I am a student-teacher in a small, but prestigious private school that embraces preschool to sixth-grade in a progressive approach to holistic education. (Or, as my roommate puts it, the “school for rich hippies”.) I am currently under the wing of the most wonderful kindergarten teacher in the world, Ms. Dallo-way. I cite, in particular, the genuine affection with which she greets every child in the morning, the excite-ment she can infuse into everything from walking quietly down the hall to counting by fives, and, of course, the quizzically raised eyebrow that will send a child scurrying to the Meditation Chair, no other words needed. I cannot get over the conviction that I must master that look to become a real teacher. So far, I feel like an imposter, masquerading in the gaudy brooches and violently primary-colored teacher-sweaters, spouting lines memorized in undergraduate education classes, and I am still waiting for someone to see through the façade.
Ms. Dalloway must have sensed this on some level, so I am still not sure why she voluntarily de-cided to attend a professional summit, leaving me and Mr. Telamon (the instructional aide, whose wisdom and compassion I rate second only to Ms. Dalloway) to run her classroom for a day. When she informed me of this upcoming development in the classroom annals, I was something less than exuberantly overjoyed. It is one thing to teach a few lessons, to read a story out loud, to lead a morning meeting, or even to run the classroom for an afternoon or two. As I pointed out, it is quite another to transition from one of the Co-Ultimate Beings of Power to the Supreme One.
“You have been a part of this classroom from the very first day,” she said calmly. “The children love you, and you love the children, and they may be a bit antsy at first, but trust me—all will be well. You’ll probably ask me to go to more summits. Be calm and confident and relaxed. Enjoy yourself.”
Accordingly, I arrived the next day as a calm, confident, relaxed, and frothing mass of excitement and terror. I will not slow the course of the story by detailing the painstaking lesson plans I drew up for everything from handwriting to hall-walking, the three alarm clocks I set (and the two friends I asked to call me and absolutely insure that I got up in time), and this morning’s discovery that the school doors do not open to anyone until seven A.M. Instead, here is a running commentary of that fateful day, which commenced with an utter—
—crisis. Last Friday, we had all discussed the fact that Ms. Dalloway would not be here this day, and leaving Yours Truly to lead the class without her. This information had been received with keen interest, but apparently it had not been memorable enough to be retained over the weekend. When it was remem-bered, it took on a somewhat different light. On Friday, the tidbit had been a fascinating line of thought—this morning, it was the most poignant tragedy in the history of humanity. I dutifully documented one tem-per tantrum, two fits of tears, four whining fits, and five exhortations to “find” and “bring back” Ms. Dallo-way. I might have been paranoid, but I could not help but think that some of the parents were not unsympathetic with the general discontent, despite the specifically teacher-like sweater I was wearing with the giant apple embroidered on it. Felt like the usurper of a throne when he first looks out over the mass of righteously indignant subjects and realizes that crowns do not come hand-in-hand with loyalty. Nevertheless, we somehow made it to morning meeting, wherein occurred a sheer—
—horror. Last week, every child could explain with the authority of conceptual understanding that in sequential counting, ‘100’ was conventionally followed by ‘101’. During Morning Meeting, in the daily examination of the number line, Simon led a small faction of zealots determined to restore ‘200’ to what they believed to be its rightful place after ‘100’. Could not help wondering suspiciously if they were making some kind of oblique statement on my right to rule. Otherwise, Morning Meeting was fairly normal, and the unruly rebels became resigned to Ms. Dalloway’s absence when I suggested making “Miss you!” cards as a possible Choice-Time activity. I might have done well to postpone that announcement, as they of course wanted Choice-Time right away, and it was a bit hard to transition to Handwriting Adventures. I did reel off a rather good teacher-line that went something like: “Now, we’ll want good hand-writing for these We-miss-you cards, so how wonderful it is that we’re now going on . . . Handwriting Adventures!” Then came an unadulterated—
