“But it tastes so good!”
– Alexander, first grade, upon being instructed to take his fingers out of his nose.
I am fighting the urge to roll my eyes right out of my head. Sarah and Jason are arguing because Jason said that he was in third grade, but Sarah is sure that, since she is in third grade, he cannot possibly be in third grade.
“Does it really matter what grade he says he’s in, Sarah?” I ask, in lieu of the eye roll.
“If you’re in third grade,” she says, completely ignoring my sage wisdom, “then what’s five times eight?”
Jason, who is, indeed, only in second grade, says nothing, and continues to count the blocks of ten on his own homework. He and I both know that, contrary to the belief of the rest of the room, he is the true winner of this argument. Which means that I am probably the loser. Sarah is only tangentially involved.
“That’s what I thought, little boy,” Sarah says with a triumphant smirk.
“If you’re quite finished,” I say, “I think you’ll be happy to know that 5 x 8 is actually the next problem on your homework assignment.”
She continues to ignore me. I am unsurprised.
And at this point in the week—Wednesday—I am unable to summon the patience to do more than be unsurprised. I look over at my co-teacher, Genny, who is sitting at a table with Zelda and Alexander, both of whom are in first grade and neither of whom is doing their homework. Zelda is absentmindedly counting the place-value blocks Genny has set before her, while Alexander has somehow managed to get almost his entire hand up his nose and has begun quite the mining operation.
What am I doing here, I ask myself in a moment of vulnerability. (I made a deal with myself months ago that I would stop asking that question.) I have a teaching certificate for sixth grade through twelfth grade. I was never properly trained to work with children who still openly eat their own boogers.
My hand is open, limp, on the table in front of me. Sitting in it is a single pencil, its tip completely demolished by the wall Bernard had thrown it against earlier (he had been raging against the machine…of fourth-grade teachers who had assigned him spelling pretests for homework).
I wish I had more patience to handle these children. I wish I could take each frustrating situation as a single incident instead of lumping it together in my head with all the rest of its kind. I wish Sarah had never come to me for help with her multiplication. I wish none of this had ever happened.
And with sudden clarity, a strong, Queen’s-English accent cuts through the cloud of self-pity in my brain: “So do all who live to see such times,” the voice says. “But that is not for them to decide. All you have to decide is what to do with the time that has been given to you.”
Sarah is still sitting at the table with me, and the 5 x 8 on her paper still does not have an answer attached to it. I can see in her eyes a look that says she is about to strike up a conversation with Jason again—anything to keep from doing multiplication. I’m sure I’ve had that look in my own eyes more than once, because I know that feeling of having something to do that maybe isn’t even hard, but still not wanting to do it and suddenly wanting to do anything else, no matter how menial.
So I wrap my fingers around that broken pencil, sit up a little straighter in my too-small school chair, and reach forward to get Sarah’s attention.
“Let’s just finish this homework so we can get out of here, okay?” I say in a low voice. “You’re so close to being finished. Just soldier on a little bit longer.”
Sarah does not fight her own urge to roll her eyes, but she picks up her pencil and writes the 40 in its place. With a little effort, we manage to finish a whole row of problems before she thinks of some pressing matter she needs to discuss with Jason. A little victory.
“Alexander, get your fingers out of your nose, please,” I say, because I know that Genny has reached the same level of defeated apathy I have. On our good days, we’re a tag team. On our bad days, we let the kids pick their noses.
“But it tastes so good!” He exclaims with a burst of little first-grade laughter. Across the table from him, Zelda loses it, and Genny’s face falls.
I am here because it’s only this bad on Wednesdays, I tell myself. It’s only partly a lie. It could be this bad, or worse, any day. But Gandalf only needs to visit on Wednesdays.
Mary Margaret is a 2013 English, history, and secondary education grad who went rogue and became a Social Worker in Pennsylvania’s Child Welfare system. Specifically, she works as a caseworker in the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network finding families for children and educating the masses about foster care, adoption, and permanency planning. She made it over the grad-school hurdle with gold stars and warm fuzzies and is on to the next big adventure: the unknown of adulthood. Her major writing dream right now is to finish her science fiction novel that explores the concurrent futures of child welfare and artificial intelligence.