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The First Timer

I had a lot to learn

My first day of teaching! I had confidence in myself, even if this was a third of the way around the world. Gaziantep, Turkey, my Peace Corps site in 1966, is now recognized as a major city and a base for reporters covering the wars in Iraq and Syria. But then it was seen by my fellow volunteers as an outpost in Eastern Turkey, akin to our Wild West in the 1800s.
    With this preconception, the first day I stood in front of my sixth-grade class of 45 boys, when jets flew overhead, I rushed to the window thinking, Jets! Imagine out here! — a very foolish thought since a major U.S. airbase, Incirlik, was only two hours away, not that I was cognizant of such details.
    The 12-year-olds caught my enthusiasm and lost any inkling of fear or respect they might have had. My being 22, fair-complexioned, long-haired and single didn’t help with discipline. Neither did a schedule where I saw each of my three classes for a long two hours during the week and a third hour on Saturday when nobody wanted to be there.
    It quickly became apparent that I didn’t have control in a system where some teachers relied on corporal punishment. Nor did I have the fluency in Turkish to talk my way through difficulties.
    My rescue came within weeks. My roommate had taught at my school the year before, then been transferred to the city’s all-girl middle school. She’d also gone on a date with the son of the woman who was principal of Gaziantep Girls’ Middle School. She didn’t like the boy, even less his mother. She arranged to go back to her old school to teach three English and two German classes, and I transferred to the girls’ school.
    The new schedule of five classes was more humane, and the students were girls. Nevertheless, I steeled myself with Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: “The question is,” said Humpty-Dumpty, “which is to be master — that is all.”
    And stern-faced I established the class behavior expectations.
    I’ve maintained that approach to my later classes in middle school through university, with happy endings.