because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

Ode to Mark Kelly: The Man Who Helped Me Accept Chaos

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It was my third week at Metairie Park Country Day School and I could barely distinguish the administration building from the science building. I didn’t know where the nearest bathroom was, who to call about the broken desk in my classroom, or how to make the copier stop jamming.

For the first two weeks I called him Jeff. By the time I got it straight, I realized that Mark Kelly was not the technology guy; neither was he the Athletic Director. He was the Middle School Principal, and he’d come to the English office to pay me a visit, to see how I was doing, if I needed anything. How nice, I thought, how friendly the folks are around these parts. Little did I know that he was out to get me. Little did I know that I’d come face to face with the meanest practical joker east of the Mississippi. I made the mistake of sounding secure.

Mark Kelly

“Everything is great,” I said, trying to sound confident.

“Have you been to the Lower School?” he asked.

“Been there.” I said, feigning a yawn.

“What about the library?”

“Pu-leeze,” I lied.

“So you know what you’re doing?” he said, raising his eyebrow. “You have it all together?”

I nodded my head, snapped my fingers two times for effect, and headed off to class.  Later, after school ended and I had erased the blackboard, reorganized the desks in a circle, and collected my mail, I returned to the English office. I saw it from all the way across the room; my desk had been cleared. Everything was gone.

When I realized the gravity of the situation, I gasped aloud: “My grade book!” It held all my students’ grades, all my attendance records.  I think I vomited a little in my mouth.

Sitting behind me, looking calm, was Mr. Kelly.  He smiled, arms crossed over his chest.  “So, you’ve really got it all together…”

“Where is it?  What have you done with it?!” I squeaked.

“It’s around,” he said coolly.

Suffice it to say that Mr. Kelly sent me on quite a scavenger hunt. During my journey, I located the Lower School atrium, the Upper School attendance office, the library – and I met fabulous folks all along the way. In the end, it turned out that Mr. Kelly had stashed all my goods in an empty file cabinet drawer right there in the English office, about two steps away from my desk. I pulled all my belongings out of the drawer, unharmed, and set about reorganizing. Mr. Kelly gurgled and chortled behind me.

Truth be told, I miss the way Mark Kelly batted me around the way some giant cat might play with a mouse or a bird. I miss hearing his booming laugh behind me at school plays; I miss his multi-colored Tabasco ties; I miss his wit, his charm, his teasing, and his teaching. Mark put a little bounce in my step. He taught me to stay on my toes.  He taught me never to brag about being done with something early. He taught me how order in the world is artificial and how easy it is to lose control. He made me explore, go out and meet people, go into unfamiliar territory, and find answers. It is so easy to get stuck in our own little comfort zones.

Mark has been working as Head of School at Annunciation Orthodox School in Houston, Texas for the last 14 years. I like to think that this little Grasshopper has become like her master and that I instill in my students the same thrill for exploration and the same joy at being slightly off- center.

When is the last time someone made you feel a little off balance – in a good way?

The Day I Got It All Wrong

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photo from goldsardine at flickr.com

When I teach, I come to class prepared. In fact, I sometimes come to class with a Plan A, Plan B and an Emergency Back-Up Plan. I think this stems from the days when I didn’t exactly know what I was doing. Case in point: Many years ago, when I was just starting out, students were completing their last day of oral presentations. One girl was standing up before the class doing her thing and a small group of boys were being – well, let’s just say, a little bit disruptive. Nothing major. They just weren’t really interested in the symbolism that she had found so riveting in Ordinary People.

I tried to get the attention of one of the boys. No luck. I tried to make eye contact with another. Nothin’. Finally, I took my pen – a Precise V5 extra fine tip pen in hand and attempted to throw it so that it would hit the main offender: Let’s call him Hugo. It should be noted here – and you can’t make this stuff up – that Hugo just so happened to have one good eye, having lost the other eye several years earlier although I never found out the circumstances surrounding how it had happened. Anyway, I tried to aim for Hugo’s leg – to get his attention without disrupting the entire class. I figured he’d feel the pen tap his leg, look at me, I’d give him “the death eye” and he’d stop screwing around. It seemed foolproof.

I don’t know how it happened because I usually have pretty good aim, but anyone who was in the class that day would vouch for the fact that the pen did not hit Hugo on the leg. That pen had a mind of its own and fueled by green ink, it launched itself upwards right into Hugo’s face just below (or maybe above?) his good eye.

Hugo stood up before the entire class holding his face, “What the hell are you are doing?” he shouted (and with good reason). “You could have blinded me?” And with that, Hugo announced that he was going to the nurse, the principal and, then, he was going to call his mother.

I had done precisely what I had set out not to do. I had disrupted the class completely. At the time, I pretty sure that I was going to be fired. After apologizing to the student presenter for creating such a commotion, class ended, and I hustled up to the Upper School principal to whom I confessed all my terrible, unforgivable sins. She clucked her tongue at me, told me to call Hugo’s mother, and explain what had happened. Thank goodness, Hugo’s mother was wonderful, supportive, understanding – and even joked that sometimes she wanted to poke out Hugo’s good eye. Later, I also apologized to Hugo who  apologized to me for being disruptive and disrespectful.

I have often thought about my experience with Hugo. As a new teacher, I was trying to figure things out. After throwing a pen at my wonderful student, I learned many things: First and foremost, I learned to never throw anything at anyone in-class ever again.  But I learned a lot of other things, too. Over time, I discovered more creative methods to communicate with students about their behavior without making the class come to a grinding halt.  I learned a great deal about respect that day and how quick-actions can lead to terrible consequences. I learned that sometimes teachers need to apologize to their students because sometimes teachers are the biggest twits of all. We learn from experience.

Oh, and I didn’t  get fired.

What’s a not-so-great thing you did on the job that turned into a huge learning moment?