Well now … it’s been 24 years since I took those tentative steps into a classroom in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Armed with Great Expectations and lesson plans and feeling very much like the young woman in Kingsley Amis Take a Girl Like You, I can still hear the click-clack of my high heeled shoes echoing in the hallways. I was only 22, and I was scared to death.  What if the pupils didn’t like me? What if they picked me up and put me in the wastepaper basket (like they had done to a petite biology teacher)? What if the English Department Head came in and observed the lesson that hadn’t been planned? What if I sat in the wrong chair in the staff-room (the one reserved for a knitter, a Miss Pillow if memory serves me right)? What if they made me teach a novel I hadn’t read? I needn’t have worried – expectations were low. The kids were working class protestants in a Belfast that appeared to neither need nor want them, and I was a teacher who was committed not to building a better Belfast for them, but to getting myself out of there, out of the country and off to America. A working class girl myself, expectations weren’t that high for me either – my parents didn’t play golf after all, and I wasn’t the sporting type. We did go to church every Sunday, however, and I’d been sent to elocution lessons when I was a little girl, so I could definitely sound educated and carry on a conversation in the foyer of The Lyric Theater. Somehow, I ‘looked Catholic,’ so I had the added advantage of being able to go to bars and discos on both sides of the divide!  Managed to avoid getting involved in the troubles …’whatever you say, say nothing,’ and managed to extricate myself from an engagement to a bank clerk and off a slippery slope to domesticity in what was a small-minded country with problems that needed big, expansive minds and hearts.

Here I sit, twenty five years on, in America, in Arizona, a state plagued with problems of its own. Not so afraid anymore, older and wiser I hope, I have until August 11th 2009 to get a school up and running, a school for kids for whom society may not have the highest expectations. The kids whose parents, like mine, didn’t go to college, the kids with big dreams and few resources, the kids who mightn’t have the papers they need to be considered ‘legitimate’ in an Arizona that doesn’t seem to embrace immigrants.  Well, at least not the brown ones from south of the border. It’s a different story on March 17th when the green beer’s flowing and everybody’s Irish. I have about 130 students enrolled, and they are so full of hope about the high school adventure ahead of them.  Predominantly Hispanic, their parents accompany them to an interview with me where they talk about what they want for their children – basically a safe school where their children matter. I want a little more – I want to give the education we would expect for Barack and Michele Obama’s children. Great expectations?
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