Two weeks ago I wrote a column in which I described my adventures at Fairyland with a hyperactive kindergartener. I mentioned tagging along with him as he climbed up and over the Pirate Ship. I explained that I pursued him as he rushed from Hey Diddle Diddle to the Crooked House, past the Three Little Pigs and Little Miss Muffet on his way to the Jolly Trolly, Pinocchio’s Castle, and the Owl and the Pussycat. I reluctantly followed him down Alice’s Rabbit Hole. I stated that I popped up safely within the Maze of Cards.
Full confession: I was exaggerating when I said it was a safe emergence.
Soon after visiting Fairyland I was assigned a full-time substitute position in a school near my home. I accepted the seven-week gig for several reasons: after eight months of widowhood I wanted more structure in my life; I could ride my bike to and from the workplace; I desperately needed the extra income.
How hard could it be, I asked myself as I prepared for my first full week in a primary grade classroom after a mere 23-year absence. After all, I am the retired teacher who is still friends with some of her former students. I’ve watched them grow from enthusiastic, well-behaved fourth-graders to mature, responsible adults: lawyers, doctors, performance artists, mothers and fathers. As far as I know only one of my past prodigies has received a long-term jail sentence: 50 years in a Virginia state prison for a truly heinous crime. He’ll be out in 2034.
What I should have asked myself is why. Why, at the age of 55, do I think I have the energy to enter a small, cramped room and teach anybody anything? Why didn’t I stop to think about the reasons a new teacher might be needed just weeks before the end of the school year? I knew that the person I was replacing was not sick. He didn’t have family obligations, or a pressing emergency. I should have considered the clues before plunging into this mysterious, unknown hole.
Monday, 8 a.m. I found myself surrounded by several overwhelmed administrators, a cluster of anxious parents, and 24 wise and world-weary 6-year-olds. I could see them sizing me up while the adults fussed and fidgeted. I believe my soon-to-be constant companions were making bets on just how long I would last.
Gradually the room emptied of all adults except me. There was a moment of absolute silence as the classroom door finally closed, and then the room erupted with an explosion of uncontrolled activity and noise. George Bush should have skipped over Iraq and looked for Weapons of Mass Destruction in the toy box near the Quiet Corner. Dangerous items lurked everywhere: large cardboard blocks lined a low hanging shelf, a bucket full of sharp, chewed-upon miniature dinosaurs waited patiently for someone to throw them, nine naked Barbie Dolls loitered in a wicker basket under a pile of raggedy dress-up clothes.
Eventually I got the kids settled into their seats. I read a story to them—something about meatballs raining down on a city, orange juice flooding the streets, strawberry jam clogging the freeways. We worked on a language arts project and a few simple mathematical equations. Then it was time for recess.
While the kids tumbled onto the playground, I staggered to the teachers’ lounge. I locked myself in the tiny bathroom and leaned against the sink. I examined myself in the mirror. I had aged considerably in the past hour. I looked at my watch. Ten more minutes until free time ended. I needed to get back into the classroom before I turned into a pumpkin.
Oops. Wrong nursery rhyme.
I took a deep breath, unlatched the bathroom door, and headed down the empty hallway. I needed to be adventurous and brave. I needed to be strong and determined. I needed to transform myself into Alice. Fast.