Head Start

My teaching career began thirty-five years ago in Coolidge, a little Arizona city located midway between Phoenix and Tucson. Before I received the call for an interview and subsequently traveled the desolate 70 mile freeway drive from the Valley, I barely knew of the city’s existence.

By day, I taught Biology to freshman at the high school. By night, I taught their mothers.

Coolidge is one of those towns, much like fictional Mayberry, where everyone knows everyone else, and nobody’s business is their own. Everyone is connected somehow.

Mrs. Ramirez, who taught Spanish down the hall from me, moonlighted at nearby Central Arizona College as some sort of director in order to supplement her family income. She was working closely that semester with the women in town who were employed by the Head Start program. These ladies needed a science class added to their transcripts in order to continue with their employment. Mrs. Ramirez marched into my science lab between classes and informed me that I was just the person to get the job done. I didn’t protest. I was a new teacher – I hadn’t learned how to say no yet!

Despite the fact that I had never taught adult learners, and despite the fact that I had just begun teaching high schoolers – the first time with my own kids (student teaching didn’t count) – I accepted the challenge! I was green, yes, but I was not easily frightened!

“You teaching my mama, Mr. Ramsey?” Ayana blurted out in class the next morning.

“Uh, yes,” I stammered. “How did you know, Ayana?”

“My Nana and Eloise’s mom were talking at the grocery store, and then Georgina’s mom and sister came in and they started giggling when they heard and so they ran over to the egg section and told Juanita who told Liliana who was helping her mother get diapers for the baby twins and she told Maria who was getting bread.”

“Whew!” I said. “News travels fast around here.” And this was before cell phones and texting were invented!

“Well, it was good news, man,” Ayana exclaimed. “I told them you were the best teacher we’ve had around here in years! I told them you make things fun, and I hate science!” Wow, I thought, got to keep this one on my side!

On the first night of class, my stomach was a bundle of nerves. Just don’t throw up, I cautioned myself. Don’t let them smell the fear. You can do this.

All fifteen women showed up to class at the same time. Fortunately, I was able to teach right out of my high school classroom, saving me – and them – a thirty minute drive to the college. The ladies appeared as tired as I was for they too had worked a full day and now were trying to get their second wind. However, they greeted me warmly and smiled as I begin with the overview of the class.

The ladies sat politely and nodded their heads at the appropriate moments. I continued with my rambling. What did I commit myself to? I silently wondered. These women are old enough to be my mother! Some could be my grandmother!

I asked if there were any questions. A slightly plump woman sitting in the second row shot her hand into the air. Instantly, I saw the resemblance to my PR rep, Ayana. “Yes?” I replied.

“I just wanted to say that my baby thinks you are A-OK, and I just know me and the others here are going to love this class.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Whitton,” I responded blushing. Great the pressure is on! Such high expectations to live up to! And it’s only the first night!

A red-headed woman in her forties timidly raised her hand. She looked a lot like the shy Diana in my third period who had the same bright red hair. “Are we going to have to dissect in this class?”

“Well, yes,” I answered. We are going to examine worms and slugs and starfish and crayfish and grasshoppers and perch and frogs!”

I heard a few groans and the redhead made a tiny gasp. Quick, I commanded myself. Save yourself! Don’t scare them away the first night.

“You will get to work with a partner, and I’ll be there to help as well. Don’t worry – it will be fun!”

I could see that most were not totally convinced, but they were at least a bit relieved that they weren’t on their own. A grey-haired grandma at the rear of the room shouted out, “Well, that ain’t nothin’ girls! I kill a chicken every Saturday night so we can have a decent dinner after Sunday church services. So easy, you just plop the chicken down, stretch out his neck and…”

]”Okay, Beatrice!” interrupted Mrs. Whitton. “We get the point. Ain’t no sense talking about your kitchen killins!” Beatrice shot a nasty look in her direction but then looked up at me and grinned.

]”I’m fixin’ to bring you in some of the best fried chicken in all of Coolidge, Mr. Ramsey. Ain’t givin’ none tho’ to old bossy pants over there! By the way, Mr. Ramsey, my grandkids, Theresa and Toby say they really like your teachin’!” I couldn’t help myself – I grinned back and quickly continued with my class syllabus.

]The next week I was presented with a heaping plate of golden-brown chicken, enough to feed myself for a week. I offered to share with the ladies but only after we finished with opening and examining our moist and meaty earthworms. The lab was a success – a few squeamish moments here and there, but the women did a great job. Soon we were all enjoying Beatrice’s home cooking. Even Ayana’s mother was granted a wing and a thigh.

