It is April Fool’s Day and I have a confession to make. I’m more than a little ashamed to admit most of what revolves around this story, so it seems only fitting that I tell it in its entirety. It is also, most fitting, that the recipient of this confession is one of my 7 subscribers. *Deep breath.
Nineteen years ago today, I told a lie.
Skip the mental math and take a journey with me back to 5th grade. My teacher, Miss G, still in my top 3 list of all time favorites, suffers from a degenerative muscular disease known as muscular dystrophy. At the time, she required the use of a cane and a willing student’s neck to get down the hallway. She did all of her teaching from a stool behind a large podium, which to this day is still how I see her in my mind’s eye. (I remember the way she had to use both hands to lift under her knees, one at a time, in order to prop her feet on the shelf of that podium. A year later I was in the Area/District Spelling Bee and got out in the very first round on the word “podium.” All I could think about was how bad I’d wished the Peanuts cartoon sticker on the front had instead been anything labeling the p-o-d-I-u-m, Kindergarten style. But I digress.)
In order to truly appreciate this story (and this woman), you have to be able to hear her as well as see her. She is loud. Her voice is loud, her laugh is loud, her personality is loud. Because of her, I later wrote off any lesson in my college education classes that in any way mentioned yelling and/or sarcasm to be detrimental to the classroom climate. She used both. Brilliantly, I might add. Because she could and she had to. She wasn’t going to silently but purposefully move toward the talking student’s desk (mine) and use what I later learned was called proximity control. And I can say for certain, as the recipient of much of that voice backed by scathing sarcasm, I am all the better for it. All of us were. She laughed at herself as often as she laughed at most of us, so when she yelled, or made fun of someone, it was a beating of love.
If the woman needed a cane and a kid to get down the hallway you better believe she wasn’t standing on desks hanging our artwork from the ceiling (even at 5 o’clock) or rearranging the room with regularity. But don’t get me wrong. My 5th grade classroom was just as vibrant (and I dare say more organized) as any other room in the school. This is because she used her students to do everything. Another point of her brilliance was her appointment of classroom jobs. These were not the traditional elementary school jobs like door-holder, line-leader, or turn-off-the-lights-and-shut-the-door-during-fire-drills-boy. A particularly detail-oriented and skilled scissor user got the job of cutting out the letters and actually creating bulletin boards every quarter or so. The girls with the best handwriting in the class wrote everyone’s names on the laminated “assignments checklist” and were allowed to keep up with who turned in what, and then go browbeat the kids who were falling behind. Other jobs included writing the daily assignments on the chalkboard at the end of the day, plugging and unplugging the potpourri pot at the back of the room, pulling down and raising the screen for the overhead, same for the blinds, and running messages back and forth to the office. Looking back I realize the genius in all of this. In fact, when I was pregnant I realized how I too could get away with pretty much ordering students to do pretty much anything (including fetching food and most of the time paying for it) in the name of… whatever… and they’d do it. I realized the year after pregnancy, most would still do it even though I could just as easily do it myself. This was the case in my fifth grade class. She did need us. But even if she hadn’t, we were her minions, and we worshiped her.
I like to believe that Miss G had a knack for assigning jobs that were indicative of a personality trait of each student. I actually had two jobs. One was refilling her “H2O To Go” cup whenever it ran dry. (I see a need and I fill it, pretty straight forward.) My primary job, however, I suspected was among the most important. *This suspicion was later confirmed when I became a teacher, a coffee drinker, and someone who generally believes that societal boundaries do not apply to them. My job was to go to the teacher’s lounge first thing every morning and get Miss G’s coffee. This was a big deal. Obviously, students aren’t generally allowed in Teacher’s Lounges. Also, Miss G didn’t take her coffee black. She took it with a bit of milk. Sometimes this one 8th grader would drink a milk first thing in the morning and save a little for Miss G’s coffee. If that was the case, either the milk was poured directly into her cup and left next to the coffee pot or the carton was left in the fridge. Other times, I had to go to the milk bin (right in front of the office windows) and take a milk. I was smiled and waved at by the office staff as they knew it was “for Miss G’s coffee.” I was four and a half feet of nothing but importance.
