This journey began in the fall of 1986. I was a new teacher in Los Angeles, hired on an “emergency” credential due to a teacher shortage throughout California. My assignment was at elementary school in the San Fernando Valley section of the city and it was a 5th/6th grade split.
A “split” class means that you have students in your classroom from two different grade levels, each requiring their own lessons, instructions, experiences, and curriculum separate from the other. That first year I had 30 fifth graders and 8 sixth graders. A split isn’t easy no matter what the grade levels and numbers are, but as a new teacher it was overwhelming for me.
The sixth grade students all knew each other from previous years at the school. And interestingly enough, they had all arrived in America from another country while they were very young. My boys were from Spain, India, Ghana, and Vietnam, while the girls hailed from Pakistan, Israel, Korea, and Mexico. I had been to Mexico many times by then and also spoke Spanish almost fluently, yet I knew little of the culture. The same was true of the other five countries and I convinced myself this would make little difference as their classroom teacher. I was wrong.
I spent much of the first month of school wishing I had a different class. As much as I loved being a teacher and having a classroom assignment, I wanted a different. I wanted American kids, at one grade level, who all spoke, wrote, and thought in English. Oh, and I also wanted them to be at grade level or slightly above in language arts and mathematics. The dreams of a new teacher are soon pushed aside as the reality settles in. Before the hot, humid summer days with no air conditioning turned into slightly cooler ones with a gentle breeze rustling the papers on my desk, I stopped wishing for something other than what was, and decided to love the kids and the situation right in front of me. More specifically, I fell in love with my students… all 38 of them.
They all seemed genuinely happy to be at school and in my classroom. Only one family complained to me about the split. It was the mother of one of my 5th graders who wanted her son to have 6th grade lessons. I talked to her from my heart and she calmed down and thanked me for my time. At that moment I understood this teaching assignment to be much more than simply a split grade class; I was in a position to work for world peace, one person at a time. My outlook on life and experience as a teacher would change my life, and the lives of those whose paths I crossed.
In those days, teachers and schools had much more freedom of choice in terms of how the curriculum would be taught and how the schedule would be set for each day. Once a month I was able to take my entire class to McDonald’s for a field trip. We chose teaching standards around math, health, and physical education as justification for walking there and back and enjoying our fast food while we were there. But the true lessons occurred while I was spending time with each of my students, and also with their family.
Faiyaz was a gentle boy and the tallest in the class. When I told him I would stop by after my teacher’s meeting on day, I didn’t mean they needed to set a place at their table so I could join them for dinner. I asked for my food to be more plain than spicy. Evidently that didn’t translate, or perhaps they couldn’t imagine someone with such tender taste buds.
Even though our school was located less than an hour from the beach, most of the students had never seen the Pacific Ocean in person. One Saturday I accompanied Janet and her family as they agreed to explore the beach in Santa Monica.
They were pleasantly surprised at how close it was from where they lived. This was long before Google and smart phones made everything so much easier to measure and define. We parked in the closest lot and I extended a hand with a $5 bill to pay the attendant. None of us were surprised to hear so many people speaking Spanish, and I secretly wished for someone to be speaking in Korean, but that was not to be on that day.
Having been born and raised in southern California and going to the beach since I was a toddler, it was an awesome experience to watch this family approach the sand and then the ocean waves for the first time. They had just the right amount of respect for this and I was glad when the lifeguard on duty stopped by to introduce himself.
Saloni was a shy girl whose family had recently arrived from Pakistan. I first believed she did not speak or understand any English, but I was mistaken. She told me her mother watched soap operas on television every day and was encouraging her and her younger siblings to watch them as well. Music was another method of learning this difficult new language and they were excited to be living in America. Her older siblings had stayed behind and Saloni was not sure if they would ever see each other again. I told her that I did not know, but that all things are possible in today’s modern world.
Shira was from Israel and her family was loud and boisterous and demonstrative. She and her twin brother – he was in Mr. Sawicki’s class that year – were not allowed to speak English at home. I had a talk with her father early in the school year and he explained that speaking Hebrew was an important part of their family life. He assured me that Shira’s English skills – speaking, writing, and understanding the language – would continue to grow because of the family’s commitment to education and that I had nothing to worry about. We shook hands on that promise and he was correct in his assumptions.
Mateo had been born in Spain. His family decided to immigrate to the U.S. when he was just a few months old. Initially, they did not want him to learn Spanish, but his earlier teachers had stressed the importance of his becoming bilingual as a part of his cultural experience and I wholeheartedly concurred.
Isabel was Mexican and she and her family went back and forth throughout the school year. When I inquired what they did while they were there, Isabel told me there was much work to be done in her home country. Even though I had spent a full month in the state of Jalisco many years before, vacationed in Cancun, and had driven south of the border for day trips to Tijuana and Rosarita Beach many time, I could see that I was oblivious to the true state of the economy and the people of Mexico.
