Classroom Nightmare

So unfair. Nearly three-quarters of the way through my second year away from the classroom, what comes knocking in my brain? That’s right. A school nightmare. One of those horrible, chaos-filled, downward-spiral dreams, so hauntingly realistic that you have to test yourself upon waking, searching the dream for clues, to determine whether it may have actually happened. As a teacher, I had these every year, starting a few weeks before the first day of school, and recurring periodically throughout the year before major events. But having one mid-year when I’m not even teaching? The universe has it in for me.

I was writing the morning message on the chalkboard [clue #1: I’ve never taught in a classroom with a chalkboard — my classrooms have always had whiteboards] when a dour-faced woman with faded hair walked in and flicked on my lights — MY lights! — which I keep dimmed in the morning to preserve my serenity. “I’ve come to take over for an hour,” she said. “You’re wanted in a meeting.”

I gawked at her. Meeting? “Where is it?” I asked. She shrugged. “I don’t know. I was just told to come to your classroom so you could go.”

“I see. Well, I’m sorry, I don’t have any notes for you, but of course the first ten minutes will just be –”

She interrupted with an impatient wave of her hand. “I know, I know, you start with the Dawnzer song.” She flipped the math workbook open to the last lesson on fractions. “Page 234? Is it on the smartboard?”

I was getting annoyed. “No,” I said. “We don’t sing the Dawnzer song. [That’s clue #2. I’ve been reading Ramona the Pest to Niko, and the Dawnzer song turns out to be “The Star-Spangled Banner.”] We just say the pledge. Then announcements. Then they can do this page independently. It’s review. And no, I don’t use that awful board.” [Clue #3: I LOVED having a smartboard. Loved it.] I flipped backward to the first lesson on fractions.

She lifted an incredulous eyebrow. “Are you sure? Shouldn’t you be doing Lesson 12?”

“I’m sure. Now, when they’re finished –”

The woman lifted her left wrist and looked pointedly at her watch.

I swallowed. “All right, I’d better go. Thanks for coming in.” As I turned to go, I realized that my students had all arrived without my seeing them. They all sat motionless, gazing solemnly at me. I hadn’t even had a chance to high-five or fist-bump each one at the door or tell them each good morning, yet there they were, waiting for me to leave. And instead of the cozy groups of five desks that they were supposed to have, all the desks were arranged in a grid, perfectly spaced. As I surveyed them, their faces all morphed into the sweet, round face of the Kid President. [Clue 4. I love Kid President, but 25 of him? A trifle creepy.] In unison, each one raised a hand and waggled his fingers. Buh-bye, now. As I turned away, I heard the substitute say, “Take out your math books and turn to page 274, lesson 12,” as she stood smugly in front of the lesson displayed on the smartboard. MY smartboard.

It occurs to me some sadly deprived people might not know who Kid President is. Below is a picture of him looking inspirational, along with an inspirational quote. He’s on Facebook. And YouTube. He’s really pretty amazing.

Anyway, to continue: I hurried down the hallway, clutching a pen and cradling a hungrily nursing Sofia in my arms. Wait — how did she get there? She hadn’t been there a minute ago. Bad enough that I hadn’t checked my emails one single time this year, now I arrive at a meeting, probably late (no one had bothered to say when it was supposed to start), with a nursing baby? Worse and worse. This was probably a meeting to fire me.

I turned a corner, descended the steep stairs, and beheld an alcove where the utility closet had been. [I’m sure you can guess that that is yet another clue. I’m going to stop counting now.] At a table sat a man that my dream self recognized as our special ed teacher, someone I’d never seen before in real life, but I knew immediately that I disliked him. Next to him was a couple that I recognized as the parents of the only fifth-grader in my second-grade class [huh???], and next to them was my principal, Heidi. They surveyed me coolly as I settled into an uncomfortably large chair, still nursing Sofia. I slid backward, my feet leaving the ground, feeling like I was disappearing into the chair.

The special ed teacher passed around a heavy stack of the IEP (individualized education plan) drafts. “Here we go,” he said. “It’s all digital, so I was going to make a slideshow of crucial changes, but then I realized that would make the meeting go too fast, so instead I printed it out so we can read the entire thing word for word.” And so the meeting began, with Sofia weighing me down so that I slid further and further into the chair until I couldn’t stretch forward enough to reach the paperwork being handed to me. No one seemed to notice or care that I was becoming invisible, and they didn’t hear my objections to the terms the special ed teacher used to describe the child: “weird,” “stupid,” “retarded,” “dumb,” “problem kid.” No one seemed fazed by his words, not even the parents. I felt rage bubbling up at the way this student — MY student — was being discussed, but the chair had nearly swallowed me, and I couldn’t even reach the edge to pull myself out.

Suddenly, there was a minor commotion at a nearby conference table surrounded by sleek black leather chairs. The table was in a separate room with tall windows looking out onto a city view. The meeting there was breaking up, and chatter and laughter poured out of the room as everyone left. “Quick!” our principal said. “The good table is free! Let’s move!” The members of our team scuttled across the hall and claimed office chairs, and I was left to wallow in the giant chair. With an enormous final effort involving a lot of leg-waving and flopping around, I levered myself up and set Sofia on the ground, where she morphed unexpectedly into a curly-pigtailed kindergartener. She stared at me for a long moment before turning and going down the hallway to her classroom. “Oh,” I said. “That was easy.”

I seated myself in a comfortable chair, flipped open the IEP packet, and opened my mouth to dazzle everyone with my insights about my student. And then the bell rang for the end of the day, and everyone jumped up and deserted the meeting. And then Sofia — the real Sofia — elbowed me in the throat, and it was time to get up.

I guess a teacher is a teacher is a teacher. You can spend two years at home with your own children, and you still care about your students from however many years ago. Still worry that somewhere, some student, maybe one of your own, is being treated unfairly. Still sometimes feel that the education process has more to do with being told what to do by invisible commanders than with what your students themselves need. And then there’s always the worry that your personal life is destroying your career, or vice versa.

Or, you, know, maybe I just had a miserable cold and was sleeping on too many pillows, with an equally miserable Sofia lying on my chest nursing at will all night, after spending far too long scanning Kid President’s Facebook page. Who knows?

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