Sometimes when the green-bursting wonder of spring overwhelms all other considerations, I remember a childhood race and an adult conversation: two occasions when I accomplished the impossible, said the right thing, proved my mettle.
On clean-up day, an annual spring event at Lake Shore Elementary, students spent the afternoon outdoors: raking, weeding, collecting trash, and complaining.
We tried to behave, but running wild in the heady air of spring appealed to us much more than sweeping sidewalks.
As the afternoon wore on, our high spirits took over, and we began throwing gravel, swinging sacks of garbage at each other, and hiding from our teachers behind the scraggly shrubs edging the school.
After hours of such drudgery, our teachers said we’d done enough and told everybody to line up at one end of the playground for an all-school race. After instructing us to race to the far end of the field and back, the principal blasted on a whistle, and the stampede began.
The weary staff members then retired to a shady spot where they could watch for the buses that would free them.
As usual, I failed to respond to the start signal until most of the pack took off, but by the time I touched the fence at the other end and started the journey back, my legs were uncoiled, and I was in the mix.
As we neared the finish, I burst ahead of sixth-grade speedster Sam Huff and gained on Lois Andrews, sixth-grade star. Like the little engine that could, I drew even, and then, my legs, hair, and heart flying, I left Lois behind. I had won the all-school race — as a fifth-grader.
Lois pulled in behind me.
She leaned over, clutched her stomach, and screeched that she let me win; she had a stitch in her side, appendicitis probably.
But everybody knew better, and my classmates celebrated my victory with exuberance and at length — until the next day when Leon Aiken fell off the jungle gym at recess, broke his nose, and replaced me in the limelight.
On another sun-sweetened, daffodil day many years later, I traveled to San Francisco with a fellow teacher, Dottie, to attend a weekend workshop. Her brother, an executive in a technology firm, had invited us to a party on Saturday night for the company’s sales division.
Dottie assured me the food would be great, and we decided to attend.
I walked into her brother’s loft apartment in full teacher regalia — flat shoes for my tired legs, a print dress resistant to smears and spills, fingers permanently stained by felt-tip markers — and entered an unknown world: power dressing and conversations about stock options, sales quotas, and mergers.
I stood mutely in a corner, trying to blend into the drapes, and thought, “What am I doing here? I’m out of my league. I can’t talk to these people, I’m just a teacher.”
Then, three miracles occurred.
First, a kindly gentleman approached, introduced himself, and asked about my sales numbers for the quarter. Next — truly miraculous — I had an answer: “Well, I can’t give you an exact number.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, choking on his cocktail. “You don’t know how many units you’ve moved?”
“It’s difficult to describe my ongoing sales numerically,” I said, “I’m a teacher. I sell understandings and ideas.”
Wow! Boffo-Bango! Score!
I then experienced the third miracle: this richly dressed, successful stranger said, “Oh, wow, really? That’s great. My best friend’s a teacher. I don’t know how you guys do it.”
I floated through the rest of the evening, proudly telling others that I taught fourth grade. In return, they told me about teachers who’d had an impact on their lives or about loved ones who were teachers.
I realized the nice people eating clam dip and sushi as they spoke the language of their business world weren’t so different from me after all.
And I never again referred to myself as “just a teacher.”
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