“Come on Ms. Fleming. Pump faster. We’re starving!”
“Let’s sing a song. I can pump to the beat,” I answered blithely.
“I don’t like beets,” said Rory as she plopped herself down on the curb, elbows on knees, chin in hands. “They taste awful.” She was our Eeyore, always able to find, or manufacture, the down side to anything and marinate in it.
“Never mind that for now,” I sighed with slight exasperation. “The ants go marching one-by-one…,” I sang encouragement to my third-graders.
While I pumped as fast as I could, knowing that my troops were close to a revolt, two questions played musical chairs in my mind. How had the entire bus gone flat – like a deflated beach ball fresh out of the box? And, why was I ever intrigued with teaching in the first place?
It was Friday, though it felt like a Monday – our monthly educational excursion into the community, bla bla bla. I tried to enjoy these days with equanimity, to see these little rascals’ enjoyment of sights-first-seen with their appreciative “ahs” and “ohs.” But too many years of that allowed increasing disquiet to wedge itself between my initial zest and empirical point of view. These little dealers in chaos couldn’t appreciate anything yet; they had nothing to which to compare each experience. It was just raw energy and wide-eyed banshee-ism combined with endless blathering, sans any self-editing.
“I hate that song,” blurted Devin, to which a chorus of others whined in agreement.
Children don’t come into this world from some great abyss of peace and benevolence toward others. And to top that off, everything has to be taught, while their capacities for learning fluctuate wildly.
“What do you suggest we sing instead?” I said with a smiling lilt through clinched ventriloquist teeth.
“Anything but that.”
Every spring my allergies to children begin to flare. Their raw, authentic selves have little to no affectations. They’re neither sullied by the grown up arts of self-repression and delayed gratification, nor are they compelled to exhibit idealized versions of themselves for the benefit of others.
Still, their diverse futures are already apparent: the profligate who squanders paper, crayons, and the like; the over-bearing mega-mogul with narcissistic focus who barks commands at any kid within ear-shot; the vain prima donna who performs for accolades while she mows over the lesser talented; and he kids who excel at sabotaging their own potential.
“How about This Ole Man?” I offered.
“Whatever,” declared their disembodied voices behind me. “Why isn’t the bus floating yet?”
Where the pump came from was a mystery; but the timing of its arrival was serendipitous. None of us wanted to stay one second longer than we had to out in the hot sun. I looked up from the pump to check my progress only to find that I was no longer inflating the school bus, but my mother’s head. Three-quarters filled; she floated this way and that in a mocking breeze.
My waning calm seared as her Irish brogue thundered, “Maggie Fleming, God could not have endowed another with more patience and love for children than he gave you. But remember, working with kids is like a marriage – all the things you love about them will be the exact same things that will drive you crazy at times.” I turned to check on the kids, anticipating startled expressions. All I found were sixteen bobble-heads, each my mother’s, bearing the students’ unique expressions.
“Singing is stupid,” Aidan’s husky voice mouthed with my mother’s lips. His tireless Machiavellian efforts to manipulate the masses made his prospects as a politician all too obvious; while Sean, our aspiring comedian with his riotous attention-grabbing antics, pranced about in what looked to be some kind of protest, though his speech was inaudible. Between he and Aidan, the ten-foot-separation rule was a well-worn ping-pong ball.
Pump! More pumping!
Dealing with those two made me appreciate Sybil’s self-contained, quiet sensibilities. She preferred solitude to the multitudes; and her proper British accent lent a distinctive, authoritative air to her rigid proclivities – “rules are rules; there can be no breaking them.”
“I thought I said not to go into the fountain.” I exhaled hard as Liam and Brigit dripped on my shoulders to inspect the pump. The kids’ bobble-heads had morphed into translucent voids floating atop their bodies; my mother’s heads were relocated onto pickets rhythmically protesting – what, I couldn’t make out. Many of the voids were blowing enormous bubblegum balloons.