—calamity. After a week of correctly-facing C’s, Lindsay reverted to her original position that C’s should face left. (Firmly squelched the idea that this was the fault of a contrived Morning-Meeting-to-Handwriting-Adventures transition—Ms. Dalloway’s transitions are as smooth and fluid as a stream of wa-ter slipping over polished stones.) I could not help but think, however, that I admired Lindsay’s refusal to conform to established authority. Alas, as a professional-to-be, I simply could not allow the child to romp through life with the mindset that letters are hers to reverse with impunity—there is something expressly stipulated in the curriculum on the subject. Though this facing-right rule is quite arbitrary, if you think about it. I mean, does the fate of the world depend on the orientation of a C? And if it comes to that, should Lind-say’s deliberate sinistrality not be nurtured as a sign of her independent thought? Isn’t it free-thinking individuals like her that make the world great and assert the power of humanity in the void of an infinite universe? I must remember bring this up at the next all-school faculty meeting. At any rate, some other children were listening to our debate with keen interest, but Mr. Telamon and I managed to lead them through the rest of the Magic C capitals, but then ensued an absolute—
—tragedy. Ms. Dalloway and Mr. Telamon have invested significant amounts of time and energy in attempting to establish the Meditation Chairs as not measures of punition, but as opportunities to re-evaluate one’s behavior and responsibility to the classroom community. Despite this, John acted as if I were clapping a dunce-cap on his head and throwing him in the stocks when I suggested he visit a Meditation Chair to think about his duty as a caring classroom citizen. He had “dyed” a doll’s hair with green paint in lieu of practicing handwriting, and as Ms. Dalloway says, children need a certain balance of structure and freedom to learn and thrive. Thus I appeased my conscience as I exiled him to meditate. Wrapped up the lesson, and Mr. Telamon and I ushered them off to recess, which was an unmitigated—
—disaster. Georgia and Beth spent a greater part of recess participating in the frank exchange of personal viewpoints, utilizing tried-and-true Ciceronian argumentative devices of rhetorical comparison and judiciously manipulated fact. On a related point, I thought that there was a specific objective in this school’s pre-school curriculum about overcoming the instinct to pull hair. At any rate, they both spent some quality time on the benches, which I count as the spiritual equivalent of the Meditation Chairs. Georgia coldly in-formed me that I am “nicer when Ms. Dalloway’s here.” I feel very much the same way, but if I don’t set high standards now, I’ll spend the week in an avalanche of disruptive behavior (pardon the odd metaphor). I went through all of my old notebooks from my education courses last night and I know. Besides, Mr. Tela-mon said I did the right thing, and that helped me bear up until Math Discovery, which was a—
—catastrophe. Bobby has lost his math logbook. Mr. Telamon quickly found an extra from the supply closet, but I felt miserably guilty when I saw Bobby’s woebegone face. Math logbooks never get lost in Ms. Dalloway’s presence. On the other hand, Jolie, who has had some difficulty in accepting that boys are not monsters by default, sympathized with Bobby’s sad case, and offered him one of her special glitter-pencils to help make up for his loss. This was a real socio-emotional break-through, not to mention completely adorable. This precious moment did not prepare me for Choice-Time, which was a veritable—
—nightmare. I gently reminded some children that it was not appropriate to play “bombs and mis-siles” in the block corner. “That is not a game played by children who are trying to be caring citizens,” I said, quoting the critically acclaimed Playtime Can Teach Good Citizenship script verbatim, but I doubted that they would recognize the plagiarism. The cherubs blinked, looked endearingly impressed, and were courte-ous enough to play “caring games” for about three minutes before resuming “bombs and missiles.” When Simon caught my eye after waving a particularly large block around his head, shrieking, “Kabooooooooooooom!”, he smiled angelically at me and said hastily, “Oh, it’s not dropping bombs, Miss—it’s a camera and it’s taking pictures!” I asked myself how Ms. Dalloway would react in this situation, realized that she would never allow such a situation to develop in the first place, and let it go. In retrospect, a very short-term and remarkably ill-advised course of action.
I must interrupt the structure of my narrative to state that Story-Time, at least, went well. I read out loud the latest masterpiece in the Maude Lynne series, and the children listen with baited breath. (Which made me question their taste in literature, but I kept this misgiving to myself.) Of the plot I can remember little (I find that reading without comprehension is a necessary survival mechanism for a kindergarten teacher), but I imagine that Happy Rabbit again overcame her trials with the loving support and unstinting generosity of her faithful friends, Friendly Dog and Merry Squirrel. The question of literary merit aside, children find these books entertaining, and teachers encourage this inexplicable predilection for these texts because the moral issues they encompass are easy to extract and discuss. In Ms. Dalloway’s words, the Happy Rabbit books are an incalculably valuable element of mandatory kindergarten “mental hygiene”.
