What is that horrible sound?
My introduction to teaching
By James Robert Watson, PhD
Wow. What was that? Some horrible noise from the back. I was driving a Volkswagen van; the engine was in the rear. Fortunately, I could see the next exit. I moved into the right lane and eased off the freeway onto the service road. Within just a few yards, about the length of a McDonald's, stood a Nickerson Farms. This was a highway roadside chain much like Stuckey's: a cafe, gas pumps, and store. There was no car repair bay, but I figured I could still find help there. besides, there was nothing else around. I coasted into the lot and parked in an empty area not too far from the front door of the restaurant. I turned off the rattling engine and it shuddered to silence. I was on I-35, about an hour north of Austin where I had spent a busy weekend visiting friends from college. I was on my way north, back to Dallas.
I went on inside the Nick, through the gift shop just inside the front door and up to the cashier counter. The cashier was not able to leave that post and offered no real help. She was quite young, possibly a local high school kid earning some spending money and a few bucks for community college. I stepped into the restaurant, where most of the patrons, although there were not that many at around 8:00 at night, sat in booths that lined both parallel walls. I politely interrupted and asked if anyone could give me a ride to the bus station in town, just a mile or two down the side road. The first couple, hardened farmer or rancher type with his lovely obedient wife, refused, saying they were heading back in the other direction after dinner. That's fine, there were other people to ask. The next couple was a young couple, maybe early 20s, who had just finished eating dinner. They said they'd be glad to help and they knew exactly where the bus station was - in the Georgetown Cafe (and store and bus station) right on the main road. I told them I'd go check on the car and then wait in the gift shop. I had just begun trying to solve one of the bent nail brain teasers, you know, two interlocked nails that you have to maneuver apart, when they came in and paid for their meal.
We introduced ourselves and headed out to their car, a light colored Ford pickup that had recently been hard at work. There was mud caked along the bottom edge of the doors and the inside served as a catchall for papers, cups, and tools. The woman sheepishly cleared some space on the seat. There had been room for two, she now moved some of the clutter to make room for three. It was snug but not uncomfortable. I didn't care - I was so appreciative of getting a ride. Usually, when my car breaks down, and it often does, I get a bit stressed. i never quite learned how to take care of cars and they intimidate me slightly. Big dangerous machine versus a pacifist city boy. I didn't understand exactly how the machine makes the car go and I couldn't equate a noise to a symptom. But this time, even though it was a horrible noise that should have frightened me, I was at peace. I knew I could take care of this and it would work out fine. There was an inexplicable foreboding of something ahead. Something big. I had no idea what, but I could sense it.
After driving just a few blocks, the pickup eased into a vacant row of parking spaces in front of a combination general store, cafe, and bus station. The only person visible inside was one employee mopping the floor behind the counter. I thanked that nice young couple and jumped down to the worn asphalt pavement and on in to the store. Immediately I was aware of the television. It was in the front of the store, facing a few tables that served as both dining and waiting. The Mary Tyler Moore show. Ted Baxter, Lou Grant, Murray, Georgette, and the Happy Housewife, Sue Ann Nivens. I turned and stared at the sitcom for a minute. Then remembered what I was there for and walked back to the counter. This counter was a gallery exhibit itself. Old postcards were under the glass top, business card, some yellowed and faded, a calendar that was of a year to render it useless, and a menu or two. I bought my bus ticket and picked through some of the souvenir-quality stuff as I made my way up to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Poor Ted Baxter. He was just a beat or two behind the rest of the universe.
The mopper had finished and was turning out the lights in the back. And then in the front. Illuminated by just the animated glow from the television and the street lot out front, he mentioned that it was closing time, but, since the bus was late, he would stay a few minutes and watch tv with me. That made me a little uncomfortable - I'm sure he had worked all day and was eager to get home. Mary and the gang made us both laugh, so I felt better. Before the sitcom resolved its weekly dilemma, the lights of the big bus streamed into the store with the gasp of the brakes. I waved to the bus driver and turned and thanked the mopper profusely. I stepped out and a few steps to the waiting bus. I heard the sound of the bus door swinging open mixed with the click of the store door locking behind me.
I stepped on up, handed the driver my fresh ticket, and quietly walked down the aisle. The bus was dark except for a few aisle lights that had not yet burned out. Most of the other passengers, the ones I could see, were leaning over in a variety of sleep poses. I found a pair of empty seats about halfway back on the right. The bus was only about a quarter full. I settled into my seat as the bus lurched out onto the still Georgetown road. For the first time since that horrible noise, I had time to relax and take stock of my situation. I looked out the window at the moonlit Texas farmland and smiled. It was quiet and peaceful. There was that feeling again: something big was about to happen. Not sure what, but a change was coming. I just felt it. I had never sensed anything this strong before. Like I was connected to the future and It was telling me it was going to be good. Just relax. But, my car is busted and I'm a hundred miles from home. Relax. Okay. I gave in and enjoyed the ride.
