I have been retired for two years now after many years as a classroom teacher and academic dean. Though I am thoroughly enjoying not having the responsibility of grading and test scores, I miss being with the children. This week I will be going for volunteer training at the elementary school across the street so I can help some of the students with their reading and writing. It makes me think back to my days in the classroom and the conversations I had with the kids.
I remember the exact conversation that was the turning point in my career as an elementary teacher, the one that helped me decide to move up to middle school. It wasn’t the particular conversation so much as that it was the culmination of so many similar conversations. Texas State Representative Karyne Conley was coming to speak to our fourth graders. In preparation for her visit, we were to have our students write a question they wanted to ask her, and we would choose several from each class. One student in my class wrote, “Why does Texas want to go against the Constitution on this flag-burning issue?” My students were eager to discuss it, and I decided to seize the opportunity to instruct them in a very serious matter.
“Mrs. Okaty, if they were to make a law against burning the flag, would someone be allowed to cut it into tiny little pieces instead?”
“No, I don’t think so. That would still be destroying it,” I said.
“Well, then, could you just cut a corner off?”
Before I could get a word in, the discussion got bogged down in how big a corner you could cut off and still get away with it. After I intervened and told them cutting it in any way would be destroying it, the debate took a nasty turn.
“I guess acid would be out, then?”
“Yes, of course.”
Raul asked, “Mrs. Okaty, could someone stomp the flag into the mud as long as he doesn’t take a piece out of it?”
“I don’t know,” I said, feeling more and more like I was losing control. “That would leave stains on it and make it unusable.” There ensued a discussion on the best stain remover and, if one could be found that worked, then would it be okay if the flag were stomped into the mud? As I stood there glassy-eyed and bewildered, Daphney asked, “Could you spit on it as long as you don’t burn it, cut it, pour acid on it, or stomp it into the mud? Spitting doesn’t leave stains.” I wanted to wipe that self-satisfied smile right off her face.
Silence. No one seemed to have an answer to Daphney’s question. Just as I began to heave a sigh of relief…
“Actually,” Jamal said, “if you had just eaten a piece of blueberry pie and didn’t brush your teeth before you spit, it would probably leave stains, so that would have to be covered under the law—just in case.” Everything after that was a blur.
As it turned out, Jeff’s flag-burning question was not chosen by the administration because they considered it to be too controversial. They didn’t begin to understand the ramifications.
And that’s why I moved up to middle school where I would no longer be confronted by such inane questioning. Instead, I had scintillating conversations like this:
“Mrs. Okaty, can goldfish swim in jello? Mrs. Okaty? Mrs. Okaty, you’re getting that glassy-eyed, bewildered look again.”
Hmmm…Maybe I need to rethink this volunteer thing.