A Teacher’s Dreams For Her School Year Are Pretty Much Dashed On Day One


So, you know that Staples commercial? The one where a parent is skipping joyously through back-to-school supply aisles while the kids drag behind looking woeful? The Most Wonderful Time of the Year plays in the background””that one? This commercial speaks to me not just as a parent who is so ready for my kids to get out of my house –  because one more senseless squabble and they will go live with grandma – but also as a teacher. I have been teaching high school for ten years now and back-to-school time is, simply put – magical.

This year, I went back to work a week before the teacher’s scheduled return date because I changed rooms and couldn’t wait to decorate my new classroom. I chose a garden/bohemian theme, as my new room has two windows with a gorgeous view. When I entered my room in the early hours of summer, the light poured in and my pulse quickened with excitement. I couldn’t wait to beautify this space. I was feeling very Martha Stewart (pre-incarceration) and knew my returning students, those I’d taught as sophomores now entering my Senior Creative Writing class, would be blown away. This would be the most beautiful learning space in all of the United States. My classroom would be Zen-like and students would achieve enlightenment in all things English. As I stapled paper flowers to the wall, and created batik fabric bulletin boards I felt like teacher-of-the-year-of-the-world. I also managed not to fall off the chair while hanging posters and so things were already feeling smooth.

Even now I can’t sleep the night before the first day of school. I tend to double check everything. Did I make the right number of first-day copies? Do we have enough deodorant in the house so that I don’t get the scrappy remains? Earlier in the summer, I treated myself at a designer store for my back-to-school outfit. I ended up purchasing a baby doll black dress and a white short-sleeved shrug to wear with some white sandals””comfortable and cute. I check the outfit over and am so happy to have the shrug which hides what I perceive as jelly arms””teacher paranoia. I’m awake and ready to roll before my morning alarm rings. During my 30 minute commute, I listen to a burned cd of soundtracks from my favorite teacher flicks. I’m so revved up to greet the students when I get to work that I have to consciously tell myself not to run up the stairs.

The bell rings and it takes me a minute to remember that I don’t even have a class first period. First period is my prep hour. It’s a good thing because I did indeed forget to make a few copies. I take a deep breath and saunter to the faculty lounge to make a cup of coffee before I make my copies. I am greeted enthusiastically by some former students in the hallway and this makes me feel giddy. I think I catch one student make a nice comment to her friend about my dress””I’m feeling really good. There is a line at the copier, but I don’t panic. I decide to go make some notes about my introductory powerpoint and as I enter my room, the phone rings. I jolt to get it and spill coffee on my white shrug””no big thing. I’ll wash it out in the staff sink because it’s my prep. No way am I taking it off, though.

”Hello,” I say as I grab the phone on the third ring.

”Hi,” it’s the main office, ”We’re going to need you to substitute this hour.”

”Haha! You’re so funny. What do you really need?” This is crazy. It’s the first class on the first day of school.

”Yeah, we’re not kidding. The new German teacher was delayed on her flight from Germany.”

”Wait. What? You hired a German teacher from Germany? That’s commitment.”

”Yeah, and we need you to sub this hour. Now.”

My coffee-stained-shrug will have to wait and so will the copies, but I can make this work because administration is sending the teacher-less German class to my room. At least I won’t have to schlep across campus. When the students arrive, I say hello and make some cracks about how they’ve got a free-hour. They slouch into random desks and I ask them to leave alone the table cards I’ve made, please. Most of the kids opt to sleep away the time and though I’m under no real obligation to teach them, it feels wrong to go about my business. I make small talk, ask about their summers and catch a freshman drawing a penis on a table card. Hey!  Before the bell rings he’s erased his sketch and apologized. Some of the kids compliment my classroom. Confidence returns.

My first class is the one with 40 sophomores. I greet them at the door and give them their assigned seats. They’re a good group””a little rough around the edges. I head to my desk to take attendance and immediately have to reroute because I get stuck. I didn’t take into account the kids backpacks. I feel like a hugely-hipped deer in headlights. As I’m taking attendance, one of the kids at table 7 says, ”Why is there a picture of dick on our table number?” I shut him down by saying, ”A freshman thought it would be funny. Guess he’s your best friend.” I’m beginning to sweat.  A lot.

My next class begins with a girl telling me that I have weird white marks on the bottom of my dress. I had this student as a sophomore. She fails to notice the new posters, paper flowers, and windows””but does catch bright white streaks of deodorant that I somehow missed. Her best friend says that my shrug’s coffee stain looks like a profile of Kim Kardashian. By lunch, I am in need of water more than food. My coworker thinks that my air conditioning may not be working. In the teacher’s lounge, I notice that my colleagues look exhausted. ”˜Two more classes to go,” one says limply as the next bell rings.

I am 9 copies short of my syllabus in the next class and I overhear a student say to a kid at his table, ”Here, you can have mine. Seen one, seen them all.” I assure them that I’ll make copies of my unique and engaging syllabus and give him stink-eye. During the last hour of the day, we discuss what it means to be human as it is an essential question we’ll be exploring all year. I’m really impressed with one student who gives a lengthy and impassioned speech about what it is to be inhumane until I look closely at him and suspect that he’s 98% stoned. Meanwhile, one of my Creative Writing students from earlier in the day interrupts class to drop off a huge stack of papers on my desk.

”What’s that stack?” I ask.

”Oh, I forgot to give it to you earlier. I have a half-day so I came back to give you a copy of my novel to read over. I figured you wouldn’t be too busy now since it’s the first week of school.”

I give her a dead-eye smile and strongly encourage her to go home. The final bell rings. Finally. Flopping hard into my chair, I think about the German teacher en route””wonder if she has a cocktail in her hand. I take a minute to check emails and surf the web before going to make copies. The first headline I encounter is about a teacher who was discovered drunk and without pants in her classroom on the first day of school. I sit up straighter and congratulate myself on being a real pro.

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