Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Two Paper Towels

One of the realities about teaching that seldom gets any attention is the role of parent that accompanies the job.  As a culture we acknowledge that the classroom teacher wears many hats, from instructor to cop, nurturer to protector.  Parents are usually our allies.  We partner with them in the same way we partner with administrators and other community members.  But playing that role to 35 at a time, and 150 a day can sometimes take a toll that seldom gets discussed in all the well-meaning reform conversations taking place these days.
Often this role involves what Dr. Phil calls "a safe place to fall."  Teacher as advice giver, as listener, as role model.  Sometimes it's more like first responder.
Certainly in the spate of recent school shootings, we have seen teachers and other school personnel rise to the occasion and play the protector/defender role with selfless courage.  And then there are those physical emergencies.  Actually that seems to be a euphemism.  The emergencies aren't physical, they are health oriented.  Kids in pain, kids under the influence of a controlled substance, and certainly the least favorite kids getting sick...sloppy, disgusting, messy sick.
I still recall some of the specific occurrences I witnessed as my classmates lost their cookies during the lesson of the day.  From kindergarten while at the easel doing watercolors to my 7th grade Art elective (hey I see a pattern here) there were a few memorable upset stomaches and their consequences whose memories never faded with time.
When I look back on my 33 years at the helm I recall a few instances where I played the role of care giving parent.  From fainting to the crippling pain of ovarian cysts, I have knelt in hallways trying to reassure a scared adolescent that this too would pass. Lots of Kleenex for tears...a panic attack or two, and certainly many, many fistfights that saw blood trickle or clothing torn or, the worst injury of all, a bruised ego.
But one incident stands out from all the others because of the response I received.  During my year teaching middle school,  I  experienced what could only be called an underwhelming response.  My 7th grade class was reading silently.  As I often do, I was glancing around the room to observe their reading behavior.  How they appear while reading, whether they are focused, or restless.  I chanced to glance in the back corner of the room and noticed Fernando, usually quiet, rather squirmy.  Then his head went down.  I thought about walking back to see if he was OK but decided instead to just keep my eye on him.  Within a minute his head rose and his face was olive green.  You know what's coming, yes he puked all over the table in front of him and thensome.  36 twelve year olds reacted, as did I.  Opening the windows on the opposite side of the room, I told the class to face me and I would call the custodian and see that Fernando went to the school nurse.  There was relative calm.  I seemed to be in control and sensitive to the embarrassment that Fernando must have felt.  I called the office and asked them to send the custodian because a clean-up was needed at once.

I marveled at the composure of this class although the odor in the room was beginning to make the kids uncomfortable.  Nobody reading now.  While waiting for the office to respond, I conjured up visions of my beloved elementary school custodian Mr. Herrick.  A hard-working German immigrant, Mr. Herrick could do anything.  His well-worn kakis were always a welcome sight.  I recalled too, how in situations like this he arrived promptly with a bucket of sawdust that absorbed everything.  He swept that up with a few quick strokes and then mopped with a cleaning solution.  The room was clean within minutes.  Reading resumed.  While congratulating myself for navigating this difficult situation there was a knock on the door.  When I opened it an extended hand offered me two paper towels...then walked away.  Official response.
I want to end here, but I won't.  here's what happened next.  My anger and astonishment quickly turned into action and I had the class move into the hallway.  I asked my colleague next door to watch my class as I went to the closest men's room and grabbed the entire roll of paper towels after wetting a few.  Mildly enraged, I cleaned up that mess in about 5 minutes and the class returned to the room.
We read a little longer that day.

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