Glenn Mason is a former CPA who spent over 25 years in a variety of roles in corporate America. He is presently a New York City public high school teacher. This is in his twelfth academic year in his newfound career and his fourth guest post with New York School Talk.
“Mister, can I speak with you for a minute?”
We’d just returned back to school following the semester break for the January Regents Examinations. A student knocked on my door during the early moments of first period. Students should know better than to interrupt my class. It was Steven – a six foot four inch bundle of pure energy. He attended an afterschool Regents prep class I taught the previous semester. Let’s just say his abundant energy can present a challenge in the classroom and I wasn’t havin’ it. We were there to work and that’s what we did, by any means necessary if you get my drift.
But he is insistent that I come out and speak with him that morning. I reluctantly go out into the hallway.
“Mister,” he says, “I just found out I passed my history Regents and I’m going to graduate on time in June. I know I was a pest but you never gave up on me. You kept your foot up my butt and I want to say thank you!”
He extends his hand for me to shake, I tell him congratulations – and “get to class”. All the while I’m thinking to myself, chalk one more up for “The Grizzly Bear”. You see, I have two sides to my teaching personality. Let’s call them The Grizzly Bear and The Teddy Bear.
While I often use nicknames and catch-phrases to inspire my students to succeed, I also find that a little fear can be a motivating factor as well. This is where The Grizzly Bear enters the picture. I expect the young women and young men in my charge to be on point, on task, and to give their best effort each and every minute of each and every day. There are rare exceptions to this requirement. If you fail to do these things, you will hear my unambiguous voice in response — at a very high decibel level. Getting up in their faces from time to time can have positive results.
The Grizzly Bear can take other forms. One graduation ceremony the class salutatorian made reference to “the look.” In her salutatory address she talked about how in Mr. Mason’s class you didn’t want to ever say anything offensive, ridiculous, or off the wall because if you did you would be on the receiving end of a stare that was worse than words. She said you would want to melt into the classroom floor in order to escape the scowl.
Some students also see The Grizzly Bear when I protect my personal space. In other words, no hugs allowed! I don’t understand why someone you saw just the day before requires a “three to five Mississippi” embrace the next day? I just don’t get it.
But, in all honesty, strident speech is the usual form of The Grizzly Bear. A certain harshness can be a motivating factor. Most parents appreciate this approach. They see the results in their child’s academic performance. The students see it as well — eventually.
“Mister! Why are you all up in mine?!!!” Mercury exploded at me one afternoon after I challenged her constant absence from school, and from my class.
“Girl, you better worry about when he doesn’t say anything. Then what’s gonna happen to you?” came her best friend Tya’s response to her outcry.
Mercury’s attendance improved a bit after our confrontation.
But there is the Teddy Bear too. In some ways I try to keep this teaching persona secret. It silently manifests itself when I anonymously pay for the occasional prom fee or graduation expense (cap & gown, yearbook and ring) or dues for a senior trip. Yet I remember the moment the Teddy Bear was most visibly and unexpectedly on display.
One afternoon we were having a lesson on artists and performers of color in my African-American Studies class. This is a class that I co-teach with an English teacher, one that I take great pride in as we explore African-American history, heritage and perspective. A colleague pops her head into the classroom that day. The students call her in and ask her to sing for them. They seemed to know that she sang a bit in her younger days. Surprisingly, she asked if it was okay? I said, “sure.” We were discussing performers after all.
She begins singing a song acapella. I don’t recall what it was. What I do remember is that I was soon overcome with emotion and began crying. I mean straight up boohooing — tears were streaming down my face. I quickly ran out of the classroom.
A student followed me out after a bit, placed me in a hug, and asked me if I was okay. I told her that I was. (Yes, The Grizzly Bear appreciated that embrace.) She returned to class and after a moment or two I returned as well. Thankfully, the teacher who sang had left. My co-teaching colleague who was also in the room had resumed class and started a lesson of her own. I melded quietly into the framework of class. Nobody said a word.
You see, the teacher who popped her head in to sing that day is my daughter. We both teach at the school. I hadn’t heard her sing in quite some time. I missed it. I had flashbacks and became overwhelmed.
My secret side was now out in the open. I went home that afternoon thinking, how do I recover from this? The kids will think I’m a fraud. They’ll all say The Grizzly Bear is a fake.
Thoughtfully, the students never said a word about what happened. Not to anyone. Not once. I’m sure some thought that I was a two-headed monster. More likely they thought I was two sides of the same coin. It didn’t matter. Things went along as before.
But I kid myself. The students already knew all about The Teddy Bear. Once I had a senior who met all of the requirements for graduation except for passing the required Global History Regents Examination. I’d never taught her before. I offered an after school exam prep class and she was invited. But she told me she couldn’t come because she had to watch her little niece after school.
“How old is she?” I asked.
“Eighteen months”, she replied.
“So the problem is what? You live nearby don’t you? Go home and get her and bring her to class.”
“You mean I can do that?”
“You can until somebody tells me you can’t.”
This isn’t exactly an approach a Grizzly Bear would take. She brought her niece every day for a month and a half. It was late spring, so weather never became an issue. She worked very hard and passed her examination. I’ll never forget that graduation day. I was out in the hallway after the ceremony.
“Mom, Dad, this is Mr. Mason. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be here graduating today,” she was able to say before tears overwhelmed her.
“I didn’t do anything,” I said. “She worked hard and that’s why she’s here.”
I congratulated her parents and quickly walked away. Those dang tears of mine were about to make another appearance.
The Teddy Bear is also present when the students ask me to write a college recommendation letter or to provide a reference for an internship or for a part-time job. As a matter of fact, I’m still called upon on occasion to write one for a former student seeking employment, or to join an organization or club.
The Teddy Bear is also around when a student comes to me with a personal problem. He’s there from time to time when a guy is having a problem with his girlfriend.
“Mister, why does she keep accusing me of stuff I didn’t do? She won’t even talk to me now,” Luis shared with me one day, asking me for my advice.
“My brother, get used to this,” was my thoughtful response. “You’ll be dancing this dance for the rest of your life.”
I never said that The Grizzly and Teddy Bears know it all.