As the discussion on the importance of helping each other wound to a close, Miss Vescor, the lunch teacher, came by to escort them to the cafeteria. I felt deliciously official as I ate my sandwich and typed up a notice about an upcoming all-school project. I even contemplated re-arranging the cupboards, but realized that the time might be better spent in going through handwriting exercises. Teetered on the verge of despera-tion as I realized that I should also prepare for the upcoming social studies lesson, write a note to the school’s occupational therapist to postpone Debbie’s gross motor assessment, organize the incoming book-orders, and tear the room apart for Bobby’s math logbook. How on earth does Ms. Dalloway do it all in thirty minutes? I could not allow myself to ponder this conundrum, however, as I had to hurry to print out and photocopy these notices before it was time to join the kidlets again for recess. Just think of all I could get done if they weren’t here—oh, dear, that line of thought was very wrong. Speaking of wrong, I hurried to the main office and survived—
—a cataclysm. It was only as the photocopy machine finished spitting out the 397 copies of my no-tices that I discovered an unfortunate typo—where it came from and how it had come to be, I could not fathom. After contemplating possible explanations ranging from alien abduction to the foul work of a dis-honorable enemy (like Miss Allect, the student-teacher in the other kindergarten), I concluded that as I hit Control-P to print the accursed document, I had inadvertently added a couple of extra P’s to the end of my name. A long haul with correctional fluid awaits me. I wish I hadn’t chosen to copy it on green paper, but I had thought that it would denote a sense of growth and harmony. I was mournfully gathering together the casualties of my carelessness when the vice-principal came by and warned me of the—
—apocalypse. Important people from the professional development board would be coming to ob-serve my teaching this afternoon. If I were the sensitive type, I would have been hurt by this lack of faith. Especially as I had planned the afternoon as one of those catch-up periods to finish up projects. How could I come up with something impressive to do at the eleventh hour? Which brings us to the absolutely—
—last straw. I decided that a lesson on the expansion of steam might make a nice visual for the ob-servers, as well as nicely lay some ground for the upcoming water unit. So I asked Miss Allect if I could borrow her Bunsen burner. Her unedited response: “You?!” I supposed it was just as well—we didn’t have any of the corked bottles recommended for the experiment, nor could I think of any follow-up activities at the moment. But I resented the implication that I am a danger to society, merely because I was once a par-ticipant in a minor incident involving her copy of The Professional Journal of Current Studies and Cumula-tive Research Towards the Continued Development of Kindergarten Theory and Practice and the contents of my coffee mug. Now, there might have been some slight discoloration as a result of this event, but overall, the journal was still legible, and it wasn’t as if its contents are intelligible at the best of times. I mean, take this sample: “To support and acknowledge the artistic attempts of children through judicious exposure to positive verbal reinforcement is to validate and nurture their ongoing struggles for the social-constructivist construction and conservation of an agentic, individuated, and accomplished self-identity.” The point is that the coffee episode was not epic in scope, though to hear Miss Allect on the subject, you would have thought it the turning point of the millennium.
Possibly she also had another contretemps in mind, which involved the microwave and the bag of popcorn I was popping for Milton, who is working on his fine-motor skills. (The occupational therapist rec-ommended chopsticks as good therapy, and I decided to use popcorn as easy to pick and able to be con-sumed in large quantities without nausea.) Mr. Telamon and I handled the mishap like responsible, well-adjusted adults, while Miss Allect made a point of giving me an economy-size bag of pre-popped popcorn “to use in future and keep us out of danger.” Really, one would think that I had deliberately tried to burn the school down. Now, I admit that the room was a tad smoky. Yet the atmosphere of the faculty lounge is barely relevant in the great scheme of things, whereas Milton’s growing skill with chopsticks, and his corresponding improvement in handwriting is eminently so. I scrubbed out the microwave, tacked up an endearing neo-conceptualist post-card to the staff bulletin board, with a brief note of contrition and penitence, and can enjoy my revenge fantasies of condemning Miss Allect to roll giant boulders up steep cliffs with the peace and contentment of a clear conscience. So her stubbornness with the Bunsen burner was highly un-called for.
