the happy little cow

Mostly what I remember about my high school years  was that I didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on in class. No idea in algebra, which I believe I had three times, no clue in earth science.  I was marginally more clued in Mechanical Drawing, and I did know what was going on English class. This is what I remember from Freshman English.

I was chewing gum. The boy next to me was my next door neighbor. He had hardly spoken to me since we were best friends at the age of 5 and sailed  leaf boats in the gutter together. The English teacher was talking about Pippi Longstocking.  She caught my jaw moving.

“ You spit that gum out. You’re over there chewing  your cud like a happy little cow.”

David (my neighbor)  looked at me completely deadpan.  “Are you a happy little cow? Are you really a happy little cow?”   His first words to me since we were five. The last  until our twentieth reunion.

I have taught all my classes how to say laeta parva vacca sum.    I am a happy little cow. It commemorates that moment in English.

the duck caper

One day a French teacher decided to kidnap the German  class mascot, a tiger striped wooden yellow and black  duck. Yes, I was wondering the same thing.  Who knows?  German, its like a cult. They don’t need a reason.

Anyway, a substitute teacher told us  the duck  was  in French class. So at the end of the day, my kids trooped down to her class with a diversion, leftover cake, and in the confusion we snatched the duck and ran like hell.

Now, the duck isn’t little. At least four feet long.

tiger striped wooden duck with roman helmetWe sent a picture of the duck to the Germans with a message:  ” We have the duck. Send ten thousand deuche marks.” Yes, the duck is wearing a Roman helmet.

We then hid the duck as carefully as one can hide a four foot tiger striped duck in a classroom. We then sent another photo of us all gloating over the duck.

The substitute teacher, in a moment of sadistic glee, did not tell the French teacher who stole the duck. The French teacher walked around frantically, no doubt  muttering      “Oh, merde! He’s going to  kill me!”  meaning, no doubt, the German teacher.

While I was out of my class for ONE period, SOMEONE came in, found the duck and absconded with it.

The Spanish teachers all acted totally innocent, like they hadn’t seen anyone running out of my room and down the hall with a four foot tiger striped duck in tow. Right.  Channel 6 news would have shown up for a shot of  people running down a hall with a contraband duck.

This incident clarified for me a glaring lacuna among my possessions. I do not have the equivalent of  the duck. So I set my students to making a Trojan Horse.  And its bigger and taller than the duck.  The problem was at the end of the year when I had to do something with the horse.  My husband looked at the horse and said, ” Just what are we going to do with that?

horse looking out windowHe looks out the window, waiting for the day he does battle with the duck.

bippity boppity boo

For years my classes have acted out fairy tales in a foreign language. I write fractured fairy tales myself. The evil queen lives with a wolf who admires himself in a talking mirror and four blind dwarves live in the forest with the seven bears. I am thinking next of three blind evil queens. How do I fit in Cinderella? Cinderella turns into a pumpkin? Then what? The prince makes her into a pie?  And why do all the boys always want to be the princess? Doesn’t matter what age. The schools are rife with closet drag queens. The happiness that a one dollar cardboard crown brings.

The dollar store had a plastic yellow magic wand. It makes this sparkly  noise like the  wands in cartoons. It is noise activated and sometimes I can’t shut it up. Hid it in my drawer and you could still hear its energetic twinkling. One day I went across the hall and knocked at another  teacher’s door. He answered it looking concerned.

“ Is everything ok?”

I handed him the wand.

“ Hold this. I’ll be right back.”

A day in Spanish

I sit in on a Spanish class. I never had a Spanish class before this, and this is  Spanish 3.  I understand most of what goes on because its so much like Latin.  The first couple of tests I scored pretty high. It makes the kid in front of me crazy.

“Its because I cheat off you.”

He brightened up.



The kids in the class don’t understand why I come.  Why would I sit in a classroom when I am obviously not compelled to be there? The presumed objective, learning stuff, is not immediately apparent to them. There is a commentary on education here.

The teacher is a young guy, (well, compared to me I guess) a surfer with a ponytail.  He checks to make sure the door is locked, a school rule in case we have a Columbine type incident, which makes sense if the potential killer student decides to flip out while he is alone out in the hallway and everyone else is in class. Well, I guess he could kill everyone in his own class first and then venture out, but be foiled in his attempt to exterminate us. He would probably be out of ammunition at that point anyway.

The teacher checks the door. It is unlocked.

“O gosh, it’s unlocked.  Someone could sneak in and steal me.  (Pause.)  And take me to that place.

The kids don’t think this is nearly as funny as I do.

A dirty word by any other name…

For years I’ve been asked to teach  some dirty words in Latin (although not by the administration), and for years I said I didn’t know any.  I didn’t.  You know where I finally learned them? Latin  poetry.  A college Latin poetry class. And  more in a graduate poetry class.  And it was pretty filthy stuff, too.  I was so excited, I came to class the next day and announced, “I learned some dirty words.”

