Being an elementary school teacher I never expected to get a standing ovation—but when, in the course of my career, I got three, each time was a joyful surprise.
The earliest one was at California State University, Northridge where I had just completed my studies for a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education. My thesis was entitled Early Childhood Sex Education Materials. It was 1977 and I had already been teaching nineteen years. In addition, I had raised my own six teenagers through the hippy era, which had been under way since the early sixties. I felt I had the maturity and experience to handle the topic. Our public school system was struggling with what was appropriate for Sex Education, so I chose for my thesis collecting and evaluating published materials for use in sex education in the public schools.
The Saturday morning after the last day of the semester the department invited some of us to make a presentation, open to the public, of our theses. They scheduled four presentations simultaneously, changing every forty-five minutes, and I was the last one on the schedule. Most presentations had from two to ten people in their audience. At the scheduled starting time I began to talk and distribute books and publications I had gathered, while discussing the values inherent in each of them. As I talked, people were quietly coming in and joining my audience until the room was crammed. At twelve-thirty, the scheduled time for stopping, I smiled and said thanks. To my astonishment, the whole audience stood up and applauded, spontaneously. At that point I thought that must have happened for all the presentations, but later, colleagues assured me that as far as they knew mine was the only one.
Six years later, 1983, I decided to get a Ph.D. from Sierra University, now no longer in existence. My committee recommended I run for a seat on the Los Angeles Board of Education. Learning what was involved with that position was part of my studies. I collected, with the help of friends, the thousand signatures needed for my application, filling out all the forms and submitting them at the right time and right place, collecting donations toward my campaign, holding meetings, hiring helpers, being interviewed by the L.A. Times, as well as other requirements. During this process I found out which groups and organizations were inviting candidates to speak, and my first appearance was at an outfit called “Log Cabin,” which I had never heard of. They met after working hours at a meeting room upstairs in a bank in downtown Los Angeles. When I walked in there were about fifteen men seated at a large table in the middle of the room, and around the room’s perimeter were crowded about thirty candidates for the various offices up for election, waiting to speak. I found an empty chair around the perimeter and looked over the situation. When I looked at the “Log Cabin” members, and saw their expensive jewelry and clothing, their unique sense of style and attitude, I instantly realized that they were mature, wealthy, gay men. Candidates were being called to the table, one by one, invited to make a speech, asked questions relevant to their candidacy, and then dismissed.
Soon after I arrived the chairman made the announcement that there were so many candidates they would allow only five minutes for each person. After about half an hour it was my turn. When the chairman called me up I came to the table and announced that I was running for the vacancy on the Board of Education, and this was my very first public speech for the seat. The leader echoed, “The very first?” and I answered, “The very first.” They started firing questions about my experience, my educational philosophy, and then narrowed in to how policies on gay high school boys should be handled. I felt comfortable to answer their questions to the best of my ability. It was long after the five minutes had elapsed, and they kept asking me specific questions. Finally the chairman said, “Thank you,” and to my amazement, all the men at the table spontaneously and simultaneously, stood and applauded me.
The most rewarding standing ovation I had was six months after I retired from teaching. In 1986 I had been teaching kindergarten at Hobart Elementary School for seven years. Hobart had been built for eight hundred students but we had twenty-four hundred enrolled. To accommodate all those children the district divided the student body into three groups. Each group would attend eight weeks, then have four weeks vacation. Every four weeks a third of the children would go off on vacation. The school was year-round, and we teachers were assigned to one of the tracks on the same schedule as our students.
As part of my contribution to the school’s curriculum, each spring I would organize and supervise the spring dance festival for each of the three tracks. I would go into every classroom, teach the children the dance they were to do, with the hope the teacher learned it, too. Every spring we had three festivals, each with 800 students dancing and their parents as audience.
In 1986 in June I retired from teaching, but the following December I went back to the school to see the Christmas program. The auditorium was crammed with fifth and sixth graders, with teachers and administrators standing around the edges, and in the back. I stood in the back with adults I did not know and enjoyed the excellent music program. When the concert was over, the principal thanked the children, and the teachers, and then introduced the administrators who had come from the downtown district office.
Then he said, “and you all remember Mrs. Brent.” The children turned around and saw me, then stood up, and within moments everyone in the entire auditorium was standing and applauding me. I smiled and waved back. Next to me was an administrator, and when the applause subsided she asked, “Are you Carolyn Brent?” I acknowledged I was. She added, “I’ve been looking for you. We want you to teach multi-cultural dance for the coming year in our teacher training program.”
Not only was my heart warmed by the appreciation the children showed me, it paid off in extra income for the next couple of years.