It’s the last period on a rainy day; the class is restless and few are listening. The overhead screen is brightly lit, a spotlight saying “look up here,” and beamed on the screen is a sentence in purple: The offspring thrust a digit in his younger sibling’s cornea. I’m patiently trying to explain to my sixth-grade students in this lesson on synonyms that the word “number” is not always the correct replacement for the word “digit.” But no one wants to look up the word and find the meaning. Haley’s passing a note under the table, Josh is kicking the boys on either side of him, and the pair near the door is arguing about something. All I hear is “I didn’t take it!”
My class isn’t normally like this. They cooperate, we have fun. This is that boring teacher next door’s class. What’s going on? Do I place the blame on the rain that forced inside recess, biorhythms being out of whack, pre-pubescent puberty attacks?
As understanding as I want to be, I’m fed up, frustrated. I spent valuable time making this activity fun and engaging. I even used my lavender overhead pen. Sure, I know they’re behaving like the typical preadolescent middle-schoolers that they are (some remind me of myself at this age), but I’m not going to shelve this lesson for tomorrow.
I quickly survey my options. Yelling alienates them, even though it would feel rewarding to raise my voice right now and vent. My little brass bell with the unicorn head on top is not within reach. Switching the light on and off requires a trip across the room.
My eyes fall to what I’ve been holding in my clenched hands—perfect! I lift the heavy thesaurus above my head to my full 5 foot 3 inch height, stand back, and let it drop to the shiny linoleum tiles. It’s a hardbound book, 1,200 pages. The noise should be impressive.
It is. A sonic boom. Everyone looks up. Someone even jumps. They all freeze. “She’s mad,” Zach whispers to no one in particular.
“Sometimes,” I yell, louder than I mean to, pointing my finger—my digit—at the entire class. “Sometimes,” I repeat for emphasis, shaking my head in mock disapproval, “you act like a bunch of 11-year-olds!”
There is silence. “But we are 11,” pipes up Max, a literal learner.
“Oh,” I say, feigning shock. “You are? Well, could you act like you’re grown-ups then? Maybe, oh . . . 40-year-olds?”
Some look puzzled, others giggle. Something is shifting in the room. The rain outside seems softer now. I’m no longer as tense.
Henry, who will grow up to do professional comedy improv, crosses his legs, folds his hands on the table, and purses his lips. In what he deems typical 40-year-old behavior, he initiates a loud conversation with his very willing table partner Jon, peppering his dialogue with almost-real adult phrases like “upmost” importance and “ranbunctious” kids. They stop now and then to sip from imaginary teacups.
Haley’s note lies forgotten on the floor, Josh has stopped kicking, and the table in back is silent, watching Henry act grown up.
Many eyes are on me: Will I get mad again, they wonder, or will I just ignore them? I’m loving it and I can’t help myself—their improv act looks fun. And it’s one of the joys of teaching, being center stage with a captive audience who can’t walk out, even if you bomb. I walk to the boys’ table and pick up an imaginary teacup, pursing my lips like they did. “It’s Earl Grey,” I say, sniffing the air. “Ah, oil of bergamot.”
“It is quite good,” Jon answers, still in character. For some reason, when you’re pretending to be an adult, it’s more fun to be an adult from England. I then point to his hand, which still grips an invisible teacup, and look toward my audience.
“Oh sir, you must have this lower digit extended.” I model the extension of my pinkie. And take a deep breath, praying that they’re with me, that I’m not losing them by so sneakily bringing them back to the lesson. “Now what would be a synonym for the word digit?” I ask, looking around at the rest of the class, between sips of my own imaginary tea. Some of them are just staring at me, but others search through the formerly dormant dictionaries and thesauruses on their tables. Someone yells out “Finger! Or toe, maybe?”
“Yes, I do believe you are ever so correct. ‘Finger’ would be a most appropriate synonym.”
I ask them to look at the next word in the sentence—books fly open, pages are turned in record speed, some even work in teams. I’m in Teacher Heaven.
They finish their translations and are pleased to find most of their guesses make sense. They feel smart. They should; they’re 40 now.
I press my luck and explain the homework. I read them my nursery rhyme about Jack ascending the mound of earth, his same-age sibling Jill relentlessly trudging alongside, a metal receptacle swinging between them. They get the idea, and almost all the words. They don’t complain or sigh when I tell them to pretend they are the authors of the thesaurus—Roget’s team of Ph.D. etymologists. Their task is to rewrite a nursery rhyme or the beginning of a fairy tale with more sophisticated words. For 40-year-olds, I add.
They’re buzzing with ideas: Haley wants to write about the three sightless rodents and Henry recalls the story of a girl with a blond perm and a trio of carnivores. The bell rings before I can call on the hands that are waving in the air. “Au revoir!” I yell. “Give your spouses my best.”
Max, normally shy to approach me, lingers at the door on the way out. “Um,” he pleads, “do you think we could act 40 tomorrow?”
Joanne Hartman is a writer and former middle-school teacher who lives in Oakland with her husband and daughter. Although none of her former students are 40 yet, all of them are grown-ups.
Click here to go back to the main feature page.