Notebooks were whipped out at the speed of light.

Scortillum. The little  whorelet.  Lentulus, the little pimp (pimplet).”

I managed to work in a little grammar lesson on diminutives. Never know when the opportunity will arise.  Then I  gave them the dirty stuff.  Or what they thought was the dirty stuff. Had them out there calling each other “gravy boats.”

They haven’t totally figured out yet a word is not foul in itself, but is offensive because of what we associate with it.  Otherwise its just a collection of syllables.

Two Israeli boys taught me some profanity in Hebrew.  I realized just how bad it was from the look of horror on their faces when I pronounced it correctly. They had just taught a teacher something really nasty and it was disturbing to hear her say it. To me, the words were just random sounds.   One day I had a study hall and two  other boys were talking in Hebrew in the back of the room. I understood nothing until I  suddenly I heard my newly acquired vocabulary .

“Hey, hey, keep it clean!”  Their shock  was extremely gratifying.  But to this day I still don’t know what it means.


Very often a second or third year student has come up to me and told me earnestly that they are no longer cheating in my class.Then they beam at me,  waiting for praise. I can imagine this behavior in the workplace. “Boss, I’ve decided not to short the register anymore.”    When I recall their grades from their cheating days they are almost always  C grades. My recommendation: If you aren’t smart enough to study, at least be smart enough to cheat off someone who knows more than you do.

Discovering someone cheating is sometimes so entertaining  that it’s a shame to call them on it. Particularly when it is rather clear that none of the cheaters actually read or were cognizant of what they wrote.  Sample translation:  ” then on the third sailor the road to the island was great and brave and many.”   I have had up to six identical translations of this sort, but the best was when someone  had scrawled some unintelligible letters.

Illegible scrawl

Like this, but more illegible

and then I had a second one :

illegible scrawl 2

yep, identical to illegible scrawl 1

and then a little later I found:

illegible scrawl identical to first twoI found a total of four. Not only were they not words, they weren’t even letters.

I put the papers in a file, marked it “CHEATERS FILE”  and put it on the overhead projector. “If you cheated, come down and talk to me about it. If you don’t, then I’ll hand it my own way.”

Eighteen students came to my desk.

Two boys came to my desk and said, ” Can we see what you have there? We aren’t sure whether we cheated.”

“Either you did all the work, and handed it to someone else to copy, or someone else did all the work, and you copied it verbatim. That’s how you tell.”

The boys conferred with one another.  ” Okay, we’ll be right back.”   They talked for awhile in whispers. ” Well, we just aren’t sure if we cheated on this one.”

I once wrote in fine print on a test that the answers were posted on the ceiling.  Lots of students never read the instructions, much less in fine print. Then I did tape the answers on the ceiling, but in print too fine to be read from the ground. I also wrote that the answers were taped under the desk.  When they looked under the desk they found a paper that said we have to stop meeting like this. The best part was noticing that at least two thirds of the class had not read the fine print.

mad craziness in the classroom

My first class in public high school had been sitting out in the hallway for two months, unsupervised, until I was hired.  They  gave me a mentor. She collected four hundred and fifty dollars for this task, which was automatically withdrawn from my paycheck.  An eighty something year old former first grade teacher was assigned to a high school Latin teacher to offer advice on teaching skills.  She made sure that I told the students to keep their book bags out of the aisles.

One day I asked my Latin I class if they knew the story of Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome.  A very shy boy tentatively raised his hand.  My mentor, at the back of the room, shot up her hand.

“Oh, oh, I know this!”

“Um, that’s nice, but I was checking to see what the students remembered”.

I pointed to the boy. As he was on his third or fourth word, she shouted,

“Romulus and Remus were twins and were set adrift in the river and the she wolf saved them!”

I looked at my student. He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders with a “ what the hell?”  expression on his face.

In an upper level class I was discussing the possibility of offering an advanced placement poetry class. There were six students in the class. Suddenly my mentor piped up from the back of the room,

“Yep, that Bill Gates, he started Microsoft from a garage and now he’s the richest man in the world.”

I looked down at my students. They were all sitting bolt upright, hands on desks, eyes wide open fixed on me and carefully averted away from my mentor. Lips tightly, tightly compressed.  I started up again on Latin epic poetry.

“Yep, that Bill Gates, he started out in a garage and now he’s the richest man in the world. He sure showed those Harvard boys a thing or two.”

She beamed at me. Non sequitur. Latin for it does not follow. Although non compos mentis fit also. I started to laugh.

Biting my tongue  until I tasted blood, I switched to digging my nails into my palm. Why did my students have so much more facial control than I had? It was almost like they planned this.

Eventually her tenure of supervision was over and I was left to muddle through on my own.  She graciously offered to come in anytime to help me out because she had enjoyed herself so much.