Here’s part II of a story I’ve been working on from my first year of teaching. (I’m trying to work on longer stuff by breaking it into parts each Sunday…) If you missed the first part of the story last week, you can go back and read it here. You’ll probably understand today’s part without it, but, really, reading the first part will be worth it, for context… Don’t worry, I’ll wait. 🙂
The first-year teacher looked at the clock one more time and turned the classroom lights off, waiting for the dull roar to simmer down to a low-ish hum. “Room 209! It’s time to put on your costumes. If you brought one, you can take it to the bathroom and change. When you get back, we’ll start our party.”
She’d gotten this advice from the much more veteran seventh-year teacher across the hall: Always start your class parties as late as possible in the school day.
As soon as the students rushed from their seats, grabbing plastic sacks and crowding the door, she’d realized her mistake. Again. In her mind, she’d give a direction and the children would follow it peacefully and in a tidy order. But this was not the classroom of her childhood imagination. She sighed. It was too late now to stop the stampede and give a clearer direction, so she simply chose to stand back as they plowed chaotically through the door.
Once she’d watched them disappear down the hall to the bathroom, dutifully shouting “Walk!!” several times after them, she returned her attention to the classroom and distributing the piles of chips and popcorn on paper plates lining the back of the room.
A few children—those without costumes—stayed behind. They mostly busied themselves by pestering each other, snatching masks off each other’s faces, laughing, and racing across the room. One student remained in his seat, his head down.
It was Kwasi. Kwasi’s family had immigrated to the United States from somewhere in Africa over the summer. The first-year teacher wasn’t exactly sure which country. His family spoke English with him, so it wasn’t communication that was the problem. It was just that Kwasi always somehow seemed so much younger than the other kids.
He cried easily, and often complained to teachers in a piercing whine that the other kids were picking on him. He played alone at recess, running his fingers over and over along the chain link fence, or chasing a plastic bag as it was tossed in the wind. Starting out the year as the New African Kid—a curiosity, or possibly a new accomplice—he’d fairly quickly become a kid that the majority of kids ignored, the minority of kids took occasional opportunities to torment, and nearly all of the teachers merely tolerated.
It wasn’t unusual for him to have his head down on his desk for any length of time during the day, so the first year teacher hardly registered Kwasi as she rushed to ferry flimsy plates to each child’s desk.
When the children returned from putting their costumes on, the first-year teacher was surprised. She hadn’t expected “costume” to mean a flimsy plastic sack with armholes. Many of the students’ costumes were identical but for a dingy yellow batman symbol or a red and black web painted on the front. A few of the girls wore sheer, sparkly dresses with plastic tiaras meant to evoke royalty. Some students simply wore their own clothes with an old rubber mask clearly borrowed from an older brother or cousin.
They squealed with delight when they spotted the popcorn-cheese puff-Doritos spread at their seats.
Pamela and Amani, the class’ goody-two shoes, and for today, both Princesses of Room 209, flounced down next to each other and began gleefully turning their fingers and lips a fluorescent orange.
In this gray classroom on the second floor in the South Bronx, there were always many layers of truths for the first-year teacher to uncover. Many of them she didn’t realize until years after realizing them was useful anymore. What the first-year teacher was beginning to realize that day, is that being the teacher at a class party was about as much fun as getting plaque scraped off your teeth. She was simultaneously attempting to pour and distribute 28 glasses of soda, supervise two students as they passed out napkins, beg her three most rambunctious boys to stay in their seats, and tie the bow on Tinique’s costume.
The other thing she didn’t realize—at first—was that Kwasi was crying.