I have witnessed some 3,000 passages through puberty. Having been a middle school teacher for 25 years, it’s safe to say I’m no stranger to voices that crack and the wonders of orthodontia.
I like to think that I’ve instilled a love of knowledge in my students. I like to think that I’ve taught them the importance of good citizenship, to play by the rules. But regardless of what I like to think, it seems the cliché is true: My students teach me. Most of the time I embrace my role as pupil; I believe that Henry Ford was right when he said “Anyone who keeps learning stays young.”
Not too long ago I took a big step toward retaining said youth. My adventure began one morning when I was running so late that by the time I reached the last intersection before my school, traffic was at a standstill.
What was really exasperating was that I could see the school. Had I been able to climb out of my car and hoof it, I might have arrived on time.
Up ahead, the turn lane into the school’s parking lot was empty. If I could just veer to the right, the only thing between me and the turn lane was a long stretch of field. I appraised it with a calculating eye. It was rutted and rocky, and the grass was quite tall in places.
But as I sat in my motionless vehicle and saw all those red brake lights winking at me, I heard that field call to me. And its siren song bade me to embark on a little off-road expedition.
I paused to ponder if there was a law against doing this type of thing, but the ticktock of the dashboard clock precluded sensible reasoning. I nosed the car out of the line of traffic and headed for the freedom of that open land.
The car dipped and bounced. The tall grass made a swooshing sound against its sides. I heard mysterious thuds from underneath. But those sounds were drowned out by the wail of a siren behind me.
Evidently there was a law. And evidently I had broken it. It appeared that I was now going to receive a ticket in the presence of countless parents and students who were also stuck in traffic and would welcome some drive-time entertainment.
I stopped. The officer came up to my open window, and I handed him my license without even looking at him.
He glanced at it, then asked, “So, were you trying to help the highway department with the grass trimming there, ma’am? What’s going on?”
I’d read that troopers don’t like excuses, but wasn’t he asking me for one? I started babbling. “Well, I overslept, and ...” – here my voice took on a plaintive, whiny tone, the very quality I advise my students to eschew – “I just wanted to get to school. I have to ...”
“So you’re a teacher?” he interrupted.
“Yes, and I need ... ”
“You’re a good teacher, and you help your students?”
“Well, I try ... and ... oh ... I just needed to be on time.”
“Because you’re a good teacher,” the officer offered.
Well, this was devilish. To agree would seem immodest, but one doesn’t wish to disagree with uniformed individuals holding summons pads.
So instead I repeated, “I just wanted to be on time.”
And he repeated, “Because you’re a good teacher.”
OK, what was going on?
A car drove by, and I recognized one of my eighth-graders gleefully waving at me, mouthing my name, pointing me out to his mother. As she drove by, her mouth in a prim bow, I heard the police officer say it again: “You wanted to be on time because you’re a good teacher.”
At that point he paused before adding, “You were when I had you.”
And then I did look at him. I read the name badge on his chest. A former seventh-grade student of mine. All grown up. Keeping people safe. Trying to keep me safe from myself.
He gave me a warning – not too dissimilar from ones I’d given him years ago – and sent me on my way. And at last I arrived at my classroom, already schooled once that morning and wondering what I would learn next.