It was 3:30 pm on Friday afternoon after the longest week ever. I’d been looking forward to the weekend with a ferocity that was slightly alarming. (You can read my purging poem, “Report Cards, Sisyphus, Christmas Carols and Questionable Sanity, if you want the full story about that.) The kids were safely loaded onto the buses and after briefly chatting with colleagues, I settled down to finish up the last task of the day. With solid potential for a snow day on Monday, things were looking up. I only had to organize materials for an upcoming science exploration before I could head home, pour my glass of wine, put my feet up and breathe.
Almost two hours later, I sat in the middle of my classroom surrounded by the debris field of a 4th grade Matter unit explosion. Everyone else had already left the building (probably at a run–the traitors!) Around me were strewn deceptively happy-colored balloons, streaks of flour, and scattered grains of rice. Next to me a blue puddle of liquid soap detergent soaked slowly into the carpet. There was a strange low sound coming from somewhere in the room. It took me a full minute to realize that it was me….moaning.
Have you ever tried to fill balloons with rice and flour? It’s annoying but do-able with a bit of determination and some reasonably cooperative balloons. I had started out almost two hours earlier fully determined and relatively optimistic. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that the balloons in the kit were less than cooperative. In fact, they were clearly manufactured by some sadistic-minded person–probably someone who still holds a grudge against his fourth grade teacher. These balloons were of the tough latex not-easy-to-tie variety. This difficulty was compounded by the teaching manual’s explicit statement that I must ensure there was no additional air in the balloons. Each balloon needed to contain only one specific matter–flour, rice, water, etc. I poured and pushed and prodded to get the solid materials into the balloons. I squeezed to get out extra air, sending powdery fireworks of flour exploding into the air and drifting onto the carpet. A river of rice spilled from the opened bag and small grains were sprinkled like confetti all around me. Oh God! The custodians are going to kill me! The minutes ticked by one after another, my labors continued and the start of my weekend retreated with each tick as I struggled to fill the balloons.
After a fair bit of effort and a lot of ticking minutes, I finally had 12 balloons filled with solids and neatly placed in a tub. I was on to the liquids and heaved an enormous sigh of relief. This should be so much easier! I quickly grabbed a balloon and funneled in some dishwashing soap, removed the funnel and began to tie off the balloon, again being mindful of the admonishment to avoid leaving air in the balloon. Did you know that one of the properties of dishwashing liquid is that it’s slippery? Very slippery? And it doesn’t stay neatly nestled in the bottom of the balloon but moves around like a…well, like a liquid you might say. So, as I attempted to tie off the balloon (with no extra air), the liquid soap slopped up and over the edges and created an insane situation. Try as I might, I could not tie it off. I kept losing my grip. I grabbed a handful of paper towels and tried gripping the neck of the balloon with them. As soon as I thought I had it neatly tied into a colorful umbilicus, it would slip back through. It was a moment worthy of an I Love Lucy episode. Soon, mounds of blue soaked towels joined the debris around me. I tugged. I twisted. I swore. I pulled. I pleaded. My fingers ached from continuous balloon tourniquets. Finally, after about 5 long minutes of solid effort, I achieved success: One balloon filled! Now I only had to repeat this procedure. Five. More. Times.
I sat still amidst the chaos for a few long minutes. This preparation was simply insane–completely unreasonable. But it had to be done. There wasn’t another option. So after a few more heaving sighs, mewling noises of distress and some choice words, I buckled down and I did it. I’d like to report that things changed and everything slipped neatly into place, but let’s just say my standards slipped along with my fingers and my dignity as the process reached completion. By 5:30 I was finished and sitting on the floor- not triumphant, just really, really tired.
Where does it come from, I wondered, this extra something that we so often pull out of thin air? When our bootstraps are threadbare, and fray and snap at our desperate tugs, how do we manage to come through time and time again? Because we all do it. We sit in the midst of evil balloons and science materials, or next to a mountainous pile of ungraded essays, or up to our eyebrows in grading and report card narratives, on the brink of manic laughter or desperate tears. Then we somehow take a deep breath, pull it together and get the job done. And if necessary the next day, we just do it again. And the amazing thing is, most of us love our jobs and feel lucky to have them–Lucky to work with kids and to work with colleagues who are committed, collaborative and resilient. Lucky to work in vibrant, engaging environments with common goals.
Sometimes the teaching life really does defy explanation.