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“Good news. You get to teach my students about getting a job,” said my sister.

nclb-cartoon.gifShe had just picked me up at LAX after a flight from England on which I was trapped next to an extremely enthusiastic sleep-farter. As far as I could tell, the flight had entered another dimension where my perceived flight time expanded to about 3 ½ days of breathing in my seatmate’s contributions to global warming, giving me time to watch every movie including those involving animated rodents. The combination of jet lag, Disney show tunes, and oxygen deprivation (they wouldn’t let me use the oxygen mask, so I had to spend the flight with a TicTac up each nostril) is the only explanation for why I didn’t get back on that plane immediately. That, and I’m scared of my sister. I mean, she goes into a Los Angeles middle school and teaches Physical Education. Every day. On purpose. Twelve-year-olds do what she tells them. You’d be scared too.

She dropped me off at our parents’ house and gave me a few days to weasel out of presenting develop my curriculum for her five classes. The night before, I called her. “I can’t come with you tomorrow. It’s Mother. She says she’s dying.”

“She’s claimed imminent death for the past thirty years. I’ll pick you up in an hour.”

Since my mother was, at that moment, chortling over the fact that the State of California had just renewed the drivers license for her 87-year-old self, I had to give my sister that point. “Actually, I haven’t done my homework,” I confessed.

“Then you can observe for today, and I’ll bring you back next week to present.”

Before we went to bed, she told me we would be leaving well before dawn the next morning because she gets to school at least an hour early to open the gym for students who would otherwise be standing outside in the ‘cold’ (translation for those who don’t speak Southern Californian – approximately the same temperature that we see here in northern England at the peak of summer). On the way into school next morning, she introduced me to a colleague. With all the enthusiasm of someone presenting a convict serving a life sentence for murdering babies, she said, “This is my sister. She’s just observing today because she didn’t prepare her curriculum.”

Then the bell rang and I was simultaneously in awe, terrified, and in love. The awe was for my sister’s voodoo teacher-mojo. She didn’t miss a beat while introducing me, simultaneously giving some hapless child The Look and flicking her fingers toward her head or a desk. Her targets whipped off hats, cleared off desks, and greeted me with questions for ‘Coach’s Sister’. I was terrified that I would embarrass ‘Coach’ when my turn came to address her classes. But mostly, I was in love with the amazing collection of children who lined up to greet me with their Professional Handshake. As I shook each one’s hand, I asked what was the hardest part of being a middle school student. History was the clear winner. I was happy to assure them there was very little History in the real world.

I spent the next week developing a slideshow that would have taken about a week of classes to present in its entirety. But I was worried that I would be greeted by a sea of blank looks and unresponsive faces, so I wanted enough material to cover any eventualities. As it turned out, the kids were incredibly engaged, waving their hands and begging ‘Coach’s Sister’ to call on them. I’m sure it was my natural charisma and had absolutely nothing to do with the two giant bags of candy bars I was handing out as payment for each contribution.

The students were enthusiastic about earning money, and ambitious in their goals. I met future football and movie stars, marine biologists, structural engineers, astronauts, and (most popular) veterinarians. One showed me her contest-winning essay on why she wanted to become a veterinarian, another wondered how having ADD might impact his becoming a neurosurgeon, and a serious young man asked if I thought joining the military would be a good way to pay for medical school. At the end of each class, Coach asked the kids to cover their eyes with one hand and use the other to rate the presentation, from a closed fist for vomit-inducing to all five fingers for top ratings. Hands shot up waving five fingers and I melted. Definitely, in love. (Nothing to do with the candy, I’m sure…)

I understand there is a debate in the Los Angeles Unified School District about school reform. Parents, School Board candidates, even the administration are all pointing fingers at the teachers. I would like to challenge each of them to spend a day in a middle school classroom. If they did, I think they’d see what I saw – men and women who are definitely not there for the fabulous path to financial security provided by a teacher’s salary. People like my sister, getting up hours early every morning so she can provide a safe, warm environment for children even before the bell rings. People like her colleague, who told me how thrilled he was to give up a career with a much greater salary potential to start over at the bottom of the teaching rungs. Or like the office administrator who was single-handedly managing a busy Friday morning office while searching desperately for two last minute substitute teachers. Or like the teacher who dropped by to collect his mail and ended up giving up his prep period to take on one of the teacherless classes. Those who spent even one day would see teachers greeting each student by name, and consulting with each other as they shared their concerns about particular children.

And most of all, they would see the students. Bright, curious, full of light and life and promise. Sure, they would benefit from having more resources available to them. Maybe they resented being bussed for an hour from inner city neighborhoods. But the single most important asset they could have – dedicated, enthusiastic teachers – is already waiting for them, sometimes hours before school even starts. I think those students are the lucky ones.