Yesterday was the United Way Day of Caring, an annual event where local corporations, NerdCo among them, sponsor their employees to take a day off to volunteer in the community. It's a Wonderful Thing, of course, but also so earnest that it's easy to make fun of, which we all do--perhaps spurred on by the manager I'll leave nameless, who once blurted "Eh, I cared last year" in front of the wrong audience. So for the past week, many statements have been made along the lines of "I am trying to care, but you are making it difficult!" and "Excuse me, The Needy, but could you please go and need outside maybe so I can finish painting your subsidized housing?"
The big boss in my division picks a huge project from the list each year, something that can absorb up to 100 people. Unfortunately, it seems always to be "weeding," in some form or other. Clear this ivy-infested slope next to the highway for eight hours! Pull dandelions from 50 acres of parkland! Big Boss loves to weed, apparently. I do not, which is why my yard looks the way it does. So, this year I chose my own project, and descended with a mob of like-minded souls in matching ugly free t-shirts on Sacajawea Elementary, in Seattle's north end. (Seriously, United Way: you do good work, but this year's shirts are particularly unattractive, as well as being sized for individuals that evidently average seven feet tall.)
The original plan, weather permitting, was for groups of us to repaint four-square grids and hopscotch squares on the playground's surface. This being Seattle, dark clouds threatened. A surfeit of outdoor volunteers set to...weeding. I was relieved to be dispatched to a first-grade classroom instead, to do pretty much whatever the teacher asked for six hours.
And good lord, I don't know how they do it. My mom has worked in the public schools for 26 years, I went through the system myself for 13...and I have absolutely no idea how anyone does it. I enjoyed myself thoroughly, even as I felt...ashamed, nearly, of my cushy NerdCo job, the ridiculous salary I draw to sit in an ergonomic chair and type all day. The kids were cute as hell: ages six and seven, mostly, so their teeth are going every which way, as is their hair in many cases. But they're too little to just sit and drill in rows, you know? So they were in constantly shifting groups: playing with clay or letter puzzles, poring over library books, listening to Caps for Sale on headphones, coloring apples and turkeys and pumpkins and leaves on that day's worksheet. It's school, it's fall.
The building smelled like wax, both floor and crayon, of pencil shavings and rubber erasers, of hot lunch. Though not of chalk, any more--they've all got whiteboards and dry-erase markers. I entered the new students' names in classroom computers, xeroxed mountains of handouts, labeled folders; I sat in a wee blue chair and reviewed sight-reading word lists with individual kids. Some smoked through the columns of "go" and "good" and "like" and "make" like it was a race; others shrugged and sighed over anything longer than three letters, groaning "Are we done now?" Boy, you'll be President one day, I thought darkly. Through it all, the din was happy but controlled, and the teacher was cheerful and magically omnipresent and never had to raise her voice. We should pay these people millions of dollars.
One dreamy, towheaded Walter Mitty child completely cracked me up. The teacher carefully went through a long list of activities kids could choose from after finishing the worksheets: puzzles, writing journals, etc. Immediately Walter raised his hand: "What are we supposed to do?" The teacher laughed, to her credit, and gently reviewed the list again. Whereupon the kid, I guess nonplussed at these choices, asked "Well, what if we fall asleep?" Oh, honey, THEN you are ready to start attending meetings at NerdCo! And again, the teacher laughed, and said "[Walter], if you fall asleep, I will pick you up and carry you to the couch"--a well-worn loveseat, crowded with cushions and stuffed bears, tucked into a nook of the classroom. This, I think, is actually a service we could benefit from at my job.
Lunch in the cafeteria with the kids: hot dogs, tater tots, and little cartons of milk (which, I can assure you, is pretty much exactly what hundreds of other NerdCo minions were also eating, in one of our many cafeterias). After lunch, I was handed off to a pleasant but frazzled kindergarten teacher. "Can you stay?" he and everyone kept asking. "Do you need to leave?" Many of the volunteers had indeed slipped out at noon, taking conference calls in the parking lot, already distracted, their faces clouding over with Real Jobs. I wanted to take in the full day, though. I was ridiculously tired already, amazed at these people who were calmly responsible for HUNDREDS of CHILDREN, educating THE FUTURE OF SOCIETY, for six hours a day and a mere pittance. Put me to work, teachers. I like my job, but in the bright hubbub of the school it seemed ever more distantly absurd.
The kindergarten teacher set me up in the supply room with a die cutter, punching hundreds of shapes out of construction paper: orange squares, green triangles, blue diamonds (aye, me lucky charms!). I did that for more than an hour, breaking a sweat as other volunteers tag-teamed the two copiers, cranking out reams of handouts. (Remember the heady purple ink of mimeographs? Good thing they didn't have us in there doing that for hours; we'd have been high as kites.) "Well look at this," the teacher laughed when I came back in at the last bell with half a dozen envelopes, a representative colored shape taped to the outside of each (yes, I'm compulsive). "We'll use these for years," he told me.
The yellow buses were still loading as I passed up the line to my car. "Bye, Miss Kim," shouted a voice: one of the first-graders, a wild-haired little girl hollering from her lowered bus window. Between snacktime and jump-ropes and turkey-coloring, she'd remembered my name.
It was the most fun I've had in months, even though I went home and passed out on the couch for two hours in sheer exhaustion. Millions of dollars, I'm telling you. They don't print enough money, for what we owe our teachers.
Mrs. Bacon, Mr. Wilson, Mr. Hathaway, Mrs. Eskenazi, Mrs. Chinn...thanks. I'm thinking of you, tonight.