Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Lunch/recess duty on a rainy Tuesday

One could argue that my having volunteer lunch/recess duty for both the second grade and fifth grade yesterday smacked of divine justice. After all, what I did back in September was subversive. Each parent who is available to volunteer for lunch/recess duty is urged to sign up for one regularly recurring day a month: say, first Tuesdays or fourth Fridays or whatever. Parents like me, who would rather have gum surgery than be lunch/recess volunteers but still believe deep in their hearts that school volunteering is the price we pay for the luxury of being self-employed and working from home, sign up first – and grab the coveted fifth days. The fifth Monday, the fifth Tuesday, and so on. Most months, there’s only four of each day; fifths of each one come along only a few times a year, and some of those months are bound to be during vacations. So we grab the fifths and consider our responsibilities fulfilled.

Rather like gum surgery, when I noted fifth Tuesday lunch coverage in my appointment book last fall, March seemed as far off as the next millennium. Eventually, though, it was time to pay the piper. And it served me right for my sneakiness that my day to supervise lunch and recess along with a paid aide and a few other volunteers fell on Day 2 of a massive three-day rainstorm at the end of the rainiest March in Massachusetts history. Little kids cooped up for lunch and indoor recess when it’s been pouring for days on end? Some might say I got just what I deserved.

Except I had a pretty good time. It turns out when you work by yourself six hours a day, immersing yourself in elementary school clamor for two hours is a fine diversion. Normally I dread the lunchroom. Our school cafeteria, though well-lit, spacious and relatively clean, always puts me in mind of that urban myth that pervades at universities all over the country about architects who designed the library without taking into account the weight of the books, so the structure is supposedly sinking into the ground by several inches a year. I’m convinced that the team who designed and built our school cafeteria neglected to think about the noise generated by 200 kids eating lunch together at once. The acoustics are deadly; the volume at times barrier-breaking.

But yesterday it didn’t seem so bad, and neither did the indoor recesses I supervised, one in the fifth grade classroom and one with the second graders. When I arrived in the fifth grade room, the teacher had just started showing an animated film about the build-up to the American Revolution. I was amused at how the kids seemed glued to the screen. Maybe it was the Disney-ish visuals, but they appeared compelled by the movie. And they knew their history, too. When a slim African-American woman was asked who she was and her companion replied tartly, “Only the first-ever African-American to publish a volume of poetry!” at least half the kids called out, “Phillis Wheatley!” When Benjamin Franklin’s apprentice described how his mentor’s lightning rod had saved his life during a storm, the audience cheered.

The children had use of two connected classrooms; those who were not watching the film were in other room talking, reading or playing games. I dropped in there to see what was going on and found my son and three other boys batting a beanbag ball back and forth with their hands. “Hi, Nancy!” yelled one of Tim’s best friends, dispensing immediately with the typical classroom formalities of Mr. and Mrs. I was pleasantly surprised to get such a warm welcome.

The second graders were a little less resourceful in their use of indoor recess, but they won me over anyway by making me feel useful. Two boys were tossing a nerf football when it arced up to a high shelf and got stuck behind a folded blanket. They asked me to get it down. Only in a roomful of second graders do I have the honor of being the tallest person in the room, but I felt terribly useful as I climbed onto the chair one of them brought me and fumbled around until my fingers located the nerf ball. They cheered when I tossed it down. And that wasn’t the end of my usefulness. I used my well-honed mediation skills to head off an imminent fist fight over Legos (“The fact is, Jeff, even if you think the red one was in your pile and Ryan says it was in his, there’s five hundred others just like it in this bin”) and solved another child’s problem by proving myself able to sound out the word toboggan. A useful lesson for me: If you want to feel clever, strong, physically capable and generally important, go spend an hour with a classroom full of second graders.

Plus I got presents. While the boys played with Legos and nerf footballs, the girls were coloring. And to my great surprise, many of them gave me artwork to take home. One made a flowered bookmark for me. Another made a picture of a pink cat, and a third drew a sketch of herself throwing up. As I mentioned, it was pouring outside, so I can’t say any of those gifts survived beyond the school parking lot, but I was delighted with my haul.

So maybe next year I’ll be more generous and sign up for a real commitment, not the Cheater’s Fifths as I like to think of those fifth days. But maybe I won’t. I wouldn’t want the novelty to wear off. And once the kids grow tall enough to reach their own nerf balls down from the upper shelf, I might find myself far less in demand during indoor recess.

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