Mechanics and Spelling


Nancy Massand 

Copyright 2012 by Nancy Massand

2012 General Nonfiction Winner

Photo by Garett Mizunaka on Unsplash
Photo by Garett Mizunaka on Unsplash

This is a true story about my first year as a teacher and some of the children who taught me everything I know. Thirty-eight years later, I still remember my first class--the names, the faces, the victories and defeats. They taught me more than I had learned in four years of preparation in college, and their faces appear in my reveries more vividly than the hundreds of students who followed over the years. They were my first, as the memory of a fleeting first love remains one's first regardless of the truer and deeper one that lasts a lifetime.

 I was really young. That pretty much sums up my first year of teaching near the New Jersey pine barrens. Twenty-one years old, I looked more like twelve. In fact, on the first day of school the lunch ladies chased me out of the kitchen when I tried to help myself to coffee. They thought I was one of the kids—and the school only went up to eighth grade.

 My students towered over me. Some of them had been in eighth grade for several years, and I was convinced that a few of them were close to my age. Surly James bided his time for a few months until his sixteenth birthday, then dropped out of sight. Heywood made a point of standing as close to me as possible to emphasize the difference in our respective heights and called me “Little Miss.” Actually all the teachers were simply “Miss;” no one bothered with names, since the population was transient. My class was a revolving door of new transfers and drop-outs. Marisol left to get married at fifteen.

One of the girls who stayed the year, Lorraine, was a matronly soul who took it upon herself to help me teach. She commandeered a portion of the blackboard and read stories to her handpicked group of the more immature students, whom she intimidated into completing a dozen workbook pages a day. While chaos reigned around them, Lorraine’s little group sat up straight and called her Ma’am. “Miss, can’t you make them behave?” she scowled as I attempted to maintain order in the rest of the class. I obviously couldn’t. “Listen, y’all!” she bellowed. “The lady’s trying to teach! Now you shut up and pay attention or I will make you very, very sorry!” The kids hunkered meekly down in their too-small seats and opened their books. I was in awe of Lorraine.

Though most of the class was gregarious bordering on volatile, there was one boy who never opened his mouth. Michael slumped in the back row, his long red hair hiding his eyes. I tried in vain to engage him in any kind of learning activity. He would stare blankly at his book and answer questions with a smirk and a shrug. In four months we had never made eye contact; he had never smiled. He seemed to have no friends. What was lurking behind that wall he’d built around himself? I longed to find out, yet was wary of getting into a situation where we’d be alone in a classroom. He wasn’t easy to “read” like most of his classmates, and I was suspicious of his outward calm. Was he seething inside, waiting to explode?

I was pondering Michael as I drove home one cold January day. Suddenly my car sputtered and died. It was an old car but had been pretty reliable up to that point. I opened the hood and stared blankly at the insides the way Michael stared at his textbook every day, unable to make any sense out of what I saw. A strong hand grasped my shoulder from behind, and I gasped. “Need some help, Miss?” It was Michael. I couldn’t help suspecting that he had tampered with my car in the parking lot and waited for me here on this lonely road, knowing I would be helpless.

“It just stopped running, Michael. Nothing I’m really worried about,” I lied. “I was just about to check the oil.”

“Running out of oil wouldn’t make the car stop running all of a sudden. Lemme check it out for you. I can fix it.”

“It’s OK, Michael. I’ll just hike into town and call a tow truck.”

“What. You don’t think I can do it?”

“Oh, of course I think you can do it,” I lied again. “But it’s so cold out, and you must have things to do. I know you have homework, because I assigned it to you.”

“Right. Like I’m gonna do homework. Look, I live just three houses down, that white one with the little kids playing in the snow out front. My mother’s there. She’ll make you tea or something while I fix your car. Come on, Miss. You look cold.” I sighed and shrugged, realizing too late that it was the same response I’d elicited from him in my many overtures to communicate.

“That’s very nice of you, Michael. I’d love to meet your mother.” He escorted me to his house and made the necessary introductions, then held his hand out as I was about to sit down at the kitchen table.

“The keys, Miss? I’ll need the keys.”

“How old are you, Michael?”

“What. You don’t think I can drive?”

“He’s been driving around the back lot since he was eight,” his mother assured me. I handed over the keys and silently commended my old car to that big junkyard in the sky as Michael slouched out the door

The woman made me tea, as Michael had said she would, and I steeled myself for the inevitable parent conference about her struggling son who would probably fail eighth grade again. It never commenced. Instead, she asked me about my new job, my apartment, my friends, my life. She listened with her eyes, a rare quality that I have seldom seen since. She leaned toward me and drew the words out of my mouth with those compassionate eyes. I found myself spilling all my frustrations and confessing my inadequacies while she made motherly noises in an Irish brogue. “Mm, mm. Tsk, tsk. Ah, me! You poor child.”

I had gotten to the part about Lorraine being a better teacher than I was when Michael returned, dangling the keys in front of him and grinning. “You were out of gas, Miss. I filled it for you at the station. You can have it on credit ‘til payday, ‘cause they know me.” He used the term with ease; I had the feeling the family got a lot of things “on credit ‘til payday.”

“Out of gas?” I was incredulous. “How could I be so stupid?”

“Don’t worry, Miss, I won’t tell nobody. Your car’s running OK now but it could use a little work. When was the last time you changed the oil?” I didn’t remember. Maybe my father had done it last summer. This time it was Michael who was incredulous. “This is a good car, Miss. You should take care of it. I could teach you how to do a few things if you want.”

My offer to tutor him in reading in exchange for lessons in mechanics was politely declined. “But I can’t afford to pay you,” I insisted, “ and you could use some help getting through eighth grade. How about if we write a mechanics manual? You teach me what to do to my car, and we’ll write the instructions together.”

Michael scoffed at this. Real mechanics didn’t need manuals. And people who needed manuals to find their way around an engine would never be mechanics. “I’ll just do it for free. That’s what I do down at the station, and that’s how I learn. They’re gonna start paying me as soon as I turn sixteen.”

With his mother’s gentle pressing, Michael finally accepted my offer of homework help so I wouldn’t feel that I was “taking charity,” another term he used easily. Over the next few months he learned how to pass a spelling test and I learned how to change a tire. The finer points of auto maintenance eluded me, but I poured my heart out to Michael’s mother and helped her with the little ones while Michael took my car apart and put it back together. She insisted that it was an even trade; her husband worked two jobs and she didn’t have many lady friends.

Michael persisted in his tacit demeanor at school, explaining privately that there was nothing he really wanted to talk about there. But after three o’clock he became quite personable, patiently explaining the rudiments of automobile repair and maintenance and talking about the gas station. We developed an effortless camaraderie, accepting each other’s weaknesses with gracious ease. He struggled through reading lessons while I strived in vain to remember how to attach jumper cables. He was no longer embarrassed about his academic difficulties, seeing that I had remedial issues of my own.

In June it was time to say goodbye. Michael had passed eighth grade (just barely) and I was moving to Chicago to get married. I’ve always been awkward at partings, but Michael was eloquent. “Well, you’ll never be much of a mechanic, Miss,” he grinned, “but I think you’ll be a pretty good wife.”

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