This brings me to April Fool’s Day of 1992. Kids had come in to school that day with a general attitude of April Fool’s Day excitement. (I recognize it now, from a teacher’s perspective that we were probably all acting like little assholes for no reason.) I’m ashamed to admit that I was peer pressured into an act of April Foolery but I’m more ashamed to admit by whom. You know how in elementary school there are the popular kids, the not-so popular kids who are just dumb enough to believe there’s a chance at acceptance into the popular group, and then the kids who are so painfully dorky or annoying or fat (or normal) that they don’t even pretend to believe they could possibly be popular? Well, at the time, I actually thought I was in the second group. Which is why I’m ashamed to admit that the peer pressure came from a member of the third, rather than the first. (It only took me two and a half more years to resign myself to the third group. Luckily, that group, in every school, gets a magical revelation sometime around sophomore year that it was probably the best place to be all along, and then we embraced it.)
So when I duck out before the morning announcements to go fetch Miss G’s coffee and the president of Group #3 approaches me at the door to say, “Claire, you should totally do something to her coffee,” my immediate thought was, naturally, “Of course I should! Because that would make me awesome today.” Nevermind that no one would even know what I had done but Miss G. Nevermind the conversation I’m missing while scampering off to be be a naughty little elf, in the name of caffeine and popularity. What I was missing was a very serious come-to-Jesus about how much Miss G hates April Fool’s Day and what it stands for. She is also delivering this speech with a passion that may or may not have brought her and others to tears.
Meanwhile, I’m in the teacher’s lounge, giggling, as I put garlic salt in her coffee (because every teacher’s lounge is just stocked full of the stuff). I re-enter the somber classroom to find my entire class apologizing for ideas they’d had, woefully sharing their own victim of April Fool’s stories, and agreeing with Miss G (some in prayer, I’m sure) as to why they also hate April Fool’s Day. I told you this woman had power. As I slowly pick up on what I had missed, mind you, I’m desperately trying not to wet my pants and praying to the Patron Saint of Spices that two tablespoons of garlic salt won’t be noticed.
The morning continues and I start to believe I might be okay. Until recess. As everyone files out the door, she calls me back in. Standing next to her behind the podium, I’m suddenly feeling nothing but shame. Little did I know at the time that I’d probably ruined the single best part of her morning. She asks me, in an unusually calm and somewhat soft voice, “Did you put salt in my coffee?” So here comes the moment that I’ve regretted for the last 19 years of my life. Here comes the moment that I’ve replayed in my head every time one of those get-to-know-you-games asks, “What is the biggest lie you ever told?” or “What is your biggest regret?” Why didn’t I own up to my mistake? Why didn’t I break down into the tears that would so easily have flowed and just got it over with? Why? Because I was four and a half feet of importance in this woman’s eyes and I didn’t want to lose that. I worshiped her.
So without even blinking (as I remember) I say, “No, Miss G.” She then says, “Okay. I needed to know. Because I need to know if it was just my cup or if the entire pot was messed with this morning.” I’m ten years old, and I have the audacity to then tack on, “Actually, the milk was already in your cup so I just filled it up.” (Of course I’m hoping this will lead her to believe the 8th grader was the culprit. What I’m not imagining is that he’s not only going to deny it, truthfully, but because he’s in 8th grade and he’s her favorite student of all time, she’s going to believe him.) But that was the end. Nothing more came of this for 19 years.
Certainly, what I did to the coffee was not the worst thing I ever did in life. But somehow, lying to Miss G really was. I have since reconnected with her in my adult life. I spent an afternoon with her just before graduating from college. She sent me a wedding present and I wrote her a long thank you note. She insists that I now call her by her first name (I can’t) and has shown me how she memorialized her trip to Australia. Even so, I have not been able to bring myself to confess what she likely knew all along, or certainly would have laughed about all these years later. I mean, if I could change places with her, certainly I’d be able to look into my adult face and disassociate it from my 10 year old face. But as myself, I cannot help but instantly be 10 years old again every time I think about that day, and I still blush, stutter, and feel ashamed in the memory.
I talk about Miss G all the time. I have probably told every single one of my high school classes this very story. I have certainly talked about it with my husband and he’s agreed with me about how irrational and silly I’m being. So I guess it is a bit of a cop out, but somehow fitting, that my apology has to come from over 2,000 miles away and is being simultaneously shared with the public over the world wide Interweb.
Yes, Miss G. I put salt in your coffee. Christina Rubio said it would be funny if I did something, so I did. And I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have lied to you the first time. And… I really hate April Fool’s Day too.
UPDATE: In Memory of Jill Gotzian, March 1, 2012
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