Photo by Yoppy
Reflection by Leann Bauer

The room was abuzz with excitement. Those placed in Bloomfield Hills displayed wide smiles and those placed in Pontiac … not so much. I was handed my student teaching assignment for January 1987. It read, Critic Teacher: Dorothy Tate, Grade: 6, School: Jefferson Elementary, District: Ferndale. Sixth grade! What the @#$*! I had so pictured myself as an early elementary teacher not to mention that "Fashionable Ferndale” was not the most glamorous of placements. Making this work was going to be a loooonnng stretch.

My student teaching supervisor, Dr. Righter approached me and stated simply, "Mrs. Dorothy Tate is a taskmaster. She’s one of the best, one of a kind but, she had a bad experience last semester." A bad experience? What does that mean? I visualized my head on a cutting board. "Her student teacher quit." I pictured my face pressed to the smooth wood with a serrated knife at my throat.

"What happened," I asked. You have got to be kidding. Someone under her recent tutelage had quit; where did that leave me? "Mrs. Miller was a nontraditional student and it was not a good match. You will do just fine with Mrs. Dorothy Tate." I had my doubts.

Two weeks later, Mr. Weise, the principal, led me to the classroom. My lungs felt frozen, unable to inhale or exhale. He opened the door and there she stood. The Taskmaster. She was a tower of a woman, tall and meaty, with skin like chocolate. She looked to be in her late 60s and seemed more attired for church or a social event rather that an elementary classroom. I could tell I was in for the fight of my life: an air of superiority surrounded her.

She was something else. The Taskmaster stayed after school every evening until at least six o’clock. That meant I stayed too. Totally spent from battling students all day, I could barely stay awake for the hour drive back to my apartment. Sometimes I believed Mrs. Tate wasn’t even human. She never left the classroom, took a lunch, visited with parents or consulted with colleagues. I swear the woman never even needed to pee.

On a particular Friday, I devised a strategy for an early exit. I was determined not to be stuck at school for the usual three hour duration. My social life was seriously suffering from this student teaching regimen. I casually mentioned that I had plans for dinner and drinks with friends, and that I would be leaving earlier than usual. Mrs. Tate commented, "I don’t understand the fixation you anglos have with Friday nights." I countered with something about it being a mini celebration for surviving another work week. She informed me that in the black culture, Saturday nights, not Fridays, were for stepping out. Why did she always focus on our differences?

She was "super teacher," and I knew deep down considering her last experience, that not now and probably never, would I live up to her expectations. She criticized my bulletin boards. The color scheme didn’t flow. Was I aware that I said, "gonna" instead of "going to" and "haveta" instead of "have to"? What was the purpose of this activity? Why did I group the students this way? Where was my criteria for this assignment?

Once, during one of my after-school interment sessions, I commented to Mrs. Tate about the diversity of our student population, "I think it’s great to have so many cultures reflected within one class, the great American melting pot." Mrs. Tate replied with a sort of scoff-snort. I looked her directly in the eye. She bent her head forward, peered over her glasses, and batted her eyelashes several times as if she were channeling some sort of visual Morse code that said, "You really don’t get it, do you?" I stared wide-eyed, waiting for the sermon to begin though there was no soapbox.

"Are you aware that the great American melting pot is a myth?"

"No," I said, "I’ve never heard that before."

"Well, it is. No matter what happens in society non-white students will never be fully assimilated into the anglo culture due to appearances. A more accurate description would be to call America a 'salad bowl.' It refers to a particular culture as being one ingredient in a salad. The culture maintains its individual characteristics. It does not assimilate to what is ‘American’. It does not conform but keeps its uniqueness."

Who knew? Where had I been? To think that School House Rock had perpetuated the myth all these years. And, there it was again, the focus on differences. We are definitely not two peas in a pod, I thought to myself. Heck, we weren’t even two peas in the same salad bowl!

To be fair though, she wasn’t only tough on me. She was equally as merciless to the students. If their homework was not complete, she made them sit on the floor facing the wall (sixth graders, mind you). If they forgot a book or pencil, she would dictate them a letter to give to their parents saying they were unprepared. She would say, "If the letter does not come back signed tomorrow, it will take a parent to get you back in here!" On one occasion, several students were making fun of another student, and Mrs. Tate gave a lecture on "dehumanizing" people that rivaled the likes of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

She was definitely a disciple of discipline. But, she was also an apostle of academia. Plurals and possessives, fractions and mixed numerals, Indian culture, the Bill of Rights. There was no idle time for the Taskmaster. Every moment was a teachable one! If a holiday or cultural celebration was on the calendar, it was addressed. In February, she made Mei Jan and Mei Lan report to the entire class on the traditions and customs of Chinese New Year. When someone dared to call Kousay a "camel jockey," she praised the Iraqi people for realizing that the camel was an invaluable animal to have in the desert. When Sonya referred to herself as "mixed-ed," Mrs. Tate lectured her on grammar and the proper usage of the term "biracial." I started to think that maybe I was missing something about the focus on differences. Maybe we weren’t in the same salad bowl, but maybe we were coexisting in the same garden.

As the weeks flew by, I completely forgot what my life was like before I started my student teaching. I was too busy planning, correcting, and coming up with new and innovative ways to impress the Taskmaster. During the weekly Sunday evening phone conversations with my parents I would cry and protest, "I can’t do this. I don’t want to be a teacher." My parents would listen, sympathize, cajole and tell me to just give it one more week. My God, I’m sure they were mentally ringing up tuition costs in their heads while begging God for this "phase" of my education to end.

My final afternoon at Jefferson I was paged to the gym and when I arrived, there was the Taskmaster, along with both sixth grade classes. Overwrought with emotion, I was humbled by the scene in front of me. There were streamers, balloons, and a black and gold frosted cake, shaped like a graduation cap.

Tears slipped down my cheeks. I was led to the chair of honor, blubbering the entire way. The students read poetry from homemade cards, performed a skit (imitating yours truly), and Rochelle played a selection on her cello. They sang "She’s a Jolly Good Fellow." Who knew they had even heard of that song?

As the celebration was wrapping up, one of the students handed me a small package wrapped in silver foil. When I opened it, it held a locket with the initials LMB engraved on the front. On the back it read simply, "Jefferson Sixth Graders."

The Taskmaster handed me a large fruit basket and the card attached read, "You have won our hearts." You and I both know that was no easy feat but somewhere along the line, somewhere in the course of those sixteen tormenting weeks, in spite of our differences, things had changed.

I graduated that Sunday and went home. A week later, Mr. Weise called and matter-of-factly stated, "Mrs. Tate has cancer. No one knows that room better than you." There was no thinking, no planning, no questions. I turned around and went right back to Fashionable Ferndale and my Jefferson Sixth Graders.

Dorothy Tate died the following winter. She had touched the lives of her students, their parents, her colleagues, her friends and family members … and me. The date was January 15, 1988. It was the same day as the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It seemed only fitting. After all, Dr. King changed the ideas and thoughts of many; so did the Taskmaster.

Leann Bauer is a special education teacher for the Saginaw Public Schools.  She has spent over twenty years as a classroom teacher at the elementary level.  She received her B.S. in Elementary Education from Oakland University.  She completed her Masters and Education Specialist degrees at Saginaw Valley State University. She currently works as a resource specialist at Herig Elementary School.  She lives in Saginaw. 

© Leann Bauer, 2010