A Day in First Grade

The alarm goes off at 5:50. I never hit snooze. I'm usually awake before it begins its shrill greeting anyway, my thoughts leaping out of my bed before my body.

I proceed methodically through my morning routine. Shower, dress, make-up, hair dryer. Once in the kitchen, I make coffee, try to force a few bites of breakfast into my protesting stomach. No one can be hungry at this hour. I sneak out of the house at ten minute to seven. Matt will be getting Violet ready and to school.

I sign in at 7 a.m. The hallway lights are still dim, not yet turned to full strength. I boot up the computer, check the day's plans, manage to get halfway through my coffee before I put it down and know it will go cold before I catch sight of it again. Respond to parent emails, attempting to sound sympathetic, concerned, confident, all in the four sentences I have time for.

The bell rings at 7:50 and the children begin streaming in. I'm on my feet, moving around the room, explaining tasks, reminding those who have already become distracted by friends, classroom pets, their own young six-year-old minds. I won't sit down again until lunch.

We begin the day's dance. I'm on stage, giving my one-woman show. I teach, remind, explain, remind again, trying to pull them along down the path I have planned. I get frustrated when their thoughts wander like ants confused by an impending storm, circling aimlessly. We run out of time, I push on to the next subject, herding them forward like a giant mother hen, trying to keep them all under wing. Sometimes we get it right, yes yes yes. Sometimes I want to crawl under my desk.

Lunch is 30 minutes. Technically. By the time I shepherd the students through the bathroom, the lunch line, get them seated, open stubborn packages and yogurt cups, I have just enough time to speed-walk to the teacher's lounge, tap my foot impatiently through the three minutes it takes to heat up my leftovers, force the food down a reluctant throat, and if I'm lucky, take a bathroom break before it's time to gather the brood up again. My lunch break is closer to 20 minutes. Sometimes I remember my other life, when lunch could last an hour, or be used to run errands, or at least tasted. But really, there's not much time to dwell.

We're back in the room, it's time to start the show again. A parent comes in to help. I hope the kids behave, show their glimmers of understanding. Aren't they are reflection of me, of what I've managed to teach them? We start reading groups. I simultaneously listen to students read, take notes, diagnose reading difficulties and impart strategies. With one eye I'm monitoring the room, watching for who is following directions and who has started staring dreamily into space. Who is goofing off with a friend. The CD player isn't working. One little guy can't read the poem at the poetry center. A request for the bathroom interrupts again. The children at my table read on. I need six more of me to manage this room.

Time is up and we rush to get out of the room. Then a frantic 45-minute planning period. Call a parent, respond to the emails, make copies, sign papers. The day is almost done and I can't decide if we've managed to accomplish anything or not. One final push, one last 30-minute block of time to instruct. Then they're out the door. And I'm plugging away until 6 p.m. How is there so much to do? A corner of my mind wonders fleetingly how my own daughter's school day was, but the thought is soon lost and grows cold, like this morning's abandoned coffee.

And the weekend comes, and my body relaxes, but my mind forces me awake before the sun again. Already I'm fretting about what didn't get accomplished, about the lack of time left to us. How to do it better. Trying to figure out what's not working. Who needs help. How to get them there. Where is the key that will unlock their tiny heads so I can pour knowledge into their brains? I search for that tiny gold key even as I know that teaching doesn't work that way. We're not filling up empty vessels. We're showing those vessels how to fill themselves. But still, that gold key would be nice. I'm still looking for it at 5:50 Monday morning when the alarm fills the silent bedroom with its insistent call.

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