A spoonful of chaos

“I will kill the teddy bear!” I screamed above the mob of ten year olds. “Nekecám! I’m not kidding!” I jiggled the bear by his ear for effect and for a moment the manic classroom slowed down to look at me and the already half-decapitated bear whose stuffing was poking out of a tear in the seam of its neck.

In that second of shock – a second I have come to recognize over the course of this year that briefly holds the attention of the wild ones and gives just the smallest platform for a desperate teacher’s next move – I wondered how I got there, with my peculiar hostage and my classroom of the world’s cutest savages. Hadn’t it been just a week ago these same children had been well behaved angels in what I will always remember as the miraculously perfect lesson?

Yes. But it’s a story.

Our school spent weeks gearing up for the state inspection. Teachers grumbled quietly in the halls and loudly behind the closed doors of our offices. How are we supposed to show a whole year’s worth of teaching, growing and painstakingly tending to the children in our care in one class period? And how is some stranger sitting in the back of the room supposed to see how much our students have progressed and flowered during that year in 45 minutes?

“It’s an insult,” said my officemate. She used stronger language than I will on this blog but our sentiments aligned.

And we were all nervous. One trip-up, one bad day on the wrong day, one stranger who just can’t see the magic we work so hard to create in our classrooms (and some of the teachers in this school really do make magic happen), and we’re looking at a bad review, not just for ourselves but for our Head and for the school.

I had the added worry of being the newest teacher, the teacher who also didn’t speak Czech.

In an attempt to stay calm, I told myself in the days leading up to the big week, “They probably won’t even sit in on one of my classes. If they do, it’ll probably be my older kids – certainly not my fourth graders.”

Certainly not.

On Monday afternoon I sat in my office clutching a cup of tea and listening to the first reports of inspection wreckage. My desk was appropriately littered with papers, forms, books, chocolate wrappers and several drawings of horses gifted to me by students. The diatribe of the morning’s wounded was bitter. Several teachers had already had bad experiences and several more would be in tears before the week was out. As I listened to my officemate colorfully express what we were all feeling, the door shuddered from a gentle knocking and then swung open. It was our vice head. She’s an intimidating lady if only because she sets such a high standard for the rest of us. I am always slightly terrified to be in her presence. She doesn’t speak English so I think she avoids me as well – there are some language barriers I haven’t been able to tear down yet.

But on this occasion, she smiled softly at me and spoke to my officemate. They chattered in Czech. I heard my name. They leaned over my disgustingly cluttered desk to examine the my class schedule, pinned on my board beneath another student-bequeathed portrait – this one was of a baseball field, complete with stick figures shouting rude things in bubble captions.

The vice head smiled at me and said something in Czech. I nodded and smiled, “Dobry, je to fajn.” That’s what I say whenever I don’t understand what’s going on – “Good, it’s fine.”

It definitely was not fine. The vice head had come to let me know that inspectors would be sitting in on my lesson the next day…with my fourth graders.

Within ten minutes our office phone rang and another teacher called to warn me with the same information. My officemate sent an email to the class teacher of those particular fourth graders, asking her to remind them NOT to hide under my desk before that lesson.

The next morning the bell for fourth period sounded like a funeral gong. I don’t even think funeral gongs are a real thing. But if they were, that’s what they would sound like.

I left my office in half a hurry, running into other teachers in the hall and on the stairs as I made the mountainous hike up to the top floor. They gave me pitying glances, quick hugs and wishes for good luck.

Deep breath. Open the door. Walk to the desk.

It wasn’t until I had set down my things and looked at my students who were all still as statues that I realized the inspector was not in the classroom.

That’s when the real panic began. Suddenly I didn’t know what to do with myself. Should I conduct class as I planned, complete with meticulous activities and strict behavior guidelines in case the inspector dropped in? Or should I revert to silly, messy games and poorly completed grammar lessons?

I didn’t have much of a choice because the students were acutely aware that the inspector had failed to appear. Several of them were already beginning to slip beneath their tables to find hiding places before roll call (I still have to do roll call with these classes because if I don’t I won’t know which students are still hiding).

