I Appreciate Your Disinterest in My Life’s Work

I just read a hilarious post entitled Teacher Depreciation Day by peachyteachy at

http://peachyteachy.wordpress.com/2012/05/09/teacher-depreciation-day/

and I was reminded that today was Teacher Appreciation Day. I don’t think anyone in my school knew that except maybe for the first year teachers. I only knew because I got a lot of emails this week from Lakeshore Learning offering me free shipping on any and all overpriced Groundhog Day curriculum packs, talking globes (bilingual ones) and dice with roman numerals on them. Free shipping, huh? Nice.

I was not feeling sorry for myself, but was ever so  slightly disgusted at the extra effort kids put into making my day extra unspecial today.

Today one of our students unabashedly drew directly onto a table, not accidentally, but in a concentrated effort to produce a complete representational picture, mind you. When I stopped her and asked her why she was drawing on the table she answered, in a typical non sequitur, “It’s pretty.” And then started in to finish her work until I removed her pencil from her feisty little grip. Later, the same student, instead of rolling her dice and collecting colored chips in the “roll for 15” game, put down her pencil (finally) and placed the counting chips on her eyes, twice entering a state of near hysterics, before the threat of a conversation with the principal elicited an insincere apology. And another grab at that forbidden pencil.

The many misdemeanors and transgressions enacted in our classroom today are too complicated and unsavory to list in their entirety. Suffice it to say, I am a woman of great patience and fortitude and might consider a career move to the DMV where they really know how to have a good time at the expense of others.

I’m not saying the day was a total loss. When I went to wipe down the tables at the end of the day, I found this:

Now that’s raw talent.

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Just Wait Until You Have Kids of Your Own

It is a commonly known fact that your kids will always be more polite, obedient and just plain nice when dealing with complete strangers than they will be with you. They will engage in casual banter with the UPS man and regale the McDonalds cashier with a humdinger about how they lost a tooth last Thursday and the tooth fairy forgot to leave a dollar under their pillow. When you ask them a simple question or make a small request, there is eye rolling, stomping, whining, and finger pointing followed by a series of false accusations, an angry swearing of a loathsome pox upon you and a finale of door slamming.

When you’re a teacher, the kids in your class can go either way with their allegiance and/or willingness to comply. At the beginning of the year, when their teacher is a stranger to them, they smile brightly, listen intently and put on a good show. There is a honeymoon type love-fest of cooperation and a desire to please. The students are bright-eyed sponges, willing to take pretty much anything you say at face value. Sure, they say, I’ll sign that class contract agreeing that I will always try my best and have an excellent sense of personal space and a sweet disposition. At about week two or three, you get a sense of who’s going to test the dark and murky waters down in the deep end of the pond. And they do. Put on your life jacket and flippers.  It’s a necessary evil of going to kindergarten. They test limits. They try patience. It’s in their job description. You are now a familiar, trusted adult. And they know they can try their best to make you very sorry you ever thought this teaching gig might be a good idea, but that you will love them and take care of them no matter what.

My kids, like (most of) yours, are great kids. We get plenty of positive feedback from acquaintances, peers’ parents, coaches, and elderly strangers in restaurants who say “Your kids are so well behaved.” But that last one was a long time coming. So I know this “evil twin” phenomenon holds true in our little family. But what of everyone else’s?

Last weekend there was a spectacular outdoor event at my kids’ school. It was a “Go Green” community-building extravaganza complete with all the kid friendly bells and whistles. I volunteered to work behind one of the many crafts tables, helping small children plant marigold seeds in little plastic flower pots. Between me and the two other moms facilitating this activity, we assisted hundreds of little gardeners as they followed the multi-step directions to put together the necessary elements of about 400 marigold plants. This is what I do on my day off from teaching.

Without exception, every child who came up to our table was polite, attentive, and able to interact with us (strangers to most of them) respectfully and appropriately. No one sprayed her brother with the water spray bottle. No one complained that they didn’t get enough fertilizer in their cup. They accepted help when necessary and followed steps independently when encouraged to do so. Everyone said thank you. And then they all went home and screeched like spider monkeys, threw themselves on the floor, and demanded pizza for dinner from their exhausted parents.

