March 29, 2020

FTV: Tale of Six Rooms

     During my job interview with Elementary-Jr. High Principal Jim Ollila, we took a quick tour of the old Ontonagon High School building.  At that time, I didn’t know the history of the district. I wasn’t aware that it had only been eight years since the opening of the new high school building on Parker Avenue.  The three story building on Greenland Road was now officially part of the Jr. High – Elementary complex that was (and still is) attached to the old two story elementary wing and ‘annex’.  The annex was built at the same time and in the same style as the new high school (as were the new elementary buildings in Mass City and Rockland), but as I said, it would take more time for me to absorb all of this information.  When we hit the third floor, we popped into Room 300 in the southeast corner the building; it would be my work space for the next four years. The building and rooms reminded me of my old Jr. High school in Marquette. Graveraet was also an old high school turned junior high the year before I began seventh grade.  My old school was three times larger as the Ontonagon building but the architecture was very similar, right down to the flooring, walls, lockers, and restrooms.

     I liked the room immediately because of the way it was configured:  it had large windows on two sides and an entry way of sorts. The restroom and the main staircase located behind the room’s front wall placed the door in the northwest corner of the room.  Since the late 1950s, I have lived in homes on a corner lot, a dead end street and a cul-de-sac, so perhaps it was my destiny to begin my teaching career in a corner room. Mind you, it would be another week before the job was even offered to me, but on the drive home after my interview, I was already mentally rearranging the furniture in “my room”.  As I told my mother when I called her from the phone booth downtown, “The interview went so well that if I don’t get this job, then I probably won’t find a teaching job.” The day that I came back to town to sign my contact, Jim O. gave me the skeleton key for my room. With the same feeling one gets when purchasing their first home, I ventured upstairs for another look at my new work space, and took more mental notes about making the space “mine”.  Lacking a crystal ball, there was no way for me to know this would be but the first of six rooms I would occupy in my forty three year association with the Ontonagon Area Schools.

     Room 300 had the usual classroom accoutrements:  a standard wooden teacher’s desk and thirty student desks with tilt tops and attached seats.  The student desks were adjustable, but pretty much set in the old ‘one size fits all’ configuration.  The sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students changed classes seven times a day, so the flip-top desks served as temporary storage space each period.  It took very little time for me to realize that the desks also rapidly filled with garbage as it was apparently much easier to leave junk in the desks than to trod all the way to the garbage can.  By the end of the first marking period, weekly desk cleaning and inspections became part of the routine. Desk top doodling was also discouraged and when the students complained about having to clean up someone else’s mess, it became widely known that if a desk was marked up, the only way to avoid cleaning it was to ‘rat’ on whoever did.  As a new employee, having a clean, tidy room (right down to having the desks arranged in neat orderly rows) was not going to be an issue on the principal’s observation visits or my job performance reviews.

     To say that I was somewhat obsessed with keeping a neat room would be accurate.  The sixth grade teacher across the hall had a more ‘free form’ classroom approach and his students would literally rearrange the furniture every period.  He would sometimes wander over and chuckle at my highly structured way of doing things but that was just what worked for me at the time. I never quite got to the ‘rearrange the room every class period’ level in future rooms, but over the years I did adapt more than a little of the ‘free-form’ teaching style my across the hall neighbor employed.  Lesson 101 in the new teacher’s handbook should always be “don’t be afraid to borrow things that work for others. One does not have to always reinvent the wheel.” The rookie math teacher in the room next to mine would show me her graffiti covered desk tops from time to time and ask me how I kept mine so clean. During my prep period that day, I wandered in with a stack of paper towels and a bottle of Windex and proceeded to spray the desk tops while the kids scrambled to move their books and papers.  When they complained, I pointed to the paper towels and said, “there you go” to both the students and the teacher. I can’t say if this helped her get the desk doodling problem under control because we never discussed cleaning desks again.

     There was a long, low bookcase in my room that made a nice barrier between the desk area and the side of the room leading to the door.  Once moved into place, it made a partition between the desks and the empty space that accounted for about one quarter of my floor space.  When told that this was going to be turned into a reading area, it didn’t take long before a student mentioned that her family had an old couch and chair they would donate if I would come and pick them up.  By the time John, the new librarian, helped me lug these two heavy pieces up to the third floor, he vowed he would never help me move furniture again. The ‘free reading area’ was a fixture in my first room until four years later when I got laid off and went back to school for a year.  For some reason, the JH principal I had at that time hated my couch and chair set up. The first thing he did when I left town was to have them tossed in the dumpster. He no doubt thought he had seen the last of me and when cornered upon my return the next school year, he squirmed uncomfortably when asked, “Where are my couch and chair?”  It was a moot point because when I returned to Ontongaon in the fall of 1980, my new teaching space would be in the middle of the third floor hall, on the opposite side of the building. That room didn’t have the free floor space for a reading nook, but it still steamed me that they were tossed.   