Returning to the children—now, I somehow missed this while I was lining up the children for recess, but Elena had apparently been overcome with the desire to liberally apply ketchup to her face. The back of my sweater discovered the fact after she leaped on it to give me an enthusiastic hug on the playground. The touching thing is that she spent the next ten minutes clutching my sweater in such a way as to hide the stain. I had no idea why, until she started throwing out little hints.
“Umm, Miss? Do you liiiiiiiiiike this shirt?”
"Miss, do you reeeeeeeeeeally like this shirt?”
"Do you reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeally like this shirt? I think I like you in dresses better.”
It almost brought tears to my eyes when I realized that that the poor child was willing to sacrifice her recess to save me the embarrassment of going about with ketchup on my sweater. I dug out my pocket mirror, pretended to inspect the stain, and informed her that I thought it only added to the overall design. Only that seemed to unburden her conscience.
This made up for awkward moment that took place a few minutes later, when the principal came by on the playground with two “prospies”, or prospective parents who are thinking of applying for a space in this school (for their children, I mean). I was tying Everett’s shoes at the time, and the principal mentioned that she had heard nice things about the simile lesson I had taught last week. Dear Everett graced us all with the dissenting comment that this particular lesson had been “like a ride on the Boring Express.”
Actually a rather vivid description, don’t you think? I briefly entertained the hope that they might think he was merely demonstrating his understanding of the general concept, but it was too much to sustain even for one as incorrigibly optimistic as myself.
Mr. Telamon has just led them all to art class, leaving me free to tear the room apart in quest of Bobby’s math logbook.
Addendum: Found it in my to-photocopy basket. Cannot imagine how it got there.
Addendum secundum: Oh, that’s right. I wanted to photocopy it so I could put the latest samples of his O’s in his progress portfolio. Oops. I dropped by the art room to give the joyful, though embarrassing, news to Bobby and Mr. Telamon. The latter was kind enough to disguise his laughter with a series of coughs.
A bit of a conflict in the faculty lounge. Miss Allect, the other kindergarten student-teacher, had asked me to pass her a sugar packet, and I meant to do it—the basket was right beside me, after all. But I was a bit distracted, and absent-mindedly handed her the bottle of correction fluid I had been using to cor-rect my notices. An accident that might happen to anyone, and that certainly did not justify a hullabaloo of accusations. Though perhaps handing her the correction fluid was a Freudian slip.
Did you know that guinea pigs bounce?
I had decided to take Mr. Telamon’s advice and continue with the educational objectives I had originally planned. If the children needed some unstructured time in which to finish work hitherto incom-plete, then they should have it, regardless of what was picturesque or not picturesque. I did sell out so far as to offer a new project, though I made sure that it wasn’t tempting enough to entice children who had other work to finish.
At any rate, it began as a bustling, happy Choice-Time. Great monuments were being built in the block corner, breath-taking sumi-e masterpieces were being painted in the art center, inspiring theatrical works were being performed in the drama area, literary journeys were being taken in the library, and fasci-nating investigations were taking place at the discovery table, where a nice selection of Japanese artifacts and items had been arranged. I was guiding the poets in composing and dictating haikus at the writing table, Bertha’s mother (who is a wonderfully involved parent who visits every day) was leading a small group in folding origami balloons, and Mr. Telamon was monitoring the weaving of little tatami mats.
On the rug, Beth and Georgia, having reconciled the morning’s differences, were playing with the class guinea pig, Cammy. Smiling at the loveliness of the image—two friends, overcoming quarrels and bonding over a cute furry creature, really, could it get any sweeter?—I turned back to my writers. The ob-servers were beaming with approbation as they overlook the peaceful scene, peopled with happy, productive children and committed, dedicated adults. A moment later, some impulse—Cammy’s guardian angel, per-haps—makes me look back on the rug. Georgia is balancing a book on her head. Beth is ceremoniously placing the poor, blameless Cammy atop that book.
Cutting off Milton’s dictation mid-line (alas for that immortal work!), I fly over to the rug, calling, “Georgia, hang onto that book, Beth, grab Cammy, that is not safe for her—“ Even as I speak, I watched the guinea pig and book slip off Georgia’s head with the slow inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Beth managed to grab the book, but poor Cammy hit the rug and bounced.
