#39 – Wet Paint

Before and after.

Early in my teaching career, I realized that I had to anticipate the trips, falls, and spills my students would no doubt be witnessing by sharing with them, on Day 1, that I was a klutz. I’d ask them if they knew what the word meant, which many – but not all – did; the word “clumsy” came up most often. There you go: I was teaching vocabulary right from the get-go! But there was something about the word klutz, or klutzy, that just worked better; it sounded sort of cute. Or at least that’s what I told myself.

I might tell my students the story of when I fell right on my mouth, somehow unable to block my fall with my hands, when I was walking home from school in fourth grade, ending with teeth like the characters in Twilight for too many years, until they could finally be capped. Or the time when I bit into a peach just before my younger daughter’s graduation from high school, breaking one of the caps in half; of course, it was my dentist’s day off and he was out of the area, so my husband attempted to glue it on – under the dentist’s directions – with super glue. Despite my daughter’s initial request (begging?) to stay home, I wasn’t missing this graduation, though I will admit that the half-blackened-teeth pirate look doesn’t work well when you are seeing parents and teens that you haven’t seen in years. The closed-mouth smile I resorted to just made me look like I was constipated.

The students would have a few minutes to share stories of klutziness – falls down stairs happening most often. And then we’d talk about the local hospital, about the times I had been there (sometimes with my kids or husband, but mostly for me), and whether they had spent time there as well.

I’d point out the long straps of the Chromebook bags students were allowed to carry, and the book bags that the girls, in particular, loved; although backpacks weren’t allowed, these were sneaky ways to essentially bring one with morning and afternoon books and, very frequently, an inability to find anything at all. I will fall on these straps, I would explain, and the substitute you get – if I’m sent out on a stretcher – will be giving you tons more work than even I do. (My reputation preceded me.) I would explain that, to avoid this situation, students had to keep the bags all the way under the desks or place them on a side table or counter until the end of class. (There were those students who, I would discover, just couldn’t handle that instruction, which I took into account when doing my seating, making sure to put them where I was least likely to go down.)

Mostly, on that first day of school, I was anticipating the times when this would happen in the classroom throughout the year, so that we would – I hoped – all laugh together. Though of course I was deluding myself: There was no way my students wouldn’t laugh at me behind my back. I mean, they were kids; I would have probably done the same.

There were plenty of school stories, as well, though I held back on telling those early on. There was the time I caught my fingers between the door frame and the giant TV I was wheeling in on a cart, back in the day, observed by my entire class in the hall. There was the time I tripped during standardized testing, falling hard on my knee, but pretending everything was fine because I didn’t want to create a testing discrepancy; at least that day, the students had something to interest them during the endless morning.

One of my worst school falls happened the year before I retired, a few months into the year, when I fell full and hard on the floor in front of the entire class, sprawled down the entire aisle between tables. I want to say that it was because of those bag straps, or really anything else, but there was truly nothing in my way except my own left feet. The students all watched me in fear; they actually did seem worried. I pushed myself up, which, amazingly, I was able to do. From far away, I heard a few students ask if I was okay. My knees hurt – both, this time – and I felt somewhat dazed, but – whew! – I was. I actually was! (I would be black and blue and somewhat stiff for a few days, but I could still walk, so I was good.) I remember looking around the room, seeing the panic recede from the students’ eyes, and I smiled. “Okay, guys, thanks for being so respectful. I’m okay. So now I’m going you permission to laugh,” I said. Only one kid did it – one of my best, most fun-loving jokesters. “Reaaaallyyy,” I said. “You will regret this.” And that was the start of a wonderful year of jokes and tricks for that class that actually knit us together. (A later post on this situation is forthcoming.)

Remember, my goal was to have them laugh with me, not at me. There was no other way to live this one down.

So it was that in May of last year, less than two months left to my teaching career, the Art Squad took on a project to paint the cinder blocks outside the classrooms in the seventh-grade hallway and add messages of positivity in line with a team project we had been involved with that year. E-mails were sent and received, signs were put up, and the painting began. But one thing was left out: rope or tape or chairs or just about anything to stop my feet from walking right up to the freshly painted spot and my body – somehow – leaning against it. And, of course, that particular day, I was wearing long, billowing, ’60s-style sleeves that caught the blue paint from top to bottom. How my hands got covered, I couldn’t say.

Here’s the thing about being a klutz, as it involves spilling coffee or other drinks and – in this case – leaning into wet paint: I’m excellent at laundry. I can use Spray ‘n’ Wash like nobody’s business, bringing back stained clothes to a long life. That day, though, the only Spray ‘n” Wash I had was the stick, meant to treat clothing until you have a chance to get to a washing machine, so I began a full soak in cold water in the bathroom sink. Thankfully, the Art Squad worked in washable paint, and I got a decent amount off right then, but class was starting, so I grabbed a tee shirt I kept in my classroom for occasional walks to use.

And, of course, we talked about me as a klutz, and my afternoon classes shared their stories once again.

Yes, being a klutz is part of who I am – always has been, and always will be. As someone with osteoporosis and osteopenia, I do strength training in hopes that when – not if, but when – I take a serious fall one day, I’ll have a better chance of recovery. I hope.

Meanwhile, somewhere out in the world are students who may not remember much about me, but who will surely remember the little trips I took in their presence.

And I’m okay with that.

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