Pushing open my classroom door, I sighed at the mess that greeted me. After battling the flu for a week, I had finally returned to my classroom to face the music: as hard as I worked to establish a daily routine for my students and leave detailed lesson plans for my substitute, I knew I would be lucky if a week away didn’t turn my classroom into a zoo. On the way to my desk, I grabbed a Starbucks cup from the windowsill, wads of paper from the file crates and a Pepsi can from the bookshelf. Although the custodian had swept in my absence, he had missed these little gifts tucked away by my students. I dropped them in the trash, then faced my desk, which was covered with the remains of too many days without me: memos from my mailbox, stacks of student work, (to be graded) and a note from the sub: “No problems, Mrs. B. All went fine.” Sure, fine, I thought, knowing otherwise. If they had stashed their trash all around the room, I can be pretty certain that all was not fine. But this was typical of 8th graders who felt abandoned by a teacher. In their mind, I wasn’t home nursing the flu; I was sunning myself on a beach somewhere while they slaved away in the classroom. They communicated resentment with each crumpled soda can and wad of paper. But 8th graders are fickle, and I knew they would be back on track once they saw me back in the classroom.
I glanced at the clock, and with only 10 minutes before the first bell, did a quick triage of my desk. Ungraded papers into one daunting stack, office memos into another, and my mug of tea safely off to the side. Buried under the mess was my lesson plan book. I grabbed it and a whiteboard pen, and jotted an agenda on the board. The bell rang as I stepped behind my desk to retrieve the day’s journal prompt. Sliding open my desk drawer, I pulled out a file and felt the familiar tickle of a cough dance up my throat. I stood up, hoping that an upright posture might push the cough back down. My classroom door flew open and students bounded in.
“Mrs. B! Oh my God, you’re back! I can’t believe you gave us that sub! He was, like, such a loser!” Sarah’s dimples showed her delight at both slamming the sub and seeing her teacher again.
“Mrs. B., dude, where were you?” Anthony’s tone accused me of welching on my responsibility to live in my classroom for his convenience.
“I was sick,” I started to say, but before I could finish, the cough that started as a tickle turned aggressive. I put my hand to my mouth, cleared my throat, and tried again to speak. By now a crowd of students had gathered around my desk.
“I wasn’t here either,” I said. “Did you check the homework file?” I coughed again, and fluids began to seep out of my eyes and nose. I grabbed a tissue, dabbed my face, and reached for my tea. Before I could take a sip, another student clamored for my attention.
“Mrs. B., my printer is all messed up; look what it did,” Ashley said, shoving a crumpled document in my face.
“What are we doing today?” another student asked.
“Is our homework due now? Should I staple it?”
“Why were you gone? You can’t do that again! That sub was so lame!”
I raised my hand toward the students, a traffic cop in an intersection signaling the cars to stop, but the gesture went unnoticed.
“Is anything due today?”
“I have to change seats, Mrs. B. Jessica is like totally harassing me on Facebook and my mom said you have to move me. So can I sit next to Shawna?”
“I don’t have my homework. I was at my dad’s and my book’s at my mom’s and she’s out of town and I’m going to my gramma’s after school. So, like, is it late?”
Their voices melded into one as I lost my battle with the cough. Tears streamed from my eyes as I struggled to get the tea to my mouth. A quick swallow, though, only aggravated the situation. I grabbed for the side of my desk, gasping for air at the same time that my lungs expelled it. Ignoring my students, I felt for my chair, fell backwards and surrendered. The faces around my desk blurred, their voices muffled, and just as I slid out of my chair and onto the floor, I heard, “OMG, Mrs. B., are you OK? You look awful!”
Finally! A student who saw my distress! A student who understood that I too, am human! A student who could see past his own immediate needs …
“So, Mrs. B., is there, like, any homework due today?”