The day started with an automated telephone call. I had gone to bed Monday night, newly hired by the school district as a substitute “para-educator,” confident no such call would wake me. Now I had two hours to report for duty. The streets were ice-covered and the school unprepared for the freeze. I was greeted by a janitor throwing salt from a coffee can, who told me to go inside and find traffic cones, and was assigned to a special-education class with two kindergarteners and four first-graders. All day I thought of Yeats’ poem:
“…the children's eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.”
They wouldn’t let the goatish old fool anywhere near a school today, and I’m a private man and not yet sixty, but I was smiling most of the time. I can’t remember spending seven hours on my feet since my first job, in a carwash more than 40 years ago. I helped a 5-year-old master the letter “P.” In math class, I counted navy and pinto beans. During lunch duty I watched a 5-year-old consume the contents of a mayonnaise packet and ask for seconds. I read aloud a book about a mouse named Geronimo Stilton. All day, I monitored behavior (mine, theirs) and experienced the self-forgetting of useful work performed attentively.
In his thirties, Chekhov became the most generous of writers. He treated thousands of patients, mostly illiterate peasants, and never charged them. At his own expense he built a fire station, clinic and three schools. In an 1899 letter to his friend and editor Alexey Suvorin, Chekhov writes of the schools:
“…they are considered models of their kind. They are built of the best materials. The rooms are 12 feet high, they have Dutch stoves, the teacher has a fireplace and the teacher’s apartment is a decent size – three to four rooms [Chekhov’s childhood house had five rooms for a family of eight].”
One of the schools is in Yalta, where Chekhov moved in 1899, hoping for relief from the tuberculosis that would kill him in five years. The director of the school said that when his health permitted, Chekhov, who had no children of his own, visited every week and enjoyed sitting on a chair outside her office, talking with students.