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On the fourth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: four flaming worksheets containing words

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I will not bitch about teachers.

Governors and legislators like to rationalize budget cutting by asserting that teachers have it easy. I will bitch about governors and legislators. My rant to them begins with this: “Howzabout you become a classroom teacher for five years–just five years, so not an entire career, but long enough for you to get a real taste of the job? I dare you. Try to be good at what these people do. At the end of those five years, I’mma check in with you on how overpaid you feel, ‘k?”

Teachers do Allah’s work. God’s work. The work of the Universe. You choose. No matter the words you put on it: they do heroic work, compartmentalizing their own lives and values so that they can walk into smelly, leaky, asbestos-ridden buildings and spend their days under florescent lights throwing themselves as bridges across the gaping chasms between their students’ deficits (ability, preparation, and home lives) and potential (ignited brains and excited eyes, harnessed creativity, a love of thinking).

A kid walks in wearing only one shoe? Teacher says: “Let’s scrounge through the Lost and Found. I’m sure we can find you something to balance out those feet, Jessie.”

A preschooler looks at a pencil like she’s never seen one before–because she hasn’t? Teacher says: “Okay, Sequoia, the first step is to pick it up, and aim the pointy part away from your eye. Now, see your two biggest fingers here? They’re going to be grippers for the thing. In a few minutes, you’re going to be drawing cats and snowmen!”

A sullen high schooler stares defiantly into the teacher’s eyes, a shouted “Fuck you” lurking inside the glare. Teacher says, “Are you having a tough week, Moses? You know, if we can figure out a time for you to make up that one missing quiz, you can get through this class. And if you can get through this class, you can graduate. And if you can graduate, you can walk out of your dad’s house, ready for everything beautiful that exists outside those sagging walls. You never have to look back.”

Teachers take the world’s mess and do their damn best to mop it up–even when People Who Aren’t Teachers decide the mess will be best handled if they replace all the mops with maple leaves. Or shoelaces. Or rolling pins. Or anything else that in no way will ever be helpful to cleaning up a mess. Staring at the maple leaves, shoelaces, and rolling pins she’s been given, the teacher shrugs, rolls her eyes, and sighs, “Okay, then, you dumbass political types. Apparently I have no choice but to grab a handful of leaves and start wiping. Or, if I wad together enough of those shoelaces, I can probably contain the edges of the spill. And if all else fails, I can clonk myself on the head with that rolling pin and enjoy the temporary respite of a good black-out.” Then, after a few years of toiling with the nonsensical tools they have been given, teachers can expect the People Who Aren’t Teachers to announce, “This mess has just gotten bigger. You don’t actually expect us to continue funding your leaves, shoelaces, and rolling pins, do you? We’ve decided we need to keep a closer eye on you; what you’re doing there isn’t working at all. Thus, you’ll be expected to turn in your leaves, shoelaces and rolling pins by August, at which point we’ll tie your arms to your sides and hand you an octopus. There’s no way even you can screw that up. I mean, with limited range of motion and a sea creature heading the charge, how can you possibly fail to get five-year-olds to grade level by June? It’s a good task for you people who only work nine months a year to deal with a real challenge for once: mold those kids who have seen bullets entering flesh but who have never seen a book, kids who are developmentally ready for play but not text-on-the-page, kids who don’t eat or sleep on regular schedules–take them and boost their test scores. If you can’t do that one small thing, it would hardly be reasonable for us to let you keep your octupus, now would it? ”

I will not bitch about teachers.

To my children, specifically, teachers have brought many gifts: laughter, confidence, an awareness of why they might want to hit a mark or why they might willfully decide not to. Teachers have helped my children feel seen. Teachers have articulated appreciation of my kids’ talents, which is a remarkable way of clueing a child into the fact that he/she has talents. Teachers have challenged my kids to exist beyond their comfortable boundaries, have asked them to work with peers who aren’t an easy fit, have taught them that even the smallest minutiae–periods at the end of the sentence–have significant impacts.

And, well, all right: teachers have taught my kids that sometimes they need show up, shut up, and do work that bores them silly. For whatever reason, be it state-mandated outcomes, the worry of children being left behind, or even a lack of vision in curriculum planning, boring assignments do exist. If nothing else, they teach the kids a decent work ethic. Not everything in life is going to be fun. You still have to do it.

Put another way: there are a whole lot of worksheets goin’ on in my kids’ lives. It’s gotten better for Allegra now that she’s in high school, but Paco’s still in those middle years when filling in the blank is a daily requirement. In his long-suffering way, he completes the work. In his vaguely subversive way, he writes his perfect answers in the crummiest handwriting he can muster. I support this strategy of protest.

Even better, at the end of each school year, my boy–he who loves hands-on education above all else–is allowed a capstone experiential event.

We urge him to burn everything in his binder, all five pounds of worksheets.

The kid does love to set a fire.

(*Go ahead, Predictable Reader: insert the arsonist joke here; you know you want to*)

This summer, Paco was able to begin the conflagration by using left-over fire starters from his Science Fair project. GOOOOO, SCIENCE FAIR!

Quickly, he started the first few worksheets on fire. We added in sticks and worksheets for the next forty-five minutes. As is the case with worksheet-based activities, the simple fire quickly became boring.

Fortunately, Paco was hungry. Over the heat of twenty Spanish verb conjugation worksheets, he roasted The Best Hot Dog Ever:

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Muy bien, Paco!

Then, his belly full, his brain racing ahead of the worksheets’ limitations, he figured out something else to do: collect sap on a stick.

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Sap scrounging. All the kids are doing it.

His stick well loaded with a new kind of flammable material, it was time to make a torch.

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If you steal his hot dog, he will burn down your castle.

Happily, watching his school year go up in flames, holding his torch comfortingly near, the middle schooler burped gently before summing up his state of mind,

“I love summer because every day is a pajama day, and I don’t have to go anywhere or do anything. I will miss Ms. Fitz, though. Her art assignments are the best. And I’m bummed that Ms. Nordskog is switching grades next year. Science was so fun with her. But mostly, I’m excited not to wear socks for awhile. Plus: no worksheets.”

Then he stuck his torch into the fire pit, stirred up some sparks, and watched the ashes of sixth grade float into the sky.

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Published by Jocelyn

There's this game put out by the American Girl company called "300 Wishes"--I really like playing it because then I get to marvel, "Wow, it's like I'm a real live American girl who has 300 wishes, and that doesn't suck, especially compared to being a dead one with none."

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3 Comments

  1. Could I amend your tribute to teachers to “the good teachers”? Because I’ve known a fair number, both my own and my kids’, who shouldn’t have been in a classroom or anywhere near children/teenagers. For those, we always told our kids: you can learn something from everyone; sometimes what you learn is that you never want to be like that person…

    The good teachers? I’m with you all the way. My mom was one. She worked hard for the money, as they say. And it is so, so clear that you are also a good one.

  2. We have all had good teachers, great teachers, mediocre teachers, and maybe even just plain bad teachers. But the good/great ones inspire us. (Like you do!)

    Elder Son built a medieval village out of clay and twigs in middle school. That summer he and Smokey had a delightful time blowing it up with firecrackers. Not that he disliked building it, just that blowing things up is such fun.

    I love Paco.

  3. Okay. This is going to sound creepy but I am going to write it anyway. I just adore your son’s lips. They are so red and supple and they match his face perfectly. He looks all milk fed and healthy. And I love the way you capture his spirit in a bottle like a firefly.

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