I’m not sure if I’m going though a mid-life crisis, or just want to get a few thoughts down before I start forgetting everything, but I feel compelled to tell some stories from my teaching days. I left education in 2014, but lately I’ve been thinking about my time in schools and some pretty funny stories have cropped up. I taught kids with special needs for 10 years, so of course, I had my ups and downs. Many students are not what you would expect. I never had a kid in a wheelchair, I never cleaned up drool, and towards the end of my career in public schools, I even taught chemistry. Just for the record, chemistry is difficult… you can imagine how tough it was balancing chemical equations with kids on the ADHD Express. Ya know what I mean?
Anyway, in my second year of teaching, I had a special assignment to be the second teacher in a variety of classrooms. I had to help kids who were struggling with certain subjects. Here is a story about one experience that I will never forget. Enjoy!
It was time to get the kids ready to go outside. We weren’t going to recess, we were doing a special project today. Their teacher, Mrs. DiVivi, announced to the class that it was “Time to make Western Expansion come alive!”. The bubble of energy in the room immediately shifted from a state of dogged concentration to one of excited elation. The specialness of the day was all-consuming and everyone, even I, felt it. I was also a teacher, but I was not the teacher, I was the special education teacher who came in to help one student who was struggling in math. His name was George. I sat and helped him during math time, in a little kid desk, almost as if I was a student. Sometimes it felt that way too, but not as much on days like today, when I was invited to stay for the social studies hour and participate in facilitating special projects. Today, I would take a role that at least resembled an adult.
I helped Mrs. D round up the students, all of whom were dressed in their various interpretations of old time-y Western wear and carrying pioneer-era food, bonnets, lanterns, and some had decorated wagons. Mrs. DiVivi’s husband was a local taxidermist, so she carried a large box of animals that had been hunted, stuffed and mounted on very realistic plastic logs. These creations included a rabbit, a snake and a raccoon mama with her three babies. Their inquisitive expressions had been shellacked into place forever. I carried the class juice boxes and we headed for the soccer field where orange cones were already set up to provide us with a designated track.
The idea was that each group of students would drag their wagon, filled with all of their provisions, around the field of cones. This was supposed to simulate the hardship felt by early pioneers. They had an hour to make it around the field 10 times and they were free to stop and rest or eat their snacks as needed. Being 10-years-old, everyone wanted to picnic immediately. My student (bless his slow-math-learning-soul) was responsible for his group’s blanket. Not food, not juice, not the wagon, he didn’t even bother with a costume…just the blanket, George. I can just imagine the negotiation that occurred during last week’s Westward Expansion planning session. The group leader, a bossy girl with one of those 2 name deals, like Sierra Leone, reasoned that George might screw up his task. She could not risk inedible cupcakes or wagon decorations that were just string and glue, so she assigned George a task that required no cooking, no designing, no thought, no risk. Just bring a blanket, George. That’s all we need you to do. Your group is counting on you for a blanket, buddy, so you have to bring it.
George was on. It was time to picnic and all of the other groups were unfolding their blankets. Half running, half walking, George appeared from behind the soccer goal, huge shopping bag in hand. He knew he didn’t measure up to the other students in so many ways. He wasn’t as smart, he wasn’t funny (at least not on purpose), he wasn’t good looking, and George was incredibly small for his age. He wasn’t so small that you just KNEW his mother drank like a fish while she was pregnant, but definitely not big enough to totally rule out that possibility. George set his shopping bag down and pulled out a mauve monstrosity. It was a blanket that was old enough to be from the real pioneer days. Pilled and full of holes, George just kept pulling out more and more material until at last, the empty bag blew away in a sudden gust of wind. I watched it fly to the top of a nearby tree and mentally labeled it a casualty. The children had watched the bag soar and chatted about possibly going to retrieve it as I started to unfold the blanket. What happened next is something that I will never forget. I unfolded the huge pink nightmare only to discover… cat turds. Hidden in the blanket, were bunch of dried up, but nonetheless smelly, cat turds – about six of them. Cat turds that presumably had been laid by the family pet and then forgotten about some time ago, holding onto that fabric more securely than that rabbit on the plastic log. Prying them off was not an option. In the same exact instant I was horrified and felt protective over George and his gross, feces-laden cloth. Sierra Leone was walking over and I knew that if she saw the wretched state of the blanket, she would make a huge deal out it. It would mean merciless teasing for George from here on out until he (God willing) graduated from high school.
I quickly searched both sides of the blanket and saw that only one side was turd-y. The other side was relatively clean. I quickly placed the blanket turd-side-down and stood on the part of the blanket concealing the poop. Sierra Leone looked at me up and down, but I was not meeting her gaze. This was partly because I was intimidated by her and partly because I was a full 2 feet taller and it was easy to look right over her head. “Can you get off so we can spread out the blanket?” she asked, obviously annoyed with my presence in her immediate vicinity. “Sorry Sierra Leone, I was just kicking out the blanket to spread it out, why don’t you try spreading it out with your feet?” The look on her face was two parts confusion and one part disgust. “Why would we do that? Isn’t it going to get our blanket all dirty?” Yes, yes, Sierra Leone, it was going to mess up your perfect plan for perfect pioneer picnic day. It’s not what you had in mind when you made your checklist of what to bring that included suntan lotion in case it’s too sunny. It doesn’t fit the picture of what your mother had in mind when she meticulously hand-crafted wagon wheel cupcakes for the entire class even though you only had to bring sustenance for your group. I know I’m ruining your good time, but it’s either this small inconvenience or years of torment for my George. George deserves this from me. He’s already sobbing about the stuffed raccoon mama and her three babies having to die to make a cruel piece of “art.” That’s the kind of kid that George is, he feels things. I mean he really, really, feels things. He has more compassion for that raccoon mama than most people will ever be able to muster for another human being. And you’re not bad, Sierra Leone, you’re not a bad little girl. You’ll go on to earn almost every end-of-the-year award in our school. You’ll have more hand-crafted cupcakes, recitals, and homecoming tiaras than most girls could even imagine. You’ll probably marry well, move out of this suburb and into a better suburb, raise your kids and make them amazing baked goods. I can’t wait to see your real estate agent ad on a park bench one day. You will make it!
George…eh, we don’t know. I can’t see George’s future, but he’s probably not headed for the bright lights of real estate benches. All I know is that I need to protect him from his circumstances. I doubt his mother knew about the cat turds, but she probably wouldn’t have cared much either way. Kids were kids and cats are cats, and we just do the best that we can. I get it, but today I have to be the best special ed teacher I can be. Sometimes that means sitting in multiplication hell and sometimes it means standing on cat turds. Why do I do this? Because I’m sure that there is a teacher in my past that stood on my preverbal cat turds. That’s why we do it, because when you can, you must.
C’mon kids, help me kick this blanket.