On Friday I came home from my substitute teaching job at 4 p.m. I was in bed by 5:15. I slept for 14 hours and awoke refreshed and happy. School is out. Yeah!
Seven weeks ago, when I took over a classroom of 24 kindergarteners, I never dreamed I would be so physically and mentally challenged, so exhausted, befuddled and betwixt. I’ve had many jobs, but none as difficult as this.
At the age of 15, I ran a hot dog stand on the tenth hole of a private country club. Almost no one stopped by. I spent my days bored and frankfurter-laden. It was lonely out there in the rough. There was nothing to do but eat.
When I was 16, I worked as a chambermaid at the Jersey shore. I could barely clean my own bedroom but that didn’t stop me from making bad hospital corners, and snooping around the private property of guests at the Polaris Motel. I wasn’t good at dusting, but I possessed the one quality my employers needed: I showed up for work everyday.
The following summer I bussed tables and learned how to groom poodles. While in college I waitressed and worked at fast-food joints and bookstores. After graduation I taught school in southwestern Virginia. On the first day a father came into my classroom and asked where I was from. When I said New Jersey, he studied my face for a few seconds and then stated, “Once a damn Yankee, always a damn Yankee.” He left before I could point out to him that the Civil War had ended approximately one hundred years earlier. A few minutes later the room erupted in its own form of civil war, and I spent the next four semesters fighting battles I rarely won. But after that I got things under control. For the following eight years I taught reading, writing, and arithmetic with ease, and except for the school janitor shoving me into a utility closet and feeling me up, I had relatively few problems.
In 1983 I moved to California to work for an adventure travel company. I led bicycle tours to exotic locations around the world. It, too, was challenging, but in a different way. I ushered well-heeled guests to and from hotels and restaurants. I changed flat tires. I delivered luggage and prepared fancy picnic lunches. I drank martinis at dinnertime with people I often did not have much in common with.
There were other occupations as well: data processor, life guard, swimming instructor, camp counselor, climbing gym desk clerk, gofer at a law firm. None of these jobs was as important as my recent stint shepherding kindergarteners through the ABC’s and the numbers one to 20.
When I arrived, they were on letter S and number 10. I pushed and prodded, warned and threatened, lost patience and self-control. It was not my finest performance, but there is one thing I did accomplish. Before my arrival, no one had taken the kids to the play structure in months. Many of them could not swing, slide, or climb. By the last day of school, I had all of them hanging from the monkey bars. It was my greatest achievement. Not exactly profound, but it gave me, and them, much pleasure. When one child, who had never been on top of the play structure before, looked out from her high perch at the surrounding chain link fence and announced, “Wow, look at me! I want to stay here forever!” I knew I had taken my students to a place they’d never been. We had accomplished together something concrete, valuable, and joyful.
When no one was looking, I threw out the nine naked Barbie dolls. It was a great way to end the school year.