The teaching profession is a scrapbook of precious, little unforgettable moments stitched together with love, laughter, triumph, tears, and good intentions. Each day we are able to do something awe-inspiring for our children, whether it is creating an inventive project, placing a stamp on a child’s confidence, or sprinkling a bit of glitter in the imagination of a kid that can use a little ‘glittering’.
But aside from those enriching, proud moments we hold dear to us in our scrapbook of memories, it is sometimes the most unexpected, humbling moments of being an educator that can be of the utmost value. This brings me back to my third grade class as a first-year teacher.
Picture that superhero t-shirt, grass-stained jeans wearing boy in your classroom (everybody has one), and standing before you is my little Stevie Strickler*. Stevie was an athletic, freckled-faced boy with a toothy smile, who somehow always managed to spot that one lone bug in the classroom in the middle of a great lesson. He was very active, but also very sweet. I quickly gained his admiration after bare-handedly rescuing a toad that took a wrong turn and somehow ended up on a playground of 63 trampling feet. From that point on, I knew Stevie thought I was ‘cool’.
Stevie also had a real knack for getting pencil smudges all over himself. The first time I noticed a big, gray smear on his face, I privately pointed it out and handed him a dampened paper towel. As the year went on, though, Stevie would smile and laugh any time he ended up with more lead on his face than in his wide-ruled notebook. One time he noted that the lead splotch on his cheek resembled the state of Virginia, which was thrilling to me because of the geography connection. Nevertheless, his pencil smudge tendencies became our little joke, and helped us build a personal bond.
One day during independent writing time, I noticed that Stevie had acquired yet another pencil blotch that magically transformed him into Tom Selleck from Magnum P.I. Knowing he wouldn’t get that outdated joke, I asked Stevie how he had managed to grow a mustache in a matter of only minutes. However, for the first time all year, Stevie didn’t find my playfulness amusing. He immediately put his head down on his desk, and veiled himself from both me and his classmates in the crest of his arm. It seemed I had embarrassed him. I felt sick to my stomach.
After kneeling beside him and apologizing, Stevie remained hidden in the little, imaginary fortress he had created from the outside world. I gave him some time to gather himself together, checked back a bit later, offered kind words, but he still wouldn’t budge or even mutter a word. As I grabbed my blue dry erase marker to go over vowel patterns on our poetry chart, it suddenly became clear to me what I needed to do. A heart-felt apology didn’t help, kind words, encouragement, and praise didn’t help, and time didn’t help either. But, perhaps at that moment I was thinking too much like a teacher.
So, I took off my teacher hat and put on my kid hat, and walked over to Stevie with real intention, blue marker clutched firmly in my hand. In a voice loud enough to catch everyone’s attention I said, “Stevie, I’m so sorry for upsetting you by pointing out the smudge on your face. I would never intentionally embarrass you. It’s really easy to get smudges on your face or clothes, even as an adult. That’s why I never wear white to school. To make it even, it’s only fair for me to allow you to draw a mustache on my face.”
A few gasps, a chuckle or two, and a moment of silence later, I placed the marker on his desk, hoping he would accept my peace offering.
He didn’t move right away, but after hearing the chatter and excitement of his friends starting to build, he slowly picked his head up, grabbed the blue marker, and a contagious smile stretched across the length of his speckled face.
Unbeknown to me, Stevie turned out to be an exceptional artist, too. I taught the remainder of that lesson with a blue pencil-thin mustache on my face, and a goatee for good measure.
I’m not sure how my principal would have reacted if he happened to stop by room C-4 that afternoon, nor am I convinced that I would have done the same thing if granted a mulligan. But at that moment, it shifted Stevie’s unwanted attention onto me, kept our relationship in tact, and if nothing else, gave the class a good, hearty laugh.
At the close of school that day, Stevie pulled me aside and informed me that he had gotten into a bad argument with his best friend at lunch, just minutes before I cracked the mustache joke. It made perfect sense. The lunchroom can sometimes be a gathering place for hurt feelings. I called over his buddy, facilitated a discussion between the two, and then watched them scamper away together toward the bus loop, buzzing about the day’s event. Stevie told me he would never forget the time he got to draw a blue mustache on his teacher’s face. Obviously, it stuck with me, too, as another page for my scrapbook, written in blue ink.