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Local View: The pleasure to serve Duluth public schools is all mine

From the column: "Working at Ordean East cured my empty-nester impoverishment. It also gave me a bright awakening to what pulse the newer middle-school generation likes and prefers."

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Contributed photo / Pictures created on the dry-erase board are meant to inspire and entertain the students.
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I was driving down I-94 for a Madison, Wisconsin, getaway this summer — my destination was my former town, Stoughton, where my daughter lived and died, to meet a group of old friends — when I heard on a public-radio station that Middleton, Wisconsin, needed 135 more teachers.

Going back to education was already weighing heavily on my mind. I had let my California preliminary teaching credential for social studies in grades seven through 12 expire in 2020 after resigning in January of that year from Cooper Elementary in Superior. I had served four years at Cooper as a para, ranging from one-on-one tutoring to working with students with severe, non-verbal autism. I also was the school artist there, in a sense, especially for occasions like Halloween and Christmas, and I designed and laminated recess and lunch-privilege passes.

A few weeks after returning from my trip, I heard on public radio and saw in the local news that the Duluth public schools were practically crying out for help. I was an empty-nester — my only child, a son, had gone into the Army — so I answered the call.

I applied for five jobs in the Duluth public schools and got a phone call two hours after hitting the “submit” button. It was the director of food nutrition asking if I wanted a kitchen job four minutes from home. I didn’t hesitate. I instantly said yes to Betsy Sislo and affirmed that middle school was my first choice. She offered me a four-hours-a-day assignment at Ordean. I couldn’t have tailored it better. It was a dream and exactly what I wanted.

My son had pushed me to “use my degrees” like my mother had, so I also applied for a short-call substitute-teaching license that same week. It was approved.

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Navigating my way into food service, I learned how to efficiently cut and serve fruit. I held up a perfect vine of grapes that were interwoven so tightly, I didn’t want to cut the stems. I was streamlining in the bounty of divine grace, being surrounded by four women in my age group directed by a wonderful boss, Deb McKowski. I tested my capability of lifting milk crates, washing tables, and serving 75 students per line all at once without spilling. I bonded with a sixth-grader who made it known he loved and drank skim milk. I let him draw on the board one day and left his drawing up all week to reward him for choosing skim milk every day instead of the coveted chocolate milk.

I debated local school issues and community policing with School Resource Officer Kelly Hanna, who I found approachable and cordial. I was given praise by my boss for thinking of new pictures to put on the dry-erase board every day to inspire the students.

Working at Ordean East cured my empty-nester impoverishment. It also gave me a bright awakening to what pulse the newer middle-school generation likes and prefers. There are girls who dress like Taylor Swift and boys in flannel who wear mullets. There are quiet students who read thick books at lunch, and I predict them to be the next critical thinkers, possible Bill Gates or Ayn Rands. I always say hi to the loners who seem out of sorts.

The pleasure to serve is all mine. I love the kids and honor the school, especially the hardworking hall monitors who have to manage more than 1,100 children. The time-lapsed movement I record in my mind of them running outside, whether it's 30 degrees or 60 degrees, gives me that extra surge of hope that the world is not jaded, that each generation finds its voice, and that, hopefully, the students value their school as much as I do.

Jane Hoffman of Duluth is a writer and educator, including teaching political science, in which she has a master's degree. She also hosted a political radio show for 10 years.

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Jane Hoffman

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