“Is the inspector here?” asked one of the girls in the front. *Jaromir was already grinning like Cheshire Cat and sliding out of his chair when her question was answered and the door opened. In walked the inspector AND the vice head. I wanted to cry. All the nerves seized up into a wad in perfect synchronization with the stiffened, straightened backs of my students who were now little soldiers sitting perfectly at attention. As the vice head and inspector sat down in the back of the classroom, I continued with roll call, complimenting children who answered in English and pretending like it was totally normal that they were all sitting down and not hanging from cabinets or hiding behind the chalkboard.

Filosofska 2013-20144

*All the kids names are changed for privacy and the sake of my spelling.

Everything I asked of the children, they did. They were quiet without being told, they played our classroom game by the rules, and even the boys pretended to be super excited about the song I taught them.

Jaromir didn’t throw anything at Lenka, Otik didn’t hide under the table, Bara didn’t hit anyone and Pavel and David stayed in their chairs the whole class. They were all so quiet I could hear them thinking, so still I could see their hearts beating – they were as nervous as I was. This was no drug-induced stupor, dulling them into submission. No.

Best behavior. That’s what they were on.

It took effort not to glance at our visitors as we closed out the period singing John-Jacob-Jingleheimer-Smith.  They both said goodbye when the bell rang and left the room. As if a pin had been pulled from our grenade-like nerves, the classroom exploded. All the giggles, mischief and activity that had been stuffed down for the last hour came bursting out.

I could hear their shrieks even as I turned the corridor and descended the stairs to my office. The vice head was on the first floor with the other teachers. She smiled at me.

Apparently the song was a good idea.

We made a good impression, me and my wild ones. In the cafeteria I sat down next to their class teacher and said, “They were angels.” I felt like she needed to know.

A few minutes later she got up and walked to Jaromir’s table. I saw her whispering to him and the other children. She was thanking them for being so good.

I think that’s one of the nice things about being just one teacher in this school – the more I realize how much the other teachers love the students I love, the more I love the teachers. We’re all tending the same garden – or more appropriately, working in the same zoo. It’s a group effort to bring up these students.

Flash forward to me and the teddy bear. It’s been 43 minutes and I’m counting down the seconds till class is dismissed – not that we ever got officially started.

In my defense, and the defense of my revolutionaries, I was subbing for music class and had no idea what I was doing.

We played hangman.

Most of the kids were on their phones, making wire art or listening to the boom box I brought in with my old high school CDs (we’re calling it an education in American Culture and Music…). Several boys had someone by the arms and legs but they didn’t look like they were going to drop him on anything dangerous so I focused on the trouble makers in the front of class.

You pull hair? You call names? You call me names? You join the teddy bear.

We weren’t hanging just anyone. I made careful sketches of students faces and left them dangling from the noose on the chalkboard. It’s amazing how quickly they will cooperate and participate if their own livelihoods are at stake. In the end, only one boy actually got fully hanged and that’s because he wouldn’t get off his phone to help find the last consonant.

The bell rang. The students scattered …or, became more scattered than they had been already.

Truthfully, I hope I never have another perfect lesson. I hope I don’t have many more like the music substitution either, but at least that class was alive. Perfect is boring.

I’d rather spend the first few minutes of class looking for my students under their chairs and desks. I’d rather have to rip apart a paper airplane in front of the class and then soak it in water from the classroom sink before their eyes, knowing that as soon as the bell rings we’ll be making the airplanes together. I’d rather let them stretch and shout a little, bounce and bound and giggle. Because we’ll learn the same amount either way. We’ll get through the lesson plan one way or another.

But one thing I know for sure: if school is a necessary medicine, a little chaos is like a spoonful of sugar.

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2 thoughts on “A spoonful of chaos

  1. Great story, engagingly (nevim, jestli to je spravne slovo) written Mary, thank You for it! I enjoyed it, I laughed and I cryed. Eva

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