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In The Chaos of A Crowded Bar, Lessons For A Special Ed Teacher

The NPR Ed team is discovering what teachers do when they're not teaching. Artist? Carpenter? Quidditch player? Explore our Secret Lives of Teachers series.

It's late and the bar is packed. In the darkness of the club, people bob and sway to the DJ's bass-heavy electronic music. The show is about to begin at Washington, D.C.'s famous 9:30 Club.

Behind the bar is Vickie Walker. She glides back and forth with a coolness that masks the chaos of handling many tasks at once: a draft beer here, a margarita there, guy down the bar needs his check.

She grabs a bottle of Jameson to pour shots for three friends who've come for the show. It's near freezing outside, and she's wearing a hoodie to keep warm. She unzips it to show me her tattoos — her arms are covered with roses and butterflies, sea creatures and good luck charms.

It's Sunday night, and Walker will stay till closing time. She'll be lucky if she's home by 1 a.m., her feet tired, voice nearly hoarse, ears humming.

In five hours, her alarm will go off and a very different Vickie Walker will put on a suit jacket and slacks, heading off to the public school district headquarters of Howard County, Md. She's the special education resource teacher for the entire 52,000-student district.

Vickie Walker shows off her ink behind the bar — tattoos she keeps covered up at her day job.
LA Johnson / NPR
Vickie Walker shows off her ink behind the bar — tattoos she keeps covered up at her day job.

Walker never thought she would be a teacher. She became a bartender after high school and worked in the industry for 10 years.

"I was a pink-haired punk girl back then, living the rock-star dream – without the amenities," she says.

She enjoyed the nightlife: The pay was great, the atmosphere vibrant, the people friendly. But after years of late nights and spilled beer and bar fights, she started to think about a different picture.

"I had this vision of me in front of a class of 20 first-graders," she recalls. "That was what I wanted to do. I wanted to help shape lives."

She enrolled in the education program at Towson University outside Baltimore. For her student-teaching, she worked in a pre-K classroom — and loved it.

"There was this one little boy who was just off the chain," she says. "A ball of energy — he was up on chairs, bouncing around. The regular teacher didn't know how to handle him. So, he became my project."

In the short time she was there, he improved a little. She felt a connection with that boy and other students with emotional disabilities, and that led her to choose special education.

After eight years in the classroom, she now runs the district's program.

'Baby Steps'

Walker says she can make as much as $500 a night — roughly half her teacher paycheck.
LA Johnson / NPR
Walker says she can make as much as $500 a night — roughly half her teacher paycheck.

"I've had chairs and desks thrown at me by troubled students at school, and I've been punched and kicked. Once I was stabbed with a pencil," she says.

Not all that different from tending bar: She's seen people throw ashtrays, beers, shot glasses and cigarettes.

"The difference is that adults should know better," she says. "When you have a 6-year-old doing this thing, it's not their fault."

At the end of the day, it is the kids that inspire her. "It's those little things, those little baby steps that some kids make, that is such a celebration. That's what I go home with at the end of the day," she says.

Early in her career, she wasn't quite ready to give up the club scene, even on school nights.

That came at a price. "Kids seem to prey on you when you're exhausted; they can sense it the moment you walk in," she says.

So she gave up bartending completely. She thought she was done with it for good.

A year ago, her district took a significant pay cut. She had student-loan debt and house payments to make.

So now, on Sunday nights, she's back behind the bar, using some of the same skills she needs to help young people.

"You have to have the patience of a saint, be able to articulate very well and understand people who cannot," Walker says. "My principal said he only wants to hire bartenders from now on."

Tell us about the Secret Lives of Teachers — maybe your own or a teacher you know. Or post your own Secret Life on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram at #secretteachers. We're on Twitter at @npr_ed. Our Facebook page is here or you can drop us an email atNPREd@npr.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LA Johnson is an art director and illustrator at NPR. She joined in 2014 and has a BFA from The Savannah College of Art and Design.