Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Teacher in the Grocery Aisle

I was probably eight years old when it happened to me. I was in Morey's IGA with my mother, in the condiments aisle. Partly because I was working toward a Girl Scout badge, partly because I was sort of a nerdy kid, and probably more because I was already showing some math deficiencies, my mother used to have me figure out the better deals on products based on cost per volume (or some such mathematical formula). So there I was, calculating the price of relish, when around the corner came a lady pushing a cart and smiling at me from a distance. She looked very familiar. I thought maybe I knew her. Maybe she was one of my friends' moms, or one of my mom's friends. Maybe she went to my church. Maybe she worked at the hairdresser, where I got my not-so-cute pixie cut. Maybe she worked at my doctor's office, where I sat three times a week as I waited to see if I had a reaction to my allergy shot. Maybe she was a lunch lady. Yeah, I knew her from school probably. Maybe she was a secretary. A bus driver. A room mother. She wheeled closer, close enough for me to finally place her. Mrs. Hebert! My teacher! In a grocery store! Wait, Mrs. Hebert? My teacher? In a grocery store? I ran.

The sudden (it's always sudden) realization that teachers are human beings is a universal experience for kids. And the epiphany is neither a one-time deal nor reserved for just the elementary years. Over and over, again and again, we discover that our teachers are somehow, weirdly, normal. I saw my high school Spanish teacher smoking in his office once. Sure he was a neighbor, too, but that teacher-aura still existed... until I saw him in that cramped, smelly, cloudy space. And I can tell by their expressions that my students whom I see at the beach in the summer are startled and struggle deeply with the idea that I... swim. And dive! And eat picnic lunches! And drink beverages in bottles! And wear a bathing suit!! And have tattoos!!! Several students through the years have come into class after seeing me "out" (as if I've escaped from the zoo or something) and proclaimed their discovery to me and to their classmates: "I saw you at Stop & Shop." "I saw you driving on my road." "I saw you at my therapist's office." Uh, yeah, so you did.

I'd like to think it's a form of initial idolatry, balanced out by our human connectedness, sort of like when we used to see a television star who lived in town going to the grocery in her slippers (there she was, on-camera gorgeous and witty and so put together, but really, look, just like us). It's sort of flattering. And it's a good reason to be mindful of both perceptions: the first, that we are unique, and somehow special, and the second, that we are normal and human. We can be, and we should be, both extraordinary and ordinary. Clearly, it's what our students need us to be. And, more importantly, it's what we are.

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