     For the life of me I can not remember the number of my second classroom because my stay in this space was much shorter.  It was a longer room than Room 300 with a shared storeroom area that connected that room to my free-form mentor’s room. When his students kept poking their heads around the corner during class, it became a frequent annoyance.  I asked the custodian to close up the doorless opening between our two rooms with a sheet of plywood. We each got half the storage area and this cut off the flow of distracting visitors. In the year that this was my working space, plans were being drawn to abandon the third floor as a cost saving measure.   The move was prompted by a slow reduction in our student population. Closing the third floor was probably justified, but it was a really nice place to work. Nice, except for the way sound bounced around due to the high ceilings in the rooms. The rooms were loud and almost echoed like caves, but being an individual with a rather loud talking voice, I made it work.  

     A couple of summers into my third floor stay,  the new JH principal announced that he was going to have dropped ceilings installed to help with the noise problem.  We were thrilled, until we returned to school the next fall. He had the new ceilings installed in the hallways so it would be “less noisy when kids were passing to their next class.”   We complained this amounted to four minutes of every hour and he countered that, “there wasn’t enough money to do all the classrooms at once.” Silence ensued when we suggested that doing half the rooms one year and the other half the next would have been a better option.  This also became a moot point when the classrooms were consolidated to the first two floors. Perhaps the flies enjoyed the quiet halls when we left the nice new ceiling tiles behind (they were later harvested and repurposed in the district buildings). 

     After spending one year in my newest space, the art room on the first floor would become my third and final room in the old high school building.  Our former art teacher had spent a lot of his own time constructing a dark room in this area and he designed it so the wall panels could be removed and reassembled elsewhere.  When he left the area, he apparently didn’t remind enough people about it because the dark room was reduced to a pile of kindling just before I moved in.

     The art room had previously been the home economics room so there were plenty of cupboards and cabinets.  It took a little doing to make the space a viable science classroom, but being right next to the office was a big plus.  In previous years, I would have to trot down to the second floor to do all my copying. The last two years in the old JH building meant a quick jaunt next door.  With the student population still waning, we knew that the 1982-83 school year would be our last in that building. Near the end of the year, we were asked to come to the high school building to scope out where we might land in the fall of 1983.  The first room I was offered (Room 109) was being used for physics and math classes. Feeling funny about displacing a science teacher from their lab room, I opted for Room 117, a more traditional math classroom. I was used to teaching science in a non-science classroom so it wasn’t a big adjustment.  This is where I toiled for the next six years. When Home Ec disappeared from the school program, I put in a bid to move into the much larger quarters just around the corner from Room 117. It took a bit of lobbying, but I was happily surprised when my request was finally granted. In both Room 117 and Room 138, the custodial staff was kind enough to make me a floor to ceiling set of fiberboard bulletin boards that allowed me to hang a lot of topographic maps when we did the Maps and Earth Models unit. 

     I really wanted to put a wall to separate the old Home Ec room into a classroom space and a permanent lab work space but was told in no uncertain terms that, “We are not going to start putting up walls to divide rooms.”  Not long after, we did just that in the counseling area, only to see that wall removed a couple of years later. Long after I moved from the old Home Ec room, it was indeed divided into two separate work areas, minus the door I would have put in the newly constructed wall.  After bouncing between two buidings and five rooms over the first fifteen years of my career, I finally had the opportunity to move into Room 109 when the math/physics teacher left the area. It took ten years, but I finally ended up in the first room I had been offered when we moved into the high school building in the fall of 1983.

     As soon as the old tennant was gone, I sought out the principal to request the move.  I found out that he was on an extended vacation out of the country. I tried to contact the other teacher who used the room for part of the day, and found he too was not around for the summer.  When I approached the principal’s secretary with my idea, she said, “Well, it is alright with me, so go ahead.” It took two days to make the move. The first day involved relocating a massive amount of old, broken down computers that were occupying the floor space between the last row of desks at the back of the room.  The second day involved moving a couple of cabinets, files, boxes, loose equipment and the painted ceiling tiles from Room 138 to my new digs in Room 109. Relocating the decorated ceiling tiles meant we had to replace them with plain tiles from my new room. Thanks to my kids Elizabeth and Daniel (and Elizabeth’s recruitment of her friend Michelle), we were able to accomplish the whole move in two days.  I think they had fun helping me make the move, but a couple of pizzas may have made it more of a party than a move.

     This move was a lot of work so I declared (to myself) that if I had anything to say about it, it would be the last time I would change rooms until I retired.  That kind of pronouncement may have sounded like an invitation to bad luck, but it ended up to be true. When we recarpeted the WOAS-FM studios in the late 1990s, it was almost as much work as changing rooms.  I had to completely empty both studios for the carpet job. It was also a good excuse to clear out a lot of accumulated clutter. Only half the furniture went back into the studio and the rest was repurposed by the custodial staff.

     I walked out of Room 109 for the last time on June 30, 2018, having spent the better part of twenty five years in the same location.  With the cleaning and sorting done, it just didn’t feel like my room any more. I still have vivid memories from each of the six rooms that I got to call home during my forty three year teaching career.  If the walls could talk, I am not sure what stories they would tell, but at least the student decorated ceiling tiles are still there to mark my last stomping grounds. This OASD campus now houses the entire K-12 school population and the village has taken over the old Jr High – Elementary complex.  If they ever turn the old high school into apartments, I get dibs on Room 300.

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