We sat at the Cooperation Table and had a long discussion about being kind to animals.
Cammy is all right, as the science teacher assured me after an emergency examination. I, however, am not. The observers did not mince their opinions about my “grip” on the classroom when the head teacher was not present.
I felt very depressed, and naturally made a beeline for the faculty vending machine, where I extri-cated one of every different kind of chocolate to chain-devour.
Then I felt fat and depressed. Why should I bother going back to the classroom? I clearly do more harm than good. I am less than the stubborn residue of marker on the classroom white-boards. If I could summon up the energy to move, I would drown myself in the water-table.
Never mind. Lucille, who is normally very shy and reluctant to speak in front of the class, raised her hand in Sharing Math Ideas to point out that numbers in the same column on the Ten-By-Ten Hundred Chart shared the same second digit. I wondered why all the birds in the vicinity did not burst into song to commemorate this magical moment.
Perceptive little Angela thought I was “looking sad”, and drew a portrait of me to cheer me up. She has begun to color the sky all the way down to the horizon line. It’s always interesting to notice when chil-dren begin to represent the sky as something more than a strip across the top of the paper. Although some-thing about it is—sad. They work so hard to fill every last inch of the paper. Sometimes the surface is ren-dered so thickly that it is as glossy as tears. And they will go over the paper again and again, as if the white space is a demand and a challenge and a command, all in one.
Perhaps the coffee incident was a pivotal event in the tide of history. A couple of my children had somehow heard of this momentous proceeding (I would question how, but I have long since ceased to mar-vel at the efficiency of the school grapevine), and I decided to salvage what remained of my dignity and turn the whole affair into a lesson. I got them all to help me draft a note of apology, which I presented to Miss Allect amidst applause from my children. Thornton said, “It takes courage to say sorry with meaning, and you did it, Miss!”
That was a direct quote from Maude Lynne! Thornton is an active listener!
So all worked out for the best. Unexpected bonus: the children are now voluntarily writing or dictat-ing sorry notes to each other. Considered asking the class to help me write a thank-you note to Miss Allect for her obsessive-compulsive fixations with her magazines—after all, it did start off this wonderful chain of events. Mr. Telamon advised otherwise.
Sharing a math idea wasn’t a fluke for Lucille! During Show-and-Tell, she raised her hand to re-mark that the Mona Lisa on the postcard Bertha had received from her grandmother “had a nice face but no eyebrows.” She is observing! And sharing her observations! I could weep with joy.
But then I’d have to laugh right afterwards. Thornton has brought in a Nintendo catalogue for Show-and-Tell. He has methodically book-marked pages with products he finds especially interesting, and is discussing the appeal of each one with an impressive competence: “This is the latest Final Fantasy RPG. RPG means role-playing game. I like role-playing games. Final Fantasy is made by a company called Square—“
Very informative and interesting, but I had to cut him off after about five minutes of this, so we could close Show-and-Tell in time for the Afternoon Meeting and Dismissal.
“It was certainly an interesting day without Ms. Dalloway,” I began, as I had scripted out for myself last night.
“No, I don’t think so,” Lucille said thoughtfully.
“Remember that we raise our hands before we talk in Afternoon Meeting,” I said with Pavlovian automaticity.
“I thought that was just for when Ms. Dalloway is here.”
“Oh, no, Lucille, it’s an important classroom rule, no matter which teacher is in charge.”
“But are you a real teacher, even when she’s not here?”
I had to remind myself that overcoming reticence is a struggle that should be encouraged.
They are gone. I have returned to the classroom after depositing them all in their respective cars. The room feels very empty. So do I, if it comes to that.
Weekly all-school faculty meeting. We were each supposed to talk about the educational theories and theorists that have inspired us. (My first impulse was to discuss the educational philosophy of Mary Poppins, but that was before I discovered that everyone else was talking about John Dewey and Jean Piaget and realized—oh, that kind of influence.) So I gave a nice talk about the Meherculae model of dynamic education. Afterwards, Miss Allect said she was impressed that I was so familiar with such a “relatively obscure” theoretical framework.
Decided not to tell her that I had made it up.
In my defense, everyone that I had been planning to discuss had already been mentioned. What was I supposed to do, chine in with a ‘Me, too’?
Note: “Meherculae” is a mild Latin expletive.