I used to roll my eyes and speak disparagingly of “the intrinsic rewards” of teaching, but God knew even then I was never in it for the money, and as I look back I realize it too. It was ALWAYS about the children. What follows is a fine recipe for life taken from the blood, sweat, and tear-stained cookbook I compiled during my 20 year career as a line cook in the public schools. This recipe still yields many smiles.
Start with a fine sunny afternoon in May of 1999 and spread 100 or so 10 year old children randomly over a 200 x 300 foot playground. Warm slowly with exercise, sunshine, add a dash of afternoon fatigue, and dust gently with prepubescent hormones. Select a sweet blue-eyed blonde with freckles scattered across her nose and cheeks, a girl named Ali who unknowingly has been capturing the confused attention of Garrett, an athletic “all boy” classmate. I never did find out what the dust up between them was but when it reached the boiling point, Garrett yelled at her, “Well, you’re a big lesbian!” Sweet Ali wasn’t sure how to handle this attention and dissolved into salty tears, still on her pink face when the kids tumbled back into our classroom when the bell rang.
“Mrs. Lewis! Mrs. Lewis!” Ali and her handmaidens cried. “Garrett called Ali a lesbian!” and Ali’s red face and trembling lip bore witness to the outrage. I was pretty sure neither Ali or Garrett had any idea what a lesbian was, and if they DID, how this fact was discerned during a hot game of tag, so I decided to try to bring this down to a simmer. That didn’t matter anyway. They did.
“Ali, would you like to get a drink?” I asked, and she nodded and headed off for the hall and the sanctuary of the girls’ washroom. I turned to Garrett. He was guilty as charged and he knew it. He looked down.
Inspiration struck. “Garrett, school’s out in 15 minutes and we’ve got papers to hand out and homework to add to our planners. Let me think about what just happened, and I’ll get back to you tomorrow morning,” I said. The class settled in, and we got to the task at hand. The bell rang, the chairs went up, and out they flew. I guess you could say we let it steep overnight.
The next morning everything was fresh — the faces, the t-shirts, the hair gel and braids, the very day itself. We worked quietly and well all morning. As the kids lined up for first recess I asked Garrett to stay in with me to discuss the incident. He was obedient and contrite.
We sat at the round book table, and I pointed to a laminated poster on the wall — “USD 497 Policy on Harassment” — a recent district-mandated addition to every classroom in town.
“Garrett,” I said, ” do you know what ‘harassment’ is?”
Garrett shook his head no.
“Then let’s look it up.”
He grabbed a classroom dictionary off the shelf and I, ever the seeker of the elusive “teachable moment,” let him struggle a bit with the alphabet and initial consonant sounds.
He labored and brought forth. “Here it is,” he said quietly.
“Read it to me,” I asked. Might as well practice his reading aloud skills as well.
“Harass: to pester, bother, disturb or worry. To make repeated small attacks on another or an enemy,” he read.
“What do you think that means?” Ah! Cognition and summarizing!
“To bother somebody, I guess,” he mumbled.
“Right you are — and you know, we have a brand new district policy against that. I am supposed to report this. You could be in trouble there.”
He was silent. So was I. Critical thinking was taking place.
“What do you think you can do about this?” I asked helpfully. Ah. Problem solving skills!
He thought hard. “Maybe write a letter to her to apologize?” he offered. I haven’t kept track of him, but he may now be a lawyer!
“Sounds good to me, Garrett. Why don’t you work on that while I get our math lesson ready. Let me see it when you’re done.” Bingo! Writing skills to boot! We both got to work.
Our time at the table took away most of my 15 minutes of mid-morning prep time, but it also burned up Garrett’s recess, not a small thing as he was an avid kickball man. I read his note as the bell rang, and when Ali appeared at the classroom door he folded it over and handed it to her as discreetly as he could. She looked at it, nodded, and we all settled in and turned our attention to the mystery of fractions. The rest of the morning was as smooth and sweet as buttercream frosting. Justice — and the district mandate — had been served.
But sometimes things are just a bit better on the second day. So it was with our recess stew.
Next morning before the kids came in I got a call over the intercom to take a phone call from a parent on line 2. I made my way to the workroom. It was Garrett’s mother. My heart sank, and I drew a deep breath. I readied myself for the frying pan. Parents have an awful lot of feelings.
“Mrs. Lewis, I just wanted to talk to you about that incident at school — how Garrett missed recess yesterday.”
I heard the burner click on.
“Yes?” I offered.
“Garrett was really miserable when he came home from school that day. He went to his room and hardly ate any supper. When we asked him what was wrong he told us he’d gotten in trouble on the playground and that you’d talk to him about it the next day.”
“Yes, he had a little run in with another student.” I got a whiff of olive oil hitting the pan.
“Yes,” the mom offered. “He likes Ali an awful lot. He felt terrible about it.”
“Oh, I’m sorry about that,” I said, and I meant it, too, because I loved Garrett as much as I loved Ali.
“But let me finish,” she said. “Garrett was so low the night before his Dad and I asked him about it at dinner last night. ‘How’d it go with Mrs. Lewis today?’ my husband asked. ‘Oh!’ says Garrett, ‘Not bad at all. Mrs. Lewis just made me stay in at recess and look up harass!’ Oh my God, Mrs. Lewis — we nearly DIED trying not to laugh out loud! Just thought you’d enjoy it too. Have a great day. Thanks for everything, Mrs. Lewis!”
Schools are like pressure cookers most of the time. So many kids, emotions, abilities and expectations, mixed together, chopped up by time schedules, and weighted down by district outcomes and state regulations. We line cooks show up everyday and do the best we can with the produce we are given. Our yields always vary: some rise. Some fall. Some are delicious, some are acceptable, and some give you heartburn. Not one ever made me bitter, and more than one made me cry. But this one was just so sweet.
I still savor it.