Benjamin’s family was from Ghana but he had never been there. He had beautiful stories that came out in creative writing assignments and also during our world history lessons. If was as if he had lived each experience personally and was sharing it with us through his perspective.
Tran was Vietnamese and had arrived in the States two years earlier. He missed his older siblings and grandparents who had stayed behind. His parents owned and operated a nail salon and spa in downtown Los Angeles. Tran was the eldest of three and had much responsibility for their care on his young shoulders. He loved to draw and began creating a new piece of art for me each weekend. He would slip it in between the pages of his homework on Monday mornings and I looked forward to seeing what he had come up with each week.
Saloni was my resident artist. What I loved about this was her willingness to teach others her simple methods. This encouraged all of us, including me, to take a chance with drawing. I brought in colored pencils and charcoal and art paper and we spent thirty minutes twice a week practicing right after lunch and before our required SSR – Silent Sustained Reading – time on those days.
There were so many lessons to be learned. I was devouring them as quickly as I could, but at some point I purposely slowed down to enjoy each morsel in front of me. Mateo was my only student who played Little League baseball, and that led to our class playing as a team during our physical education period four afternoons a week. He was a fantastic pitcher and that made all the difference. I asked everyone to take a turn at bat, as well as in the field and it was wonderful! Even Shira, who wore party dresses to school and had begun to wear makeup, went into the bathroom to change into shorts and a t-shirt to be able to participate in our games.
The end of this school year arrived much too quickly for me. I believe many of my students felt the same. Because I was teaching a split class, my 6th graders spent time every day after lunch with the other two teachers at that grade level. They were Lillian Molmud and Ed Sawicki, two people who were like family to me during my first several years of teaching at that school.
A few days before the graduation ceremony was to take place, Tran ran over after recess with a handwritten message from Mrs. Molmud. It said:
“Connie, I need a title for your speech. I’m typing up the programs after school today.”
Speech?! Why didn’t I know anything about this? I thanked Tran and told him to tell Mrs. Molmud I would come to her room right after school.
During my lunch break I remained in my classroom with the door closed. I had a speech to write and wasn’t sure where to begin. These children had taught me so much during our year together. Much more than I had taught them, I thought and that is where I began…
I regret not keeping a copy of what I wrote on a piece of notebook paper that day. Mrs. Molmud softly wept when I read it to her that afternoon and called out for Mr. Sawicki to come over to her room. Then I read it again, more slowly thanks to Lillian’s prompting and Mr. Sawicki had tears in his eyes as well.
On culmination day the area in front of the auditorium was filled with our students, their parents and siblings, and teachers from all grade levels. We had speeches from the principal, lower grade teachers who had known these students since Kindergarten, and speakers from the graduating class. Then Mr. Sawicki spoke, followed by Mrs. Molmud. Then the two of them jointly introduced me, the newest teach to the profession and to the school. They called me gifted and compassionate and a lifelong learner. Then they exited the stage and I was alone in front of more than five hundred people who were sitting in an auditorium with no air conditioning or fans and waiting for me to speak.
Strangely, I was not nervous as I began to speak. I had a copy of what I had written in my hand, but I did not need to look at it to know what I intended to say in that moment. I mentioned each one of my eight graduates by name. The words were heartfelt and sincere. Yes, this had been a year of learning for all of us, but for me it had been so much more. Each of these special young people had taught me lessons I so needed to learn. Each was a unique individual with much to offer our changing world. Each would go on to be a leader of people and ideas and beliefs and would change the lives and the thinking of the people whose lives they would touch.
I mentioned my fifth graders as well, many of whom were in the audience or right outside the open doors. They had been the beneficiary of the magic that had occurred in our classroom that school year.
It was quiet as I wrapped up my talk. I looked up at the clock and saw that I was right on schedule. I then introduced my students, one by one, to rounds of applause and shouts of congratulations and balloons of all colors and shapes that suddenly floated up to the ceiling. And after each one had received their certificate, Faiyez motioned to Mrs. Molmud and Mr. Sawicki, they motioned to the principal, teachers, and parents, and they gave me a standing ovation. I tried to blink away my tears to see more clearly. I wiped my face with the side of my hand and looked out into the crowd. I will remember these people and this day forever, knowing that the love shared in that auditorium on that day brought world peace a little bit closer to the people I had connected with that year.
My journey to achieve world peace, one person at a time continues. I’ve shared a few of the stories within this blog, a legacy site that allows me the freedom to explore the recesses of my mind and choose the memories that stand out the brightest and make me think, wonder, and smile.
I’m Connie Ragen Green, forever on a quest for world peace, one person at a time. Come along with me, if you will, to a world filled with the hopes and dreams of generations and cultures as we create a space where everything and everyone is encouraged to grow into the sunlight and warm breezes in their own special way.