Next week Tuesday is National Teacher Appreciation day, not to be confused with World Teacher Day, which happened on October 6th. Because I am working at an American centered International School, I get to celebrate both. When I think about how tired I am at the end of each day, and especially when I think back to my days as a high school student, I realize we can never fully honor and celebrate teachers, and the impact they leave behind on all of us, in one way or another. The prompt in writing group this week was: “I wish I hadn’t done that.” The more I thought about this, the more I realized I could write multiple chapters on the subject, maybe even an entire book. Or two. Eventually, my brain honed in on one particular event, in 1981, back in math class…
I wish I hadn’t done that. We thought it through first, for one, maybe two seconds. It seemed like a good idea. Claire and I were good students, we really were. We were taking college prep courses and played varsity sports. We had actually chosen to take an optional advanced math class during the extra long lunch time period.
That year, I had sworn off school lunches because the connections between nutrition and school cafeteria hot lunch were becoming clearer and clearer to me, thanks to Mr. Lazzara. This revelation came to me in large to having signed up to take his Environmental Science class. Mr. Lazzara inspired us. He had built his curriculum around the topics of homesteading and healthy living. Every day for lunch that year, I brought in a fresh ground organic peanut butter sandwich made with my very own homemade sunflower topped multigrain bread that I washed down with a fresh gulp of organic milk from my thermos. Since I had a sandwich to share we decided to scrap the long line. While the majority of students were still waiting for their mystery meat salisbury steak patties with special sauce followed by a red dye #2 jello chaser, or getting their quick nicotine fix in the smoker’s courtyard, (this was the eighties, keep in mind) we were already heading back to trigonometry class.
When we got there, we found the room empty. Mr. Mosley, who we affectionately called “The Mole,” wasn’t even there. Mr. Mosley. The guy who sported plaid tweed trousers and matching jacket every day without fail. We thought he lived behind his desk, that when we all went home to sleep he just tucked himself into his books and did math problems all night, waiting for us to arrive the following day so he could examine our work through his thick horn rimmed glasses. Being adolescents, we were convinced that we were the center of his universe. The center of the whole universe, for that matter. How we loved to make fun of him. His straight black hair stuck straight up like a cartoon character’s. His eyes blinked as though the light of the day was just too bright. We made fun of him because it was easier than making fun of ourselves. He was a safe target.
Sitting in the empty math room, Claire and I looked at each other and decided we would play a trick. We could get away with it for sure; no one would suspect us, the varsity jacket sporting goody two-shoe girls. We decided to hide Mr. Mosley’s chalk, so that when he came in to teach, he wouldn’t find it. That would be funny, we thought. We looked around. Yes, we were still alone in the math room. Snatching the chalk from the chalk tray at the bottom of the black board, we stuck it way up at the top of the board, out of sight.
The deed was done. We sat down casually as the other students started milling in from lunch.
Then he came in. You can imagine the stature of a teacher whose nickname was that of a small underground rodent. He wasn’t very tall. And he squinted a lot. He cleared his throat, headed to the blackboard, and told us to get out our textbooks, open to page 233, to begin the graphing problem at the top of the page. He rolled up his thick jacket sleeves and reached for his chalk. His fingers scrambled as he reached further along the wooden tray. He tried reaching in the other direction. He cleared his throat again and scanned the floor. Then he turned around. His normally pasty white pallor had turned crimson. Sweat started beading up and dripping from his temples. He had clearly realized that the chalk was not there, and that one of us had moved it.
His earnest attempt to take a deep breath came out like an angry wheeze. He sat down in his chair, pulsing with the boiling effort of trying to maintain his composure. This was not going over the way we predicted. It sure wasn’t funny yet. He blinked his eyes as though the already glaring light around him had just become blinding. The last straw had fallen. At the time, I didn’t understand why he was so upset, but I did know that I wanted to sink under my chair and crawl beneath the linoleum tiles that lined the classroom floor. I understood that Claire and I were the ones who took his last little remaining straw and threw it on the floor with a flourish that we now regretted completely. Now that I am a teacher, I can look back in retrospect and understand what he was feeling. Sometimes you just don’t know what is going to tip the scales and make all those professional development credit hours of stress management and attitude adjustment blow out the window like a typhoon, leaving you utterly depleted.
He started talking. The words didn’t spill out easily and matter of factly as when explaining a trig problem to us. No, these words were dripping with anger and passion and utter incredulity at the weighty load of injustices that had been piling up in his life and was now coming to a head. Like a huge blackhead. And he was popping it, right now, at us. His words poured out like the oily goop that spews out when you pop a zit that has been festering. He let us have it.
I think I blocked out most of what he said. I can safely say that no trigonometry was taught during that class. The upshot of his rant was that who did we think we were, pulling such a stupid joke on him. He didn’t even seem to want to single anybody out, he saw us all as a single entity, one that he despised at this particular moment. We had no idea how lucky we were, how hard he worked, nor had we any idea what other people struggle with on a daily basis. And what we take for granted. “Take my daughter, for instance,” he went on. “She doesn’t even know how to sweat. I bet you take that for granted, too,” he continued. It was painfully ironic how many bodily fluids seemed to be dripping off of his red face. Sweat, tears, saliva froth, and liquid frustration. “She won’t even live to see high school,” he said. As I think about her condition today, I wonder if she had Cystinosis, a rare metabolic disorder that causes accumulation of an amino acid called cystine in several organs including the kidneys, eye muscles, pancreas, and brain. Children with this disorder cannot sweat, and often die by the age of ten, from kidney failure.
And we thought it would be funny to hide his chalk. Ha ha. Funny.
Claire and I did not make eye contact. I don’t even remember if we ever talked about it again. I do remember that I felt very small and when the bell finally rang, I tried to pry off the linoleum tiles from my back, clamber up from beneath my chair and slink out of the classroom as invisibly as possible. I’d like to go back into that classroom as my adult self and give Mr. Mosley a hug, a kale smoothie, the sincerest of apologies, and maybe a copy of a Pema Chodron book. “Always Maintain a Joyful Mind.” or maybe “When Things Fall Apart.” “Comfortable with Uncertainty” or “Start Where You Are” both would have been helpful as well. I would tell him I understand so much more today than I did thirty-two years ago. I would have told my sixteen year old self to think it through before she played a practical joke, to apologize and take responsibility for her actions, but to leave the shame where it belongs, underneath the linoleum tiles.
I recently heard from Mr. Lazzara who is currently retired and living in a homestead of his own making up in northern Vermont. Mr. Mosley has long since retired too, and has been spotted recently tooling around Florida in “a big ass cadillac,” sporting an even bigger smile on his face as the tropical breeze blows through his hair. I hope he has an extra stash of chalk in the glove compartment.
Tuesday, May 7th, is teacher appreciation day. Is there a teacher , present, or past, that you want to honor here? Both Mr. Lazzara and Mr. Mosely (not his real name) inspired me in very different ways. Do you have a story about a teacher who inspired or had an impact on you in some way? It could be an unexpected or indirect way. Any way at all. You may even want to begin with the very excellent prompt “I wish I hadn’t done that.” I would like to include your responses in the May 7th National Teacher Appreciation blog entry on Jumping Off the Hamster Wheel. You can send your responses to firstname.lastname@example.org I look forward to seeing what you write! Please have your entries in by May 5th.