~ Orange Balloons ~

§ Memories

I only really remember three things that happened in Miss Elmer’s1 first-grade classroom.

I remember the time Nicole Tobin2 stabbed me in the hand with a pencil—though, to be fair, one’s first shanking is extremely low-hanging fruit, memorywise. I still have a tiny red blemish at the base of my right thumb, on the part that’s famous in culinary circles for having the same firmness as a properly rare steak. What I did to provoke her I can’t recall.

I remember that once I started sobbing in the middle of Reading Time because my dog Nikki had died the day before. And because Reading Time stories feature dogs at a rate way out of proportion to their occurrence in nature. My tears hit the little child-sized table so hard that I startled, like tears must do in elementary schools on Jupiter.

And I remember The Worksheet, handed down during Math Time one Friday morning: a mimeographed clown holding a bunch of balloons with addition problems inside them. We were supposed to record each sum and color its balloon according to whether the solution was even or odd. Blue or red, respectively.

Here’s the thing: somehow I’d lost my red crayon. The details of its disappearance are unrecoverable, but you can imagine. A six-year-old’s red crayon is in pretty heavy rotation, and many are the hazards to a small child’s small possessions. It’s absolutely possible that I’d hucked it at Nicole Tobin.

What I hadn’t lost was my red-orange crayon, because red-orange is a silly, needless color unbefitting scholarly work. The Comic Sans of the electromagnetic spectrum. And so it came to pass that all of my odd balloons turned red-orange before being dutifully filed with Miss Elmer.

Miss Elmer looked like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, two years after the movie ends. After those insufferable Von Trapp mutts and the morosity of exile had siphoned off her youth and humor. To give you some idea.

I know it was a Friday because Friday afternoons we jostled into a single-file line outside the classroom door and went down the hall—also left through the gymnasium—to Miss Greene’s room to watch educational film strips.3 We definitely did not squeak our sneakers on the gym floor, which transgression required a reboot of the entire process. Miss Elmer had a lot of little gotchas like that.

§ Greene’s Room

Let me tell you that Miss Greene’s room had much to recommend it. For one thing, it’s where Miss Greene lived—by far the coolest adult I’d ever met. She had asymmetrical ear piercings and spiky hair that was always two colors, minimum. She shouted a lot, but in the best possible way. She forever had interesting things dangling off her wrists. And then there was the room itself. It was attached to the gym and obviously not originally intended to be a classroom, which automatically scores any room major points. It also doubled as overflow storage for Phys. Ed. equipment, so you might walk in and see a cage full of dodgeballs or a stack of hula hoops tucked into a corner. That kind of nonsense would’ve caused Miss Elmer measurable cardiac distress, but not Miss Greene. You could just tell she was a hula hoop kind of lady. Plus, as I mentioned, the film projector.

But mostly Miss Greene’s room housed Connie Hackett, the love of my life. On Fridays we Elmer kids would file singly into the back of the room for some 24-fps instruction on Stranger Danger or proper hygiene techniques or whatever, but I remember none of that. Due to certain rules about facing forward and how often we should be doing it, I spent most of my time falling in love with the back of Connie Hackett’s head. Sometimes she would turn a few rebellious degrees off square, and from that oblique profile I could use archival mental footage to extrapolate the rest of her face. One of the brain’s finest tricks, if you ask me. Needless to say, I missed out on a lot of educational film strips. To this day I’m not entirely certain that I clip my toenails in a way the Pennsylvania Department of Education would sign off on.

Here’s a picture of Connie:

Right? Now you understand the fuss.

§ Caught Red-Orange-Handed

But so after lunch this particular Friday I started to jostle toward my usual lineal spot when Miss Elmer held me bodily back. Turns out I was not going to Miss Greene’s room with the rest of the class. I was going to sit right back down at my child-sized table and do my clown worksheet correctly, is what she said.

This was my first run-in with the K-12 justice system—so I was nervous—but at least I was in the right. I thought we were going to have a collegial chuckle about this, Miss Elmer and I. Certainly, my good woman, this is a hilarious misunderstanding. If you’ll kindly check your records you’ll find that I even colored the zero balloon blue, which I know was meant to trip us up, but such is the level of my mathematical acumen. Moreover, I’d be happy to chat about why the zero balloon was supposed to be tricky, so that you might make special note of my emergent pedagogical chops in addition to this even/odd business, which—and I’m not trying to tell you how to do your job, here—is probably more on the Extra Credit end of the spectrum at my age, one would sort of have to think. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m running a bit late for a screening.

