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First Day
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It was the first day of school, and I was a new teacher. I was never an excellent student. A late bloomer, very late, I began to bud in college. Now I was the nervous leader of the class. I would not eat breakfast—and lunch—for a month. I became an English teacher, because I was an English major in college, and the schools needed teachers. Even though I had received my Masters degree from Fordham University and my permanent New York State Teacher's license, I knew I wasn't a real teacher.

As soon as I entered the massive brick building guarded by eight towering columns, I turned left for the main office to pick up my assignment for the year and a list of the students. I looked for my mailbox. There it was, Mr. Leonard, but it was empty. Did the principal change his mind about hiring me? Then I turned and saw rows of manila envelopes lying on the counter, which separated the visitors from the principal's secretary. I found mine, heavy with directions, student medical forms, the names of the students, and the key to my homeroom.

This was another "first day." I already had experienced four "first days" of school: grammar school, high school, college, and graduate school. My mother laughs about the large woman in the black-and-white habit chasing me in the schoolyard, but once Sister Jean Margaret caught me, I sat, listened, and daydreamed. In high school, I was no longer a big shot eighth grader and respectfully listened to the Irish Christian Brothers. In my first year of college, I wanted to have a job like all my neighborhood friends, who didn't go to college, and I pretended to listen. In graduate school, I eagerly listened to the professors, who knew so much about literature.

But this first day was a true break from the past. I didn't need to find a seat and wait for the teacher. I didn't need to follow the new rules. In high school we didn't have to use the fountain pens mandated by the nuns anymore. This made writing easier and chewing safer. One can chew a fountain pen for only so long before the ink tube ruptures. I didn't need to write the room number and the name of the teacher on my spiral notebook. Today, the students had to listen to me.

I had thirty minutes before the first class. Sitting alone in the classroom made me more nervous, so I left for the faculty room to look for the other new teachers. When I opened the door, I saw older men trading summer stories and smiling; on the opposite side of the room, serious young men speaking softly. I sat with the serious young men.

Since I sat at the end of the couch, I faced the door and saw the growling shadow first. Opening the door, he banged it twice against the wall. The room became silent. "Who sits in this room?" The shadow banged the door against the wall a third time and entered the room. He was a big man with very short hair. He turned to us, and the contorted face behind the thick glasses growled more loudly, "Why are you sitting? You! You! You, virgin teachers, do you have tenure? No? Do you have seniority? No? And you sit? You pathetic creatures, get up! Get up! Get up now!"

Like children, we quickly stood. I knew he wasn't the principal. Maybe the assistant principal? He sat on the couch, and the older teachers clapped and slapped their knees. This was the annual ritual for Roger Sorrentino, who played the madman with gusto for his audience on the other side of the room; in fact, they had been waiting for the show to begin. On the first day of school for the past ten years, he had frightened new teachers, waiting for the first day of their careers to begin.

Over the next few days, I would learn that Roger was a master teacher. Like Mr. Gurney, Brother Hayes, and Martin Lobenthal, he passionately taught—and played—in the classroom; and, of course, the students loved him. When they asked for loose leaf, he scolded them for thinking "paper grew on trees"; when they misbehaved, he called them "ungrateful and uglitudinous"; and when he taught literature, he enhanced the lessons with his vast knowledge of psychology and philosophy, which brought the work to life. Reading and studying the difficult autobiographical Long Day's Journey Into Night, his students appreciated the complexity of the play's naturalism and pitied Eugene O'Neill's doomed characters.

Since I desperately needed guidance to survive the month, I asked Roger to observe my lessons and share his magic. But while Roger was mentoring me, he discovered my other—"certainly more troubling"—problem. I considered chow mein and pizza exotic. I ate lentil soup without a "squirt of lemon," drank coffee (pre-Starbucks) without a "dash of cinnamon," and never tasted Gewurztraminer wine or a Manhattan Special Coffee Soda. I was "gastronomically bereft." But he was a gourmet, and by the end of the month, he introduced me to Indian, Thai, and Szechwan cuisine—each with many gulps of water—and during our meals taught me some magic for the classroom as well.

I found Roger's fearsome entrance therapeutic on that first day. When he smiled and extended his hand like royalty from the couch, I laughed with the others and shook it. We were still standing. For the time being, I forgot my nervousness. I realized some of the older teachers had been his victims in the past. I felt good about our initiation, because I now shared something with these veterans. The first day of my lifelong career began with a bang—literally.

I remember nothing else about my first day of classes. Sitting across from Roger, I thought of next year's virgins.


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