“Ms. Fleming, can I please go back in the museum? I have to go potty,” Colin begged through a stretchy, pink bubblegum mask that covered him from head to toe. He was one of my greatest challenges - forever asking to visit the loo while his only evidence of daily ablutions was a change of shirt. His desk served as an altar to his treasured mementos – dinosaurs, rocks, pencils (gnawed with beaver-like precision), and chewed gum (from which he’d occasionally rip off a previously enjoyed piece to further the experience). Most perplexing were his eyes - one green, one blue, both wandering – which left him with a look of perpetual daydreaming.
Pumping more slowly … will this ever be done?
“Okay, everyone sit on the grass and see what pictures you can find in the clouds.” My lips pursed in silent rebellion as I mentally rifled through The Teacher’s Arsenal of Clever Distractions, knowing that feigned self-confidence was my only ally.
“I see a man picking his nose,” observed Miles, pointing up at the sky with his usual calm-as-a-Hindu-cow mien as he strapped on stilts for a closer view.
Almost fully inflated. Jeez, a school bus requires a lot of air.
This was my Divine Comedy, my hell. Would I ever pass through purgatory, much less ascend into paradise? Maybe this was as good as paradise could get. Admittedly, there was a certain elegance in their consummate immaturity, if I let go of trying to change them.
Incredulity gave me a tight squeeze prompting me to strip naked. Why not, I was hot. Nothing! No one noticed.
“Are you done yet?” droned several in unison, as their pickets now held signs: No More Field Trips. Ms. Fleming Sucks. We Want Food.
My philosophy was that children’s attention was their most precious gift to give. I certainly had it now via boredom and hunger. Starting out, I wanted to mentor these little boogers - be an enduring post-script in their lives.
Not like this.
“We’re gonna die if we don’t eat soon!”
Oh my god … really?
“May we stop by Whole Foods on the way home?” said Hannah. “It’s unhealthy to eat at fast food restaurants, you know.”
Perhaps my idiosyncrasies were to blame - wearing tyrannosaurus house slippers in class, wrapping my pet snake around my neck during science segments, or dying my hair a different color every six weeks.
What I’ve learned is - if you let up for one minute, they can completely confound your world with their shenanigans. The really clever ones in the bunch continually redefine mischievousness with insidious stealth. When they succeed, it’s like happy hour at a juice-box bar, refueling for the next impish misdeed. They can deplete every ounce of energy blissfully borne by the perkiest of neophyte instructor.
Education at this stage was incidental.
I steeled myself with I am a seasoned veteran – ten years, a decade, more than a third of my life. My PhD didn’t prepare me for this – little incubators of endless inquisitions, distractions, and urgencies.
“Are we going to be late getting back?” Melanie, surely short for Melancholy, whimpered with her usual despondency.
“This damn pump. Don’t quit on me now!”
“What did you say Ms. Fleming?” inquired Ridley, our galling do-gooder in his preppy khakis and starched shirts. He circles like a vulture, rarely able to sustain alone time.
Oops, forgot to filter. “Oh, uh nothing. Almost done.”
“Stupid; Dumb-Butt.” I was loosing focus and charity.
We’re partners in this. I’m doing my job. How about some cooperation and patience?
“Ah huh, I hear ya…Done. Everyone on board,” I commanded, with the face of a Serge to his plebes. The bus door yawned open. They choked the entrance, to which a couple of strong commands morphed them into single file.
The bus had a sign on its side that wasn’t there before - Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here, in full color, a buoy in a sea of monochromatic mania.
Finally, this ordeal is almost over.
I stepped up to board, but found a deep hole instead. Rowdy laughter ricocheted around me.
Beep .. beep .. beep .. beep. What is that incessant noise? My right hand instinctively smacked the alarm on my nightstand, which then switched it to radio mode and the Weather Girls proclaiming “It’s Raining Men, Hallelujah!” Not for me. I hit it again. My skin was clammy, pajamas damp.
Meneese Wall amalgamates various vocations inside her Santa Fe crucible – writer, graphic designer, business partner, wife, domestic slave, healthcare guru, and mother to a catalytic daughter (not necessarily in that order). More of her creative dexterity can be found on her website.