The first day of school has always been a magical day to me, both as a student and a teacher. It’s always been a day of fresh beginnings. When I finished high school, I wasn’t sure I’d ever have another “first day.” I thought the same thing when I earned my first college degree. But once I became a teacher, I was privy to, and looked forward to, many first days of school.
My first day as an art teacher in Atlanta was as exhilarating as my first day as a young student. I taught “art on a cart” in several different schools. My office was a dusty furnace room with an old slab of wood stretched across two ancient cinder blocks that I used as a desk. There were small piles of rat droppings in the corners, but there was a kiln, so I could teach my students how to work with clay. Once I tried to create a slip mold of garden gloves by dipping them into liquid clay and then firing them up after the clay had dried. The whole school smelled like burnt rubber gloves for hours. Mrs. Hall, the Principal, never forgave me.
Many, many years later I retired from the noble profession of Education, and I thought that was the end of my first days. Again, I was wrong. Monday morning I ventured into the world of substitute teaching. I was robo-called a little after 8 AM and was informed of a job availability that started at 7:15. How could I possibly say “No” to a job that required reverse time travel for its correct execution? Naturally I showed up, slightly off schedule, and was directed to my kindergarten class.
Kindergarten students are a special breed. They are miniature tornadoes who live in a world of cotton candy, purple dinosaurs, imaginary playmates, and smiling rainbows. They also live in a world of stinky giants, loud noises, contradictory messages, germs, and boogers.
I looked around at my new class and realized I was the only white guy in the room. I wondered if they noticed that, too. In any case, none of us really seemed to care, so we all just decided to move forward. It was an interesting day. I didn’t realize there were so many different ways to devastate the letter “B,” or how incredibly difficult it is to write a “3.”
Many of the kids were fascinated with my arms (as were my students in Atlanta). Apparently they don’t get to see a lot of soft arm hair of any length, especially hair as white as mine. Every time I leaned on a desk to help out, the students would start touching my arm hair like it was a new species of fern or sea grass. One time during the day I was bent over tying a little girl’s shoe, and she started messing with what little hair is left on the top of my head. She withdrew her hand whenever I looked up at her. By the time her shoe was properly laced there were three of the little munchkins rubbing the top of my head like it was a genie’s magical lamp.
Perhaps the best part of the day was lunch. I forget what they served as an entrée, but I distinctively remember getting two chocolate chip cookies for dessert. I ate lunch with the kids, because that was who I knew. A very, very small and frail blind boy sat next to me. He could not see me, so I imagine he found me by smelling the stinky giant, and he wanted to get a better ‘look’ at me. My comb-over was in fierce disarray from the outside wind; it vaguely resembled a scarecrow’s butt that had almost, but not quite, survived a raging tempest. That, of course, made the company of a blind child perfect, because he saw nothing unusual to stare at or comment about, as five year-olds sometimes do.
The ambient cafeteria noise and the loud conversations, along with horrible acoustics, made it hard for me to hear the little guy talk. This, too, was perfect. Now the blind kid was hanging out with the old deaf guy. We looked like some kind of bizarre, parallel universe version of Penn and Teller.
I had my two cookies waiting for me at the end of my meal, and my blind friend could smell them. He used his powers of persuasion to try to place a formidable wedge of pity and charity between me and my cookies, but to no avail.
The rest of the day went by quickly, and before long it was time to send the kids out to their buses. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my new friend, but I watched him go as I stood outside helping out with dismissal. He couldn’t sense my presence in the riot of sounds and smells of hundreds of children and their parents, and a multitude of cars and buses.
As he walked by me, just inches away, I glanced down to see if his backpack was zippered up properly.
I didn’t want his cookie to fall out.