So it is clear to me now that everything my mom warned me about will eventually come to pass. Mom always said, “Don’t stand downwind from 200 pounds of pulverized potting soil on a gusty day unless you want to be the victim of sudden onset emphysema, AND just wait until you have kids of your own who act just like you did when you were their age.” Which is just a terrible thing to say. Because I was a real pain in the ass.

Come and See the Baby Parrot

Teaching is an act of perpetual motion. You must constantly decide what to say, how to react, which direction to pursue, which direction to abandon before all hope is lost, and how to control your impulses, lest you blurt out something like, “you already told me that ten times, what do you want me to do about it?” to a defenseless youngster. But that never happened to me personally. Ahem.

Sometimes I am at a loss, sometimes shockingly intuitive, sometimes ridiculously oblivious, and sometimes I surprise myself with a burst of well-meaning, though generally ill-advised, inspiration.

Yesterday morning, one of my less inspired lessons: Three students met with me at the reading table in the hall outside our classroom to enjoy the titillating best seller, The Baby Animals.  “Come and see the baby puppy. Come and see the baby chick…” You get where this is going. Controlled vocabulary, repetitive verse and cute pictures = successful early readers. Yada, yada, yada. So we read the compelling story and wrote our own little version on the whiteboard tabletop easel. “Come and see the baby parrot!” Yay! Reading time is done.

Later that afternoon Ms. Promise, the real teacher, and I discussed how to get this whole class of boundary-challenging (UNDERSTATEMENT) kindergartners to cooperatively participate in a measurement activity. As outlined in the Teacher’s manual, the children were supposed to use connecting cubes to build measuring sticks to measure the length of various body parts, limited (IN THEORY) to heads, arms, legs, feet and hands. Hmmm. Risky, to say the least. We puzzled over how to set up parameters that would limit unapproved physical contact (TOUCHING NO-TOUCH ZONES, POKING, SQUISHING, SHOVING, GNAWING, SNEAK ATTACK WWF PILEDRIVERS… need I go on?).

How about we have a pair of kids do a body tracing of third student, a la CSI, on a giant piece of paper and then all three can measure any and all extremities of the paper homicide victim? That way, there would be a lot less risk of unwanted body contact and no one student would be required to stand still (IMPOSSIBLE DREAM) for an extended period while being poked with poorly constructed connecting-cube-measuring-sticks by his peers.

Let’s give it the old college try shall we? The lesson was in full swing, with seven life-sized colorful paper victims strewn about the room, getting their eyes, hair, clothing, tattoos and piercings colored in with some degree of realism by small gangs of courtroom sketch artists. But wait. Ding, ding. I’m off the clock. I leave well before dismissal each day to pick up my own kids at school three towns over. Sweet deal, right? See you Ms. Promise. Good night and good luck.

This morning I tentatively greeted Ms. Promise and asked, “Were you cursing me after school yesterday for leaving halfway through the body tracing extravaganza?”

“No. The tracing was fine. I was cursing you because I had no idea what anyone was talking about when 20 different people came in here after school looking for the baby parrot.”

The Five Minute Warning

One of the first things they tell you when you are learning to teach young children is to give plenty of warning when things are about to change. It’s all about the transitions. So students can be prepared to set aside their paintings and stories and arguments and, for God’s sake, use the bathroom ONE AT A TIME, before it is time to move onto the next event in the overstuffed daily schedule. Get ready. It’s almost time to stop. Here it comes. Organize your things. And… NOW! Please run around like lunatics with scissors pointed out and shoelaces untied, screaming as loud as you possibly can. Well done.

In theory, the Five Minute Warning should work like a charm. Give kids time to mentally prepare to change gears. Let them plan how to spend the next five minutes wrapping up their life changing playdo sculpture, which will soon be squashed into oblivion and stuffed back into a Gladware container until tomorrow. In practice, does it really work? Well, I’ve seen it work. Sometimes. It depends on the individuals, the class size, the circumstance, the teacher, the delivery of the message, and the expectations (and consequences, if necessary). So it’s entirely uncomplicated. Really.