I dozed a little bit, in that iffy state between awake and a nap. I perked up as we eased into Waco for a short rest stop and bathroom break. I called my parents to explain my plight and asked them to pick me up at the Greyhound station in Dallas in about an hour. Of course they would. An announcement interrupted the call - it was time to reboard. Off again. We exited and pulled into downtown Dallas. This bus station was alive and brightly lit. I went on outside to wait on the sidewalk.
Back at home I went right to sleep. I had explained all the details during the drive from the station to our house. After breakfast with the parents! I borrowed dad's car, and drove to east Dallas, the Fair Park area, to install a trailer hitch. I put the attachment bar in the trunk and drove back down I35. A break in Waco was at an AYCE pizza buffet. Got to Nickerson Farms in the early afternoon and hitched up the VW bus to the car and went inside to thank the Nickerson Farms people. Of course, it was a different crew and they were somewhat oblivious to and confused by my gratitude.
I stopped in Waco again the way home. This time on the northbound side. I had gotten comfortable with towing a car but still didn't want to have to maneuver city streets too much. So, I just stopped at a joint right on the service road.
Towards downtown Dallas there was not too much traffic coming into the city from the south. But downtown was jammed. I realized I didn't want to drive up Central Expressway (notorious for traffic jams, slowdowns, and anxious drivers). This was before Central was remodeled into a beautiful wide freeway. So, I exited in downtown and remembered reading about the Arts Magnet High School. I maneuvered through the traffic to the northeast corner of downtown and parked behind the school. I wandered in the double doors. The aroma of high school was unmistakable - do all high schools smell the same? Cleaning fluid, lockers, cafeteria food. I suddenly stopped. I froze. Oh my God. I want to, no, I will be a teacher. The feeling that overtook me and washed through my being was so clear - I was going to be a teacher. I'll probably never know what it was exactly that caused that feeling. I suspect these thoughts had been swirling around in my unconscious. I had been teaching at TGI Friday's restaurant, I had trained pledges at Sigma Chi.
Somewhere back in my brain, I had already explored the notion of identifying myself as a teacher. But, in that doorway, it came rushing up and out. It screamed at me. It was so clear. I just knew. Well, that changes everything. Now what. How do I become a teacher? I took a few tentative steps into the hallway and then into a wider section that I later learned was the foyer to the theater. On the directory mounted on the wall - that kind with the black background and the white plastic letters that stick tabs into the folds of the fuzzy black backboard with a metal locking frame and glass front. I recognized a name, Margaret Hull, Director of the Art Cluster. Ms. Hull worked in the office at Hillcrest High school. My school. I'm not real sure what her title there was but she appeared to me as a teenager to be someone who was in charge of the school office. She was now my connection to the Arts Magnet High School. Where I now stood - in the school smell and on the school linoleum tile and surrounded by the institutional tan/green wall color.
The next morning, I called the Arts Magnet High School and asked to speak with Ms. Hull. I began peppering her with the questions I had composed the night before: what qualifications are needed to teach? How do I break into the profession? Are there any openings at the high school? I discovered I would need a Master's degree and a Teaching Certificate to teach in a public school and there were no faculty openings, but I could be a teacher's aide.
Well, poo. I had dropped out of college and now I had to go back?
I was only a few courses shy of finishing my degree in Advertising from the University of Texas. I called the UT registrar and had them check my transcript - yep, I still needed 2 classes - an Advertising Design course and my final semester of Spanish. Muy bien, solo dos. Only 2 classes. I prepared to return to Austin for one semester to complete my degree.
In the meantime, I got a call from Louise Smith, Director of the Theater Cluster, "We sure could use some help with the class in set design." They were between teachers. So I pitched in. I loved being in the classroom, though I didn't quite understand it - I had never worked in a school classroom before. It was one of those things that just feels right. I belonged there. In that classroom. Right then.
I wasn't particularly committed to studying while at college in Austin a few years earlier. But this time, as I drove down I-35 to the Capitol City, I felt different. I was eager to go back to school. A purpose was now much clearer to me. I was going to be a school teacher. A couple of hours into the trip, I passed through Georgetown and the Nickerson Farms to the left, off the service road. I laughed out loud and waved and honked.
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