered check marks on the behavior chart on my clipboard. Teachers and administrators were looking sternly in our direction. What to do? If I took her out of the auditorium, who would watch the other 27? What to do?

“Shaniqua!” I whispered fiercely. “Pull it together!”

She glowered and continued to poke and annoy.

“Shall I send you to the office?” We both knew this was an empty threat since no one was there to keep an eye on her. “What can we do with you?”

Then, for some reason, I said something I’d never, ever imagined myself saying. “You are acting like a little kid! Do you need to sit in my lap?” My tone was awful, patronizing, and I was ashamed the moment I let the words leave my lips. But there was no way to retract them.

Shaniqua stared at me for a long moment, then crept over and heaved onto my lap.

I had to turn away so the others would not see my eyes fill with tears. She was a little kid–of course she was–and her hard head had not yet frozen her heart.

She rested her little hair paintbrush on my shoulder.