Flash forward 19 years. Graduate School, and the pipe dream of an uncomplicated classroom and life, is a distant memory. I now resolutely stick to my philosophical roots and give the Five Minute Warning. I am not at school. It’s Sunday and my 12 year old son, Red Bull, needs to put down the Wii and get ready to go to Sunday School. I know he will need some warning to prepare for departure, so ten minutes out, I give the Five Minute Warning. Pretty sneaky, I know.

His sisters, MelloYello (10) and Sprite (6), have already put in their time at the early bird session and are now at risk of waiting in a parking lot alone while Red Bull steers his way around the basement to crush that darn Luigi. Five minutes have passed.

“Red Bull, Let’s go. Time’s up!” My request is met with silence. Didn’t see that coming. Our conversations mostly consist of me asking, then yelling, then threatening as Redbull is stoically silent throughout, hiding in some dark recesses of our palatial estate, hoping I will never find him.  “Your sisters are stranded in a parking lot. Move it.” Would it help if I stepped away from my computer to parent this boy? Perhaps, but that is beside the point. Sort of.

Finally. “Okay mom, I’m just finishing up.” Stomp, stomp, stomp up the stairs.

“Ready?” I have vacated my seat and am poised by the door sporting a fetching not yet washed ponytail, wearing my “weekend” uniform: favorite jeans older than some, but not all, of my kids (which husband, Mr. Snark has gently suggested I might consider retiring. He means well.) and the requisite three sizes too big Target men’s department fleece half-zip. I’m working it, though. In my own sadly misinformed way.

“Just a minute. I have to go to the bathroom.”  Trust me. These are the last words you want to hear from Red Bull when the clock is running. So anyway, five more minutes later we are out the door. It is 10:39. We are due to pick up the girls at 10:40. Whatever. Turning at the traffic light nearest our destination, I wait to make a left so three other late parents can cut me off first. Then I notice the other two cars, trailing closely behind. It is 10:44. We are all late. So at least Sprite and MelloYello have plenty of company in the cold and not so desolate parking lot.

So I’m thinking those five minutes could have been better spent without the whole warning scenario. Maybe just some yelling and duct tape next time.

The Lineup

What is it about standing in line that is so insurmountably difficult? For Kindergartners, it is next to impossible. Stand still. Hands down. No talking. Now walk. Straight. Facing forward. Quiet. Look ahead. Stop running. Okay, we are almost there. Now, Stop. Still no talking. Please? Turn around. Hands off. Please stop swinging your lunchbox. Watch out for that cart with the overhead projector (who’s using that?). Okay. I’m completely exhausted and we’ve covered about 40 yards of hallway. OMG. This is one of the worst parts of the job.

Perhaps they resist so vigorously because they have the foresight to see a different kind of lineup in their future. Downtown at headquarters, behind a one-way mirrored window. With a giant ruler painted on the wall behind them. Is it the moving from place to place in an orderly fashion that is challenging? Is it waiting one’s turn? Let’s discuss.  Waiting one’s turn… Not an innate talent of the typical American six year old. These are the most attention-seeking creatures in the entire Animal Kingdom. Even more attention seeking than that crazy looking monkey at the zoo with the red butt who is throwing poo and looking for a mate. Me first. My turn. I want that. You took it from me. Look at me. Now.

Do they realize they have simply joined a bleating chorus of several other red-butted monkeys clamoring for your attention simultaneously? Nope. Amazingly, this “I am a singularly important individual who must express my every thought and desire as it spontaneously occurs” phenomenon is not limited to young children. This need to speak and be heard on demand is a pervasive phenomenon among adults in my (admittedly limited) social world, as well. Visiting our temple, listening our rockstar Rabbi, speak with encouragement, soul, humor, insight, and relevance, the chatter around us continues. It’s the adults chattering. The kids are all in the lobby, sprinting in circles because they haven’t been told by their parents not to train for the 440 indoors. During any given community event, the parents continue their chatter. While a Rabbi speaks before them! While students deliver speeches about family folklore and ancestry! While fellow parents attempt to explain service projects that can benefit people other than themselves! What is wrong with these people? Where is that monkey with the poo? Throw it. Over there. At that lady on her cell phone.

Subjugating one’s primal need to be first may not come naturally to the general population. This is why grown people take your place in line at the deli counter, when you were clearly there before them. Is it worth it? Really? So you can have your half pound of honey roasted turkey before I get mine? Waiting in line will never be easy. But it should be. I was here first. You were second. Please wait behind me until I am finished. Thank you.

