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Those Who Can

by Karen Wilber  
2/07/2008 / Short Stories

Those who can, do. Those who can't, teech.

Hurried letters, scrawled in an angry hand, screamed at Linda Jenkins from across the classroom. A series of slashes underlined the word "can't".

"At least he could have spelled 'teach' correctly," she sighed.

Linda walked between the empty desks to the whiteboard and grabbed an eraser. As she rubbed the offending words away she reflected on why she had become a teacher in the first place. Her classmates chose to major in engineering, business, and the sciences. Linda was the only one who chose education. She couldn't explain why. She felt . . . a calling. "But Linda, you're a Merit Scholar," her high school guidance counselor gasped. "You have so much promise. Perhaps you'll change your mind in college."

Linda didn't change her mind. She continued teaching though the pay was low and respect, nonexistent.

Last month, Jason, the new boy, arrived with a backpack too small to carry the tremendous chip on his shoulder. No wonder. His parents opened the parent teacher conference with "We're well aware that the schools in this state are inferior to the ones back home. We'll be watching you closely." Not watching Jason, mind you. Watching Linda. As if her native accent revealed an inbred ignorance that would taint their precious prodigy. As if.

Jason's progress that month was unremarkable. He was bright, but not the brightest star in the galaxy of Linda's students. He seemed weighed down by the fact that he wasn't ahead of his classmates. Mistakes on a math quiz evoked the cry "that's not how we did it at my old school." A misspelled word in the spelling bee was followed by a stormy exit from the room.

Linda tried a little levity. "Fifth grade is tough. That's why we pay you the big bucks."

"No," Jason shot back. "You're just a bad teacher. The teachers at my old school were better than you."

"You had some pretty good teachers there."

"They'll let anybody teach here. You probably couldn't get a job doing anything else."

"Jason, you seem to have a good grasp of the science unit we're studying. How would you like to teach the lesson on Friday?"

"What? You'd let me do that?"

"Sure. LIke you said, we'll let anybody teach here. I'll copy my notes for you and get you started. But I won't interfere. You'll be the teacher and I'll sit with the students."

Linda helped Jason gather all of the materials for a simple science lesson and lab. It would be a walk in the park, if you knew how to read the map and keep everybody on the path.

Linda quieted the class and explained that she would be allowing students to take turns teaching this year. Jason was the first one selected and they should all give him their attention. Twenty-eight heads turned toward the front of the room. Fifty-six eyes focused on one very confident eleven-year-old. Jason was now in command.

Things didn't quite work out as he'd planned. While explaining the lesson's main idea, he stuttered when interrupted by an unexpected question. His eyes widened in surprise when the class didn't understand his examples. Linda bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling as the class erupted in confusion during the lab exercise.

"What do we do next?"

"Mine isn't fizzing."

"What page are we on?"

"He took my pencil!"

Jason was on the front lines now. His only options were to stand his ground and face defeat or hoist the white flag of surrender. "No! Listen to me. You're doing it wrong!" Jason shouted, hands clenched, cheeks reddening. His eyes sought Linda's. Help me, they pleaded.

Linda stood. The troops, reminded of the presence of their seasoned general, settled, and the room stilled. "Class. Make sure you're on page 32. The liquid won't fizz until we add the final ingredient. Settle down and give Jason your attention again."

An older, but wiser Jason returned to school the next week. His steps seemed lighter as he joined his classmates. Perhaps he had unloaded the burden of unrealistic expectations and settled in to enjoy his final days of childhood. Linda unfolded the rumpled note he had thrust into her hand.

Dear Ms. Jenkins - Thanks for your help. You really do know a lot. I'm glad I'm in your class. Jason.

P.S. I guess I was wrong. Those who can, teach.

(c) 2012 Karen Wilber

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