My first teaching position after college was at the newly built Lincoln High School. Probably the reason that I was hired by principal T. C. Tollefson was due to my student teaching at Washington High under Barney Kremer, one of the best drama and speech coaches a high school could ever have, at least it seemed then; and he probably was for Sioux Falls at that time. As far as I observed, students adored him, clamored to be in his plays, respected him even when not cast. Barney was epileptic, his condition progressing as he became older. I remember him having a seizure once during those eight weeks of student teaching. Or was it a semester? During an afternoon speech class, it happened.
Barney’s room was set up with a small stage on a six-inch platform flush against the west side. The classroom had two main doors, one of either side of the west wall. Student chairs, not desks I don’t think, were positioned around three sides towards the stage. Even now I can see the room in all its beigeness, a chalkboard as a backdrop for the stage; another on the south wall between the two doors; however, in my memory most of the seats were empty, as most seats are during four to six weeks of rehearsals. Doors to two small rooms were on either side of the south wall’s chalkboard: A room for props, costumes, etc., farthest away from door to the classroom; Barney’s office right as one entered the classroom.
During a semester many plays were performed for classes in that room: a teacher ushered in one class on the right while another teacher guided her or her class out the other door. During a run actors performed the same play continuously throughout the school day and then again on a night or two. In front of the stage, and it remained that way for a speech class, was an open space that sometimes felt like an immense sand dune, especially when I took over a rehearsal or taught an oral interpretation class.
I had seen someone have a seizure once before, in the middle of the afternoon at Kirk’s Cafe, downtown Sioux Falls,. I’m not sure if it was a Sunday or a Saturday, or even for sure if it really was in the middle of the afternoon. I was tending counter, my basic post at Kirk’s. Normally I worked from 2 in the morning until sometime late forenoon. I know that I started waitressing for Kirk’s in the summer of 1962, right after my freshman year. Earlier that summer I moved into Mrs. Rudd’s home, across the street, north of Augie’s Old Main. A bunch of Augie girls, refugees from their own homes like me, lived there–I in the middle north bedroom on the second floor. It had a little closet on the west wall, the bed facing the north wall most of the time.
That summer my younger sister stayed with me for a few weeks. It must have taken my mother a great deal of courage to let Gloria ride the bus up from Denison, Iowa to Sioux Falls. Maybe Gloria begged, or I did, or Gloria needed a job and there wasn’t anything for any female teenager then around Manilla and Vail. I probably told her she could probably get one at the Arena. But more than likely it was because we were so damn poor, and my father and mother probably thinking she has to start finding her way on her own. When she came, we probably positioned the bed against the north wall, for I remember she coming home a little before the time I was to go to work with a chameleon somehow pinned to her shirt. I remember her waking me up to show it to me. I think I told her to get that damn thing away from me after I pointed my finger at her and asked if she wanted another cup of coffee.
I waited tables for the Kirk brothers from that summer up through my junior year: first for Ted, who ran the one downtown,and then for Larry, who managed Kirk’s Drive Inn, until I jumped shift to the truck stop across the overpass on the newly built Interstate 29. I’m not sure what were my wages per hour, but it wasn’t much. At the truck stop in 1965, fifty cents an hour plus tips,, so at Kirk’s probably the same. Apparently four Kirk brothers had their fingers in both places,
The seizure at Kirk’s I do remember occurred in bright light, more than likely streaming in from the corner south and west windows that the counter faced. This couple always came in the middle of the afternoon, two cups of coffee, maybe a little pie or a donut. The man looked like the lead in Dragnet, Jack Web, quiet, soft spoken, a little pasty, as characters in black and white appeared; the woman, always quiet, never saying much. I know I was sitting on the other side of the counter, drinking my own coffee, for they were the only two in the place. Maybe I was visiting with them, something that was a waitress’s obligation then–keep the customers happy, make them feel at home. And the wife fell between the stools and the counter, wedged up under there; the bar on which customers put their feet probably caused a bruise on her back.
In my memory, it’s a series of stills: first the heavy bang against the stool on her right, then another when she went twisting under the counter, her back arching, the body flopping in that small space. Foam came out of her mouth, white like a bloated cow. Her husband pulled her out over to center of the floor, near one of the tables on the west side. He took a tough depressor out of his shirt pocket. I remember the embarrassment in his eyes when he asked me to hold her head while he put the depressor in her mouth. It seemed forever she spasmed while her husband then held her head while I held the depressor in her mouth.
Barney’s seizure also was in the bright light of an afternoon, in the empty space in front of the stage. He must have known it was coming on, for I think he got to his knees. I thought it strange that he was doing so, but Barney, like Earl Mundt, Augies’s theatre director and me, sometimes enacted moves for those we directed. He didn’t flop as much as the woman at Kirk’s. Neither did foam come out of his mouth. His back did arch, and he became stiff and stared at the ceiling; his eyes rolled back in his head. I stood there, as I did at Kirk’s, not knowing what to do. The students did, however. They were calm, respectful, as if they were witnessing a death. One, I’m not sure who it was, left and brought back another teacher.
Barney eventually had to quit teaching, retiring to his home on west 18th Street.
My other stint at student teaching was in 7th & 8th grade math classes under an old bitty of a woman who ran her classes as if they were prison lockdowns. I really don’t know what it was that irked her so about me, as I often don’t know what irks others about me, except that at this time at the end of her career, as she appeared then, I believe she feared innovation, wanted the classroom managed precisely the way she did. I really don’t think my approach was all that much different from her’s–I had to follow lesson plans that my supervisor and she approved; but of course, I didn’t see myself as she did. And it was Patrick Henry Junior High; at that time, in the elite part of Sioux Falls–two Country Clubs nearby, Sioux Valley Hospital, V. A. Hospital, Park Ridge, all those beautiful homes northwest of 18th Street and Western. Later, with my children, even though they were toddlers, I would drive through the curved streets, pointing out to them the imposing door of one home, the graduated curved lane of another, the cupolas that dotted many of them, the immaculate lawns. I still dream about one of those houses–three-story gray stucco, narrow but deep, with a façade that seemed to curve into fantasy.
What I did learn from student teaching at Patrick Henry was that absolutely, unequivocally I was not meant for junior high teaching, the way that it was taught then. It was more important in the 1960s, maybe also for junior highs now, that students sit still quietly, heads in obeisance, and perform according to the way that it was always done, instead of challenging them to learn advanced skills and concepts. But boredom is as boredom does. It kills me still, every single night of the week. But what did I know about my junior high math teaching ability? I do know that at Augie I tutored male math students my own age and above, who after college worked for companies who paid them well, like MIT. My first take-home paycheck from teaching at Lincoln was $358. I was a female, only groomed for teaching or nursing; and expected as soon as possible, if not before graduation, to “hook-up” and marry, if not get pregnant and marry, or get pregnant and not get married. But to be fair, during that student teaching experience, if I remember correctly, besides working at Kirk’s Truck Stove, which now doesn’t exist, and later waitressing at night West Truck Haven, I was also in a play.
At that time in Washington High, no elevator swooned me to the top of that three-story structure, which is now Washington Pavilion of Arts and Science. I don’t remember climbing those stairs then, as I do remember trudging up them 20 years later when I came back to teach and manage the English Resource library, after teaching at Garretson, a state of mind that suggests that during student teaching under Barney those stairs disappeared under my feet as those on a Vegas stage after showgirls swirled through the exits.