Chapter 1: A Search For Books
In the summer before the school year was to begin, my elation at being offered a teaching job was tinged with pesky anxiety.
For I’d become privy to stories describing the first year of teaching, as unbearable rookie years were supposed to be the norm. Of course, I wanted to be the exception to the rule, especially since I’d spent eighteen months training to be an elementary school teacher at the University of Colorado at Denver.
I was already a special teacher in a very compelling way, as I was a thirty-two-year-old black male elementary school teacher, a very rare occurrence in my state. Intuitively, I knew that I should perform beyond what was expected of the first-year teacher, or risk very adverse repercussions.
Those existential concerns aside, I approached the oncoming school year with a mission: to become the best teacher I could be. I could not abide failure because my students would also fail, a consequence that I was unprepared to live with.
Two weeks before the school doors were set to open in late July 2009, I began the search for school supplies, gaining insight into my relative inexperience in that area. It was not because I was at a complete loss for what I needed. My Ivory Tower Education — derisively dismissed by one of my teacher instructors — had provided me with a foundation to build upon.
I needed to purchase the essentials: books, pencils, notebooks, and eye-catching materials to post on my classroom wall — fifth-grade students were sophisticated about what needed to be posted. And I’d spent significant time in three classrooms while performing my duties as a teaching intern, observing the walls and students, learning techniques, creating a curriculum, and delivering the curriculum to the kiddos. I’d learned a lesson or two, retaining a significant amount of knowledge. But while on my first run to that warehouse to shop for the books I needed, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat overwhelmed.
So many aisles were running through the warehouse, each one containing multiple shelves bearing the weight of an innumerable amount of books. Where do I even begin to start? I thought. For a while, I just meandered aimlessly through the aisles, stopping occasionally to extract a book I found interesting. But would the students enjoy the book, though? After a half hour of not being able to choose, fear and indecision overtook me, freezing me in one spot of a thoroughfare, my hands on my hips.
Other teachers were milling about the place, most of them younger white women with flowing hair. The women purposely scoured the shelves for books, all of them eager to change the world through their teaching. As they foraged for books, I ran through scenarios for how to ask for help. I was hesitant to betray my lack of experience, though.
“Do you need help, honey?”
Oh, thank god. I turned in the direction of the voice. An older woman took a step forward in my direction. Thick octagonal glasses were perched on the bridge of her nose, her hair close-cropped with strands of gray mixing in with the black. She was clutching books in her hands as she smiled, giving me flashbacks of Mrs. Lashinski, my high school Spanish teacher.
“Is it that obvious?” I asked, smiling.
“It’s just that you look a little bit undecided.”
“I am,” I said. And yes, I would definitely like some help. Thank you so much for offering it to me.”
“You’re welcome. What grade are you teaching?”
“Uh…I’ll be teaching fifth grade.”
“And it is your first year?”
I sighed. “Yes, it is.”
“How exciting that is for you!”
“I don’t know. People keep telling me that this might be the worst year of my life.”
“It may feel like it is sometimes. I still remember my first year like it was yesterday. Butterflies fluttered around my stomach at the beginning of every school day. I didn’t think I was doing anything right at first, but I got better as the year went on. It was still hard, but I got better. The same will happen for you.”
I nodded and said, “I think I believe you. It’s just a matter of practice and gaining experience.”
She beamed at me. “And just think, five years down the road you’ll be an expert.”
“How about you follow me? We’ll find you some books that I think your kids will love.”
“You’ve taught fifth grade?”
“I’ve taught fifth grade, first grade, and every grade in between for the last twenty-five years. Come on with me.”
“Thank you so much.”
“No problem.” She extended a hand in my direction. “My name is Sandy. Sandy Graves. What’s your name?”
I took her hand into my mine. “My name is Eze.”
“Nice to meet you, Eze.”
I stayed tethered to Sandy as she wound her way through the warehouse with a purpose for the next hour or so, stopping every so often when she came across a preferred selection. She would pull a book from the shelf, hand it to me and say, “Check this one out and tell me what you think about it.” I’d open the book, flip through the pages, and sigh. I didn’t know which book I should select, as there were so many good books to choose from. I replied to her by saying, “This one looks pretty awesome. It’s going inside the basket.” For a while, my opinion of any book was dependent upon Sandy’s opinion, as she was the expert. Twenty-five years, I thought. What a long time to stay at one job!
I hoped I would love teaching enough to stay in the profession for a significant period of my life, as I’d been searching for decades for a work home. After collecting ten books, I ascertained a trend in the choices Sandy made, and surmised that I should finish book shopping on my own.
So, as Sandy pulled another book from a shelf, I placed my hand on her shoulder and said, “I think I’ve gotten the hang of it now. Thank you so much for your help, Sandy. I’ll take it from here.”
As she extracted the book, she turned to me. “Are you sure, Eze? I certainly don’t mind shopping for more books with you.”
“Oh, I appreciate that. I did love shopping with you and enjoyed the talk today. I learned a lot from you. But I don’t want to take away more of your time. You came to shop for your students too.”
“I can still shop for my kids while helping you.”
“I know you can. But I’m going to go out and venture on my own. I have to be on my own anyway. So, I might as well start now.”
Sandy dropped the book into my basket and said, “You take that one then, okay? It’s good.”
“Good luck to you, Eze. I’m sure you’ll do great.”
“Have a great year, Sandy.”
After filling my basket with two dozen books, I headed over to the check-out line, manned by a young teenage girl wearing bifocals. I sighed and thought, time to count the freaking cost now. And as the cashier slid the books across the scanner, continuously padding the price, my alarm at the sheer cost of these books nearly made my head explode. Who knew that shopping for children’s books could be so expensive and stressful? Probably everyone who has been shopping for kid’s books in this warehouse! Still, I wished I could disregard the price and fill my classroom with books of all kinds, but I had accrued a mountain of college debt, with the interest rate making the debt more formidable with each passing day. I ended up leaving the warehouse with a fraction of the books that some of the other teachers had purchased, albeit determined to find another cheaper source of children’s literature.
I searched for more books at the Denver Public Library the following weekend, where an assemblage of white canopies had been situated on the north side of the library’s façade. Beneath the canopies, children’s books of all kinds were stacked on top of tables. Teachers of all ages and experience levels gathered at the spot to shop for their students. There were thousands of used books to choose from — some frayed at the edges. They were reasonably priced, representing multitudes of genres. I shoveled dozens of books into my basket. My students were expecting a classroom library upon entering their classroom, which I was determined to deliver.
Chapter 2 is Coming
January 3, 2023