]During the semester, my students faithfully showed up on time every Wednesday evening. They dutifully took notes and rolled their sleeves up to accomplish the latest lab project. They chewed the erasers on their pencils as they perseverated over questions on their quizzes. They also brought me many more goodies as the weeks wore on – cookies and brownies and muffins- to name just a few.

]One Thursday morning, my high school kids were just settling in for a lecture on the circulatory system. Before I could get started, I saw hands go up in the air. Careful, I thought. These guys are masters at changing the subject!

]”Okay, okay,” I started. “We really need to get through these notes. Two questions – two – that’s all. If there’s time at the end, I’ll answer more.”

]Ayana didn’t even wait to be acknowledged. “Mr. Ramsey, my mama is getting a better grade than me! How can that be? She’s so old!”

]”I’ll make sure I tell her, Ayana,” I joked.

]”You know what I mean, Mr. Ramsey,” she quickly recanted. “She ain’t been in school for a long time.”

“Well, maybe you can study with her,” I suggested. “She could teach you a thing or two!”

“Oh, Mr. Ramsey!”

“One down, one more question. Who will it be?”

Shy Diana raised her hand. I could barely hear her from the back of the room. “Can you say it a little louder, Diana?” I asked.

“Well,” she slowly began. “I see that next week we are studying the reproductive system. That’s kind of embarrassing. Are you going to teach that to our moms too?”

\”Uh…yes,” I stuttered. I was dumbfounded, petrified. I had not foreseen this! I’m going to talk about the birds and the bees with an all female class – a class with students who have raised their own babies and, in some cases, grandbabies and who could have raised me as well?

“Enough questions,” I announced and quickly moved on to a discussion of arteries, veins and capillaries.

A week later, the Head Start women descended upon Room 301. I stood trembling at the front of the room. Again, I reminded myself, don’t let them smell the fear!

I meandered through my lecture describing Fallopian tubes, the vas deferens and other assorted body parts. Through it all, my face was warm and sweat rolled down my back.

“You okay?” Grandma Beatrice interjected as we finished discussing zygotes and embryos. “You look like you got some sun this week – your face is so red!”

“Keep going, Mr. Ramsey,” Ayana’s mom said. “This is fascinating. You make it so interesting.”

Another student piped in, “Yeah, this is the best class so far!”

I took a deep breath and continued. Somehow, I made it through the lecture alive and still standing. “Any questions?” I asked, secretly hoping there would be none.

Mrs. Whitton raised her hand. My heart sank. Please, can this night just end?

“That was really good, Mr. Ramsey,” she began. “The ladies and I talk about you all the time at work. You probably think we’re just a bunch of old gossiping hens!”

I shook my head and muttered, “Of course not! You all are such a delightful group.”

“Well, it ain’t about us. You know, we were thinking, what with the class ending soon, we should show our gratitude to you somehow. We put together a little gift for you. Do you mind if I go out to my car and get it for you?”

“Of course not,” I stammered, my face brightening again.

Within minutes she was back with a covered cake pan and a gift bag. She placed them on the table at the front of the room. “Open the bag first,” she said as the others gathered around the table.

I pulled from the bag a pen and pencil set and a baseball cap with TEACHER emblazoned across the front. “Thank you all,” I said with a smile.

“One more thing in there!” exclaimed Grandma Beatrice. I pulled forth a coffee mug adorned with pictures of frogs and the saying, “Frogs eat what’s buggin’ them!”

“I picked that one out for you, Mr. Ramsey,” laughed Beatrice. “After you made me touch that slimy old frog! Ain’t nothin’ like a chicken!” She shuddered.

I laughed and thanked them once again.

“Wait,” shouted Mrs. Whitton. “There’s more! Take the foil off the cake pan, Mr. Ramsey!”

Slowly, I obeyed my elders. There, resting in the pan, was a cake in the form of a woman’s body complete with enormous mounds of icing colored to resemble a bikini. I was speechless…and my face was a glowing red. “Wow,” I finally mustered. “I would have never guessed! Thank you!”

“In honor of tonight’s lecture, Mr. Ramsey,” whispered shy Diana’s equally shy mother.

“Thanks again, ladies,” I repeated. “You all are very kind.

“This class is so much fun!” Mrs. Whitton rejoiced.

On my way to the parking lot, bikini cake in tow, I had to admit she was right.

Copyright, Tim Ramsey.

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