Do you smell something?

So, yeah, it’s Friday again. And today was pretty much like any other day in the life of a Kindergarten Aide. Except it was a little more smelly.

The Bathroom Incident (as it will be referenced henceforth) was the exclamation point at the end of an unremarkable day including, but not limited to, more than one student who clearly hadn’t bathed since last weekend, adults and children literally falling to their knees in the halls as they were overcome with fever and intestinal distress, and a gang-style baby shower honoring three expectant moms/teachers featuring a giant frosted cookie I was waiting for someone else to slice into first.

After beginning the day with a “pretend” lock-down drill to prepare us for the “real” one coming down the pike next week (You. Yeah, you with the ADHD. Sit perfectly still and be silent for ten minutes.), I thought the worst was over. Not so much. After little Skippy excused himself from recess, presented himself to the principal, and plunked down for an exclusive coloring engagement in her office while his absence went undetected on the playground, we thought we had hit bottom. But, no. Soon enough, the guidance counselor abruptly high-tailed it out of our room in the middle of a lesson on good touch/bad touch to address an implosion elsewhere in the school. Done yet? Nope.

We were just getting warmed up. How about a little explosive poo to make things really interesting? Yeah, that’s the ticket. But first, off we marched to the library to select new books, which provides a much needed break (in theory only)  for the lovely, brilliant and quite gifted Kindergarten teacher, Ms. Promise, and the aide (that’s me), Mrs. Snark. Bye kids. Have fun. See you in 40 minutes.

Off goes Ms. Promise to resolve the whole Skippy escaping from recess thing. And off I go to sort more books in our classroom collection, because we are supposed to teach these kids to read or something. Ms. Promise and I then take a few minutes to conference (commiserate) on the general joyless tone of the day, how to better reach the kids, and how to support the ones with real, tragic issues at home that cause them to act out at school. So, blah, blah, blah. Break’s over. Entirely unrefreshed, it’s time to pick up the gang at the library. Oh well, they’re running late. Let’s go around the corner and see if there’s any more of that giant frosted cookie left in the lunchroom. Onward. Ms. Promise heads toward the faculty bathroom, the undisputed almost-entirely-used-up-cans-of-air-freshener capital of the world. As I pass by the boys room, there are two brothers from different grades emerging from within. Did they plan to be in there simultaneously? Do they rendezvous every day at 1:15? Hmmm. Note to self to test the validity of this theory next week. “Hi boys.”

“Hi Mrs. Snark.” Off they go, down the hall. Running, of course. I continue on my giant frosted cookie quest.

“Mrs. Snark?” It is the voice of wee Pop Tart from our class.

I turn and there he is, standing in the hall weeping, sans pants (which turned out to be a most prudent choice after a cursory examination of the discarded garments). From the waist down, he looks like he has had an unfortunate run-in with a bottle of self tanner. Ms. Promise has heard enough from 15 feet down the hall to magically reappear by my side. We leap into action like Ninjago masters. She races to find coverage for the rest of the class, summon the nurse, and secure a change of clothes for Pop Tart. I envelop him in warmth and reassurance, while never actually touching him because the poor thing has soiled himself in more complicated ways than I care to remember.  The bathroom is a crime scene of epic proportions. Reality check. What are the legal ramifications of me being in there with a bunch of oblivious boys at the urinals? I reassure Pop Tart once more, and wait in the hall until the urinals are unoccupied, continuing to offer affirmations from the doorway. I tear a streamer from the baby shower decor next door and tape it across the doorway to bar entry by other boys who don’t seem to notice anything has gone awry in the bathroom. Which is really saying something about their powers of observation. So my job description now includes talking a panicked and distraught child off the ledge after he has fallen victim to a septic tragedy that could only be resolved by a full on haz-mat team and, eventually, by a really big cocktail. Which I will now, at long last, enthusiastically consume. Twice.

So that was the rock bottom of this bottomless pit of a day. I now sit reflectively, typing this memoir of sorts, knowing I’ll be back in the game on Monday. But it will likely smell better. And we have that awesome lock-down drill to look forward to.