Back to School: One young teacher swallowed a fly, but, no, didn't die

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I did my student teaching in Birmingham, Mich., in the winter of 1969, and I still remember the first time I taught a class.

I walked to the front of the room, with the lesson plan for a math class in hand, and became so acutely aware of all the little eyeballs staring at me waiting for some wisdom to come forth from my cotton-filled, swollen-tongued mouth. It was only then that I learned the age-old truth of teaching: One learns to be a teacher by practicing the art of teaching, and by paying attention to what works and what doesn't work.

The next fall, I began my teaching career at the now-closed Library School in the South Park School District. Newly graduated from college, I was very much lacking self-confidence. On the first day of school, I anxiously awaited the arrival of my students.

When the first one arrived, I asked her her name.

"Bet-thy," she lisped.

I ran across the hall to get a drink of water. When I returned, I asked her last name and again ran for water upon hearing her response.

Soon I had 30 nicely polished first-graders staring at me, each one dressed in freshly pressed new clothes and unscuffed shoes for the first day of school. The only other surprise from that first day was again from "Bet-thy" as I watched her eat her lunch. She took a ripe yellow banana from her bag and proceeded to eat it, skin and all.

"Betsy, we don't eat the banana peel!" I told her.

"I do," she responded, taking another bite.

"Okay!" I thought.

I was horrified to learn only six weeks after the school year began that I was required to do a demonstration lesson. In attendance would be the parents of all of my students, the guidance counselor and the elementary supervisor.

I had to read a book aloud -- gasp! More self-consciousness! Then the children would summarize the story while I wrote their ideas on a large piece of paper. Following that, I would read each line aloud and the children had to read them after me. Then they would copy the story.

I was so nervous on the day this occurred that my hands were sweating and my voice was hoarse from my dry mouth, but I knew what I had to do and so I began.

Things went well until a child began to mimic me after I read each sentence. I wasn't sure what to do, and I was aware of the fact that there was a large audience in front of me. I decided to just continue, ignoring that child.

I opened my mouth to read the next line and a fly flew into my mouth! I was so horror-stricken I just couldn't go on.

I ran for the door to the hall, quickly trying to explain, "A ly lew inoo y outh."

The elementary supervisor ran to block my exit; he couldn't understand what I was saying, because I was afraid to close my mouth to utter the words clearly. Luckily for me, one of the mothers understood every word and pulled him away from the door.

Once I reached the ladies room I could feel the creature buzzing in the back of my throat, and I gagged until the feeling went away. Across the hall in my classroom, they sent all of the students home with their parents so I could drive myself to town to visit my doctor. Of course, by the time I got there, he told me I had swallowed the fly.

I'm sure you've heard the song, but now you've read a true story about a real woman who swallowed a fly -- in front of a live audience, no less!

It was an inauspicious start to a 34-year teaching career, much of it as a special education teacher for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, first working with gifted children and then with children who had intellectual disabilities. Thank goodness, I gained self-confidence quickly. And happily, I am still in touch with many former students who are now working as physicians, teachers, corporate managers and engineers.

No other experience was quite as memorable, though, as the day I swallowed that fly.


Ruth Yahr of Greenfield can be reached at PG Portfolio welcomes "Back to School" submissions about special classroom memories at all educational levels, in addition to other reader essays. Send your writing to; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255. First Published August 21, 2013 4:30 AM


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