Today, I was in charge of running lunch.
Lunch is a horrendous affair, sometimes. The entire eighth and ninth grades sit down to eat together, six or seven students to a table, and a faculty member or two with them. It’s one of my daily duties to decide when dessert gets put out, and to make sure all the tables are clear at the end of the meal. I also am responsible for decorum and discipline at lunch during the meal, and for assigning students to be Waiters – each responsible for clearing one table. Skipping line, table manners, wasting food, and all the rest…
Ordinarily, I do a very good job with this duty. Today was… well… an exception. There were mitigating circumstances — I was away from campus last night, and I didn’t get the e-mail that I was subsitute-teaching for one of my absent colleagues first period until 90 minutes before classes started. That meant I truncated my own morning preparations a lot. I didn’t walk the dog or feed her. I didn’t go through my morning exercises. I didn’t have a cup of coffee until almost 9 am. I didn’t have breakfast. The period before lunch ran just a little long, and I didn’t get to lunch in time to “show the flag” and let students know I was there and watching.
Turns out it was Mexican chicken wraps… a flour burrito wrap, with some pieces of spicy chicken in them, and then a do-it-yourself (DIY) bar of salsa, lettuce, cheese, sour cream, onions and other fixins’. Very popular with the students and adults. It was a very hectic meal.
Two minutes before the bell is supposed to ring to end the meal, and before we all troop off to our next class, I find that there are a lot of empty seats. Oh no, I think. Popular dessert on top of popular main meal? Disaster. I have a lot of announcements because of the possibility of bad weather this afternoon — possible changes to the sports schedule.
A quick examination reveals that the dessert line has stretched out of the serving area into the lobby of the dining hall. But students — who! are! eating! and! drinking! in! the! serving! area! — are skipping to the head of the line, grabbing their brownies, and dashing away to eat them.
No hesitation on my part. I grab the first three kids I see skipping ahead of the 35 people in line, and pull them and their grubby, grabby little hands out of the brownies. I start yelling at them for their atrocious behavior, and exceptionally bad manners.
One of the kids in the line taps me gingerly on the shoulder.
“Mr. Watt… they weren’t cutting in line.” He’s clearly nervous, but standing up for what’s right, and I’m proud of him for that even as I absorbe what he’s telling me. “They’re just getting dessert. We —” and here he waves at the long line stretching behind him, “are waiting for more chicken wraps.”
The chef looks at me and shrugs. “We ran out. Popular meal today.”
I apologize to the students I’ve just wronged, but my apology is still laced with anger. Not good. I slink back to my usual place near the dining hall bell, feeling shamed. A few words from This Day In History — World War I, eleventh hour, eleventh minute, and all that.
We expect teachers to be perfect, in a lot of ways. To keep their patience, to hold a child’s attention for hours, to manage paperwork, to deliver cogent advice, to observe, to connect, to analyze and synthesize, and above all to be perfect models of what good adults should be.
On this occasion, though, I wasn’t any of those things. I didn’t take the 30 seconds it would have taken to read the situation. I saw only the broken rules of the dining hall; the rules I’ve made it my business and duty to notice and enforce… but a situation that looked bad only looked bad — it wasn’t actually bad. And this sort of thing happens at least a few meals a year.
I miss it almost every time.
It’s taken me a long time to learn how to do and be all those things reasonably successfully on a day-to-day basis, often for weeks or months at a time. So why is it that when I lose my cool and drop the ball, it feels so much like a massive and irreparable failure?