Nacho Day! An exciting time in an elementary school cafeteria. It doesn’t take much to get kids riled up, so a break from fractions coupled with liquid cheese will certainly do the trick.
My professional career had just begun and it’s my first lunch duty. The kids are wild, trading or grabbing from each other, trying to flip water bottles, turning foods they hate into science experiments. Remember this? Mushy peas, lukewarm applesauce, chocolate milk and Cheetos crumbs stirred together into a disgusting soup and then displayed to your table mates. Boys this age are generally amused while the girls are either grossed out or tell their male counterparts to “grow up.”
These are 5th graders who, at this school, are the top dogs. They own this place and are beginning to realize that the illusion of adult control is just that. They don’t know me but they realize I’m new and teach a lower grade level so we’re sizing each other up.
I walk one side of the cavernous, brightly-lit room and my counterpart paces the other, like guards at a minimum security prison. The only real differences? They’re swapping Skittles instead of cigarettes and sometimes need help with their juice boxes.
Suddenly there’s a commotion and a boy defiantly raises his hand. We both walk over but my duty partner, Mary Beth, gets there first. “What’s the problem?” she demands.
Let me introduce you to Mary Beth. She is a 3rd grade teacher who is probably close to 40 but seems younger because she is so wide-eyed and, frankly, somewhat clueless.
How clueless? Here’s an example. She once had a child come tell that the boy next to him was doing something so naughty, it could only be reported in a whisper: “He wrote ‘D-head.’
“D-head?” she impatiently repeated, “What’s D-head?”
“You know, Mrs. Martin, a bad word that starts with D and has ‘head’ on the end.” She did NOT know and so began a guessing game.
“Dumb head?” she ventured.
“Doo doo head?”
“No. no. no.”
Finally, both of them frustrated, the child realized he’d have to say it. Eyes on his shoes, in a barely audible whisper, he taught Mary Beth a new word: “Dickhead.”
This was some 30 years ago but ‘D-head’ is still what my family says if you cut us off in traffic or make a mean play in a card game. It’s a fun word. Feel free to use it. But let’s head back to the cafeteria.
“Jason stole my dessert!” the hand-raiser angrily informs us.
“He stole your dessert?” Mary Beth asks, “What kind of dessert was it?”
Now the boy hesitates. “Uh,” he stammers, “a cookie.”
“A cookie?” she asks, “What kind of cookie?” At this point it seems the child regrets calling us over but there’s no turning back so he answers, “It was a, um, a Ding Dong.”
A Ding Dong, in case you’ve forgotten, is chocolate cake with cream inside covered in chocolate candy. A Hostess masterpiece, in my opinion. But that name. Preteen smiles begin to emerge and I’m practicing my new cranky teacher face to keep my own grin at bay.
I’m the junior here so I’ve no choice but to let her continue. “Where is it now, this Ding Dong?” my air-headed colleague demands. By this point kids are pursing their lips and squeezing their eyes shut to keep from snickering.
Our dessert-less victim mumbles: “It’s in his hand, under the table.” We’re barely holding it together, the kids and I, but Mary Beth has had enough of this nonsense. She wants it over NOW so she loudly and angrily demands: “JASON! ARE YOU HOLDING JEREMY’S DING DONG UNDER THE TABLE?”
It’s too much. Kids are falling off the bench laughing and I’m biting my lip, eyes on the ceiling.
She turns to me, all innocence and confusion. “What did I say?” she asks. This just makes the kids howl harder, squealing with delight, banging their tiny fists on the table. We’ve completely lost control here.
I pull her aside and whisper in her ear. “Mary Beth,” I say with a meaningful eyebrow raise, “you just asked that child if he was holding the other boy’s Ding Dong under the table!” I detect no spark of understanding for three or four beats and then it hits her.
Have you ever watched closely when someone get embarrassed? It’s possible to actually see the color rush from the neck into the face in that moment and it’s pretty amazing. “OH!” she exclaims, “Oh my goodness!”
She runs from the cafeteria, leaving me – the newbie – to act the disciplinarian while I’m dying to just sit down and laugh with the kids.
But I don’t. I get them settled and this is the moment I realize that teaching is largely an acting job and, with enough practice, I WILL be able to do it.
And Jeremy? He got his cookie back. As a bonus, he also got a nickname that day. I often wonder how he’s doing, good old Ding Dong.