Teeth disgust me. When baby teeth get really loose, children lose all ability to focus on anything except using their tongue to push the tooth all the way down, so it’s just hanging by a thread. I’ll be in the middle of reading aloud, all snuggled into my comfy chair, getting to the good part in Where the Red Fern Grows, and suddenly there will be a child standing practically right on top of me.
“Mrs. Wopat, my tooth is loose.”
I look up, check to see if it looks like anyone is bleeding or about to vomit, then I give my “I’m so angry right now that you interrupted me and you know read aloud is my favorite and I hate being interrupted when you know Billy is just about to catch the Ghost Coon” face.
“Uh-huh,” I say, looking back down at my book. “Ok. Well, when it falls out you can take it to the nurse.”
“Well, but look at how wiggly it is! Watch!”
I don’t know why I look. I know better.
Seeing teeth move makes me gag. This makes my class laugh, of course. And so now they do it even more often. I swear 4th graders lose teeth at quite an alarming rate. And apparently never at home!
I untie knots in shoes, feel heads for fevers, I wipe away tears, I discreetly give a granola bar to a kid who didn’t get breakfast, answer the phone when I forget to take attendance, take the lunch count, count how many milk cartons kids will take that day, I read a note left on my desk from a student that reads, “Last night my mom told me she fucking hates all of us,”, I start my class on a simple task while I take her out to assess the situation, I remember to ask how the hockey game was last night, and see how far he got in the 3rd Harry Potter book, I touch base with the special education teacher about what groups we’ll have in math, I chat with the gifted education teacher who has stopped by to see if she can support during reading today, I take a phone call from a parent who is angry that the students are still going outside for recess although it is icy, I see the guidance counselor walking by and she motions for me to talk quickly in the hallway, where I get a quick update on the case we’ve been working on to get free dental care for one of my students and update each other on the behavior plan for one of my students, I pat students on the back and make sure they are all greeted.
And then the bell rings for school to start.
There are so many professions in this world that are meaningful and fulfilling, and there are some that just seem like “work,” although we would be lost without them (think: garbage man, wastewater treatment plant worker), and then there are the ones that we could totally live without but get paid the most because of where our values lie (or at least seem to lie).
One day, during a class meeting, we were going around the circle, sharing what our dream job might be. I said a)writer, b)family and marriage counselor or c)cellist in NYC for Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. As we went around the class, nearly every boy said they wanted to play football for the NFL, and nearly every girl said she wanted to be an actress.
“Mrs. Wopat? What’s wrong?” the girl sitting next to me asked.
“I can’t believe none of you said you want to be a teacher! Or a doctor! Or even an astronaut!”
“What’s an astronaut?”
“Well, teacher is my second choice, if I don’t get drafted right away!”
“A doctor would be ok, I guess, but I wouldn’t make as much money as Ariana Grande.”
I got really quiet. I tried to hold it in. Christy. Don’t speak. Now is not the time for a lecture. Just move on. Time to start math. MATH, Christy. Do you remember that?
“Everybody! Take a knee!” I yelled. My class huddled around me, on their knees.
“I want you to remember that I am proud of you no matter what you do in life, as long as you’re trying your best. Remember that if you want to be a professional football player, I believe you can accomplish that as long as you never, ever give up. BUT, I feel like I need to say that we probably celebrate sports so much because of all the money involved. I will say, though, that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be! Money doesn’t give you everything. My job is the best job in the world, I think. And I don’t get paid all that much.
I do, however, know that not very many people want to be teachers. And although it makes me sad, I get why. There aren’t tens of thousands of people cheering for me in a big stadium, and Nike doesn’t care if I wear their shoes, and I probably won’t ever get to come running out of the locker room through a lineup of cheerleaders and coaches and jump through a giant paper thing to make the print of my body in the paper and then have everyone screaming for me–”
“Uh, Mrs. Wopat? We get it,” one of the boys said, interrupting me.
“Do you though?” I pressed. “Because I need you to remember that your teachers keep on going, even though there aren’t a lot of cheerleaders out there! There are so many other important things you can do, and you have to do them even when other people don’t notice.”
We moved on to math then, and I thought Um, Christy? This is what happens when you try to lecture 9-year-olds. DUH. Of course, they don’t get it. They want to play football. Football is their life. Recess is their life. You did it again, with your incessant rambling!”
That afternoon, I got hung up in the lunchroom, talking to a teacher assistant. I had already sent my class back to my room, and so I was walking backward, trying to use my body language to show her that I, uh, kinda sorta needed to leave.
“So, then, do you think our next plan could be–” she started.
“I have to run! We’ll talk about this later!” I said and turned to leave.
“Ok, but, when later?” she pressed. This is not that important, I thought, shaking my head. I headed back to my room.
As I rounded the corner toward my classroom I heard a huge commotion. My blood pressure spiked. UGH. Seriously. 2 minutes. They’re in there for 2 minutes without me and they’re totally off the walls. What do we do after lunch? WE READ QUIETLY AFTER LUNCH. They will never learn. It’s March. I give up.
I had my teacher face on, and I was ready to give it to them until I stood in the doorway of my classroom and looked in. There was my entire class. Standing in a line, across from one another, holding their hands up like arches, cheering for me.
“And now, our starting QB, let’s give it up for MRSSSS WOOOPPPATTTTTTTT!!!!!!!”
My class cheered.
I was frozen in place, tears instantly in my eyes.
“Mrs. Wopat! Run through the tunnel! We made you the tunnel! Do you get it?” a girl said. She nudged me on the back.
I ran through that tunnel, while 25 9-year-olds cheered and screamed and patted me on the back. Most of us were crying.
You ain’t got NOTHIN’ on teaching, NFL. Nothing.