At last, after four years of college and student teaching, after fretting and hoping and studying, it is Afrika Harcum's first day of school.
"Afrika, here is your classroom," sings out principal Goldye J. Sanders during a tour of labyrinthian Harford Heights Elementary School, said to be Maryland's largest. "So, what do you think?"
"Ahhhhhh," sighs Miss Harcum, 21, new kindergarten teacher, one of almost 400 teachers hired this fall by Baltimore City schools. She was one of about 100 novices walking into their first classrooms yesterday. "It's wonderful," she says of Room 109, with its freshly painted apple-green and sunshine-yellow cinder block walls.
Across the city this week, anxious novices move into rooms full of other teachers' memories, and begin looking for ways to make the spaces and the sentiments their own. Miss Harcum steps across a threshold into a jumble of upended tables, knee-high kitchen appliances built of plywood, and stacks of the tiniest blue and orange and tan chairs.
It is eerily quiet here, a little lonely. Ms. Harcum's room would almost seem peaceful if not for the assurance that in less than a week, it will echo with the laughter and wails of 25 5-year-olds. School starts Wednesday: 1,682 students are expected at Harford Heights, including eight classes of kindergartners.
"The worst thing that could happen would be if one of them started crying and the others all joined in," said the May graduate of Pennsylvania's Lincoln University. "Or if I cried. But I need to be stronger than that."
The newcomers have five days to decorate classrooms and to prepare lessons -- and to attend workshops and pep talks, and to seek advice from veterans. They don't know what time classes start, where the health center is, who is in favor or out. They get lost in the maze of corridors and stairwells. The seven who arrived yesterday at Harford Heights in East Baltimore know only that they feel a calling to teach, and have now arrived.
After pep talks and welcomes from administrators, veteran staffers pop in for introductions. They share bulletin board decorations and wisdom. Buy only wash-and-wear clothes, says teacher Eileen Gross.
"You might want to stay out of the teachers' lounge for at least the first week," says Sandra L. Wighton, the area assistant superintendent. "This isn't to cast aspersions on our veteran teachers -- you can learn from these veterans. But when a person has been in a job for a few years, sometimes they become negative about the profession."
Linwood Roberts, personnel director for the city schools, says many of the first-time teachers are entering the profession through alternative programs such as Teach for America. He prefers a strong mix of veterans and novices, he says: Schools benefit from new teachers' energy and openness to fresh ideas, as well as the expertise of teachers who have mastered their subjects.
Miss Harcum, a Catonsville resident and Western High School alumna, whose aunt and cousin are teachers, takes it all in. When she was a child, she says, she used to write in chalk on the wooden walls of her parents' basement, pretending to teach her brother, Rhasaan. She whispers eagerly, "I just want to get started."
She slips off her shoes and climbs on a chair to staple goldfish-colored paper to her bulletin boards. She draws a floor plan and starts a shopping list: The child-size kitchen will go under the window -- should she buy curtains?
The bulletin board with the rainbow border will be reserved for student work. Her chairs are three colors -- veteran teachers arrive early and raid classrooms to assemble coordinated sets, she learns.
Fellow teacher Jennifer Martin arrives with a revised kindergarten curriculum: By the end of the year, Miss Harcum's charges will be able to count to 50 by fives, recognize colors, the president and their school name. Some will be able to read.
"Does kindergarten here have nap time?" Miss Harcum asks her assigned mentor, veteran kindergarten teacher Maebelle Moore.
"Oh, no. No way," Ms. Moore says. "And no milk and cookies. There's no time -- we have teaching to do."