Of course there was no misunderstanding. The instructions had plainly said to color the odd balloons red, which—strictly speaking—I had not. Strictly being Miss Elmer’s primary manner of speaking. I was given a cursory opportunity to appeal the decision, which only made things worse. I had to cop to losing my red crayon, along with the lesser included charge of evasion. I’m afraid I also came off a bit unsociable when asked why I hadn’t “borrowed one from a neighbor,” since I was forced to articulate a theretofore informal policy against involving my neighbors in just about anything. Good fences, etc.

We both knew—though it’s possible I wasn’t so articulate at the time—that the point of the balloon exercise was to assess whether I could reliably perform single-digit addition and/or categorize whole numbers by their parity. It was certainly not an exercise in distinguishing normal red from ugly red. But that was my second mistake: the point of the balloon exercise, as with so many school-based exercises, was to follow the instructions.

My relationship with Miss Elmer never fully recovered. I realize that my sob story here is just about the gentlest way possible for an adult in a position of authority to violate a young child’s trust. It’s more of a sniffle story, really. But it was the first hairline crack I ever noticed in the porcelain façade of civility covering student-teacher relationships, which—being human—are actually often bedraggled and fraught.

§ Growing Up

As grownup4 and a teacher, I’m more ambivalent about Miss Elmer than I used to be. I mean, I get it. We’ve all had some version of this thought: Given the constraints outlined in my employment contract, the U.S. legal corpus, and [moral/religious framework], how can I possibly get [Child] to stop [mildly sociopathic activity]?

Sometimes the answer to that question is: You can’t, really. Sometimes, despite all of our best efforts and hopeful struggling, mild sociopaths will be mild sociopaths. It’s just part of learning the boundaries of adult society. But here’s what we can do, and it’s a dangerous privelege: we can always, always be right. Partly because, by virtue of our position, we get a disproportionate say in what that word even means. And partly because we’re old5 and cynical and understand that technical correctness can be a devastating weapon against the unwary.

Point is, I empathize. I’m sure Miss Elmer was picking tile-smooshed crayon out of her shoes for like the fifth time in three days when she said to herself, What can I possibly do? And then, a moment later: Fine. Let’s play.

With this much temporal distance between us, she almost seems reasonable. Lord knows I’ve been on the other side of that exchange a few times. Ooh…so close, Jackie. But I asked you to find solutions in [0, 2π), and 2π isn’t in [0, 2π). Shame. This is precisely the kind of thing I might overlook for a student who didn’t call me a prickface on Tuesday.

It’s not difficult to rationalize a small unkindness. Maybe it’s a life lesson. Maybe it’s about grit or perseverance or general constitutional hardiness. Maybe it’s a tiny bit of Hammurabic counterweight. Maybe it’s self-defense. Maybe it’s just because somebody has to answer for all these goddamn crayons on the floor, lest the world descend into chaos and despair. And anyway it’s so very small, this unkindness. Trivial.

But the perpetrator of unkindness doesn’t get to judge its size or scope. It’s impossible to plumb from without. I’m sure Miss Elmer has no recollection of the orange balloon incident. In my mind, though, its only peers are a death and a stabbing. It represents a day I had to spend, for no good reason, away from someone I loved. And love. It’s fully one-third of what I remember about Miss Elmer.

I’m very fortunate; my story has a happy ending. I went on to have many wonderful interactions with public school teachers.6 I went on to love math. I even went on (eventually) to become a public school teacher of math.

And last month, Connie Hackett became Connie Lusto.

But every interaction you have with a student has the potential to shape her memory of you forever. Every conversation is an all-in gamble on your legacy in the eyes of one other human being. You won’t be perfect. I won’t either.

But it’s worth remembering that your students will remember. What, exactly, is up to you.

  1. Originally I used her real name. Then I took a teaching job in the district. So…not her real name.

  2. Totally her real name. Someone needs to track Nicole Tobin down before she strikes again. I only hope we’re not too late.

  3. If you combine the film strip and mimeograph references, you can carbon-date me.

  4. Well, grownup-adjacent person.

  5. I don’t care that you’re 22. That’s plenty old enough to be old by comparison.

  6. Even Miss Elmer. I don’t remember, but I’m statistically certain she was kind to me. Probably often.