Nancy Davidoff Kelton

The students in the ‘do nothing’ rows

By Nancy Davidoff Kelton
March 29, 2011

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FOR THE PAST two years, my husband has been taking photography courses. Inspired, he walks around Manhattan with his camera, practicing what he is learning about composition, light, color, and technique.

One teacher inspired him to do nothing except cut class. Or nap.

Before the first session, the nap inducer assigned 20 boring pages of reading, and then devoted class time to reading it aloud. He did that again. At the third session, he read to the three students who showed up. My husband stopped attending class and did his napping at home.

A teacher sets the tone. Those who show up in the wrong ways have always existed. With guidance, motivation, and desire, they can change. The photography instructor, a first-year teacher, might.

In 1970, I became an in-house substitute at a Lower East Side elementary school. I covered for absent teachers before regular subs were called.

Mrs. P, the veteran teacher assigned to train me, still roams freely through my mind. Wearing a pink smock and a smirk, she greeted me my first morning with material about the teachers’ union, which she assumed I would join, and a schedule of our training sessions. Her eyes traveled to a young Hispanic woman dropping off her little boy.

Mrs. P moved closer to me. “Remember, everyone is created equal.’’ She glanced from them to me, and in a lower voice added, “but some of us are a little more equal, if you get my drift.’’ I got her drift even better the next day when I met her third-graders while covering for the absent art teacher. Entering Mrs. P’s classroom with art ideas and my “Yertle the Turtle’’ book, I was struck by the arrangement of the children’s desks. There were four vertical rows and a horizontal row way in the back.

“Ask anyone in rows one through four to help you pass out supplies,’’ Mrs. P said. She then pointed to the horizontal children. “That’s the do-nothing row. Expect nothing from them. They come to school to sit and use the lavatory.’’

After she left, a do-nothing boy tapped on his desk as if it were a drum. Knowing little about teaching, but something about shame, I said I was not an art teacher and would love suggestions on how to use the time. The drummer pointed to my Dr. Seuss book and asked me to read it. Someone else wanted to draw. I said we could do both. The entire class sat on the floor around me. A few helped read. Others turned pages.

Afterwards, two do-somethings and two do-nothings passed out paper and crayons. I said they could keep their drawings or give them to me. Mrs. P would not have to see them. Everyone drew.

As the in-house substitute, I became well-acquainted with the entire student body and staff. I identified with the children. I liked them. Better than I did the teachers. The next year, I took the place of a retiring second-grade teacher and moved up with my class. I became decent at individualizing instruction and coming up with alternative ways to teach.

Of the new teachers at our school, I was the last to join the union and the first to leave. Within a few years, I found my niche as a writing instructor in university continuing education programs. I am still weak with the pluperfect, but decent at providing a safe, yet challenging environment in which my students can express their true selves.

Teaching pays me little. It has made me very rich.

I show up. My students show up. We have no do-nothing rows.

Nancy Davidoff Kelton is author of six books and is working on a memoir. She teaches at The New School and at New York University.