My first weeks as a second grade teacher often haunt me. I was fresh out of Chapel Hill with a B.A. in Political Science and Social and Economic Justice. Visions of children existentially finding themselves through days of unstructured self expression danced in my head. When I pictured my first day, I could see my students walking into the room in a neat line with smiles placidly glued on their faces. I, of course, would be in the spotlight. There would be no question about that. I saw myself as the almighty bearer of enlightenment, knowledge, and generally all things good.
And then the first day came. Wanting to be the hip teacher and the one who didn’t need quiet in her room, as soon as my students entered, I had R. Kelly’s “The World’s Greatest” blasting from my very un-hip eighties-style boombox. I imagined that they would be so inspired by the song’s message that perhaps they would immediately sprout wings, flying around the classroom in a Peter Pan pixie dust kind of way. Instead, when I didn’t give instructions to sit down, or actually to do anything in fact, they began giggling. At the time, I couldn’t figure out why. It would take me the next two years to figure out that second graders are much smarter than I would have guessed. They are effortlessly able to intuit the entire length of their teacher’s thoughts and personality in less than sixty seconds on any given day. If you fumble at all, at all, they can sense fear. And once they sense fear, it’s over.
My visions of kids dancing to inspirational music as they adoringly gazed towards me as their new teacher quickly turned to a singular feeling of gut-wrenching fear. At that moment, I had two major realizations: a. maybe I wasn’t as a hip, enlightened, and generally, cool as I thought I was; and b. I had no idea what I was actually supposed to be teaching my kids because clearly the unstructured, abstract thing just wasn’t working out.
As I stood absorbing the thought that I had twenty-three children that I had no idea what I was going to do with for the next eight hours, I heard a voice in the back of the room.
“Bowman! Bowman! Jimmy pooped in the room!”
A spectacular chorus of “EWWWWW!!!!!” resounded.
“Don’t look at it! It’s okay, everyone sit down and don’t move,” I screeched as calmly as possible.
Of course, when someone tells you not to do something, or not to think of something, you automatically are driven to do or think about that thing. If I say, “don’t think about giraffes dancing,” then you’re probably going to immediately start thinking of giraffes dancing. To further demonstrate this theory, my students all immediately starting running in different directions screaming, “Ewwww!!! Jimmy POOPED!!!” As you might expect, most of them ran towards the poop itself.
I trailed after my students and found that, indeed, Jimmy had pooped on the floor. This was supposed to be my magical, visionary first day, and instead, my classroom had a poop floor and my children were fanatically screaming with laughter at poop. They were not quite as inspired by my vision as I’d expected.
And then things quickly proceeded to spiral downward even further. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m a fairly petite woman. I’m five foot one, and when I was on honeymoon a few weeks ago, I was given the evil eye of “you ran away when you were fifteen to get married!” each time I checked into a hotel and was found out I was on honeymoon. I’ll most likely still be supplying my driver’s license to purchase an alcoholic drink when I’m 55. I’m sure my students immediately picked up on this (and later many would inquire if I was in high school) and one student in particular, a rather robust young boy, saw an opportunity to take back the spotlight from Jimmy.
As my voice quickly raised in effort to get my students to sit down, this one particular student, Shaun, came walking up to me with a solidness that easily told he had a mission to accomplish. Before I could process what was happening, Shaun wrapped his arms around my waist, gave a giant heave, and exclaimed, “Look everybody, I can pick Bowman up!”
The room immediately fell silent. My students stared at Shaun and stared at me and their eyes got very wide.
“I can pick Bowman up! I can pick Bowman up! I’m like the Hulk!”
In walks Mr. Pettigrew, our school’s custodian, right at this choice moment.
“Boy! You better put your teacher down! You need to respect that woman!”
I was absolutely horrified. I had poop on my floor. I had children screaming. I had been lifted into the air by one of my students who had proclaimed himself the Hulk. This was not part of my first day vision.
I returned the following day, and the next, and the next, and to be completely honest, I had a repeat of this day for probably the entire first month of school. It was like no matter how bad the previous day was, I couldn’t quite learn the lesson that perhaps I should make a more structured plan for what we’d do in my classroom. My principal suggested an agenda, a lesson plan, a syllabus, maybe even a clock on the wall to indicate the time. No, I insisted I’d do without them. My vision could be accomplished without structure, I was sure. I’d simultaneously cry and complain that I was the worst teacher ever. And, for that month, I’d still make a strong argument that I was, in fact, the worst teacher ever.
I eventually got better. And by eventually, I mean after two years I didn’t have students picking me up anymore. I still had the poopers and the wetters though. I just tell myself that’s second grade, though. Certainly it didn’t have anything to do with me.