Extracurricular picture day is inevitably a day of chaos and confusion. It reminds me of a new parent trying to control a kid’s birthday party. There are dreams of playing games and then eating cake and then watching the little one open presents while friends clap and smile for pictures. But in reality, in spite of best efforts to organize the onslaught of children, the day ends up a mess of frosting-smeared faces and screaming.
The reason this day is more complicated than normal picture day is because students need to head to the Media Center for every club that they are in. Throughout the day announcements are being made and students are wandering in and out of the classroom which means one period you may begin with 20 students, drop down to 14 halfway through, then end the class with all 27. Attempts to avoid this are made each year, with little tweaks and adjustments to the plan. Emails are forwarded, rosters are sent and reminders are made. And yet, there are always some students that miss pictures or teachers whose classes seem empty.
My second year of teaching at the middle school I was feeling confident heading into Extracurricular Picture Day. I had asked my students the day before who were in which clubs so I could have an idea of who would be missing throughout the day, so when only six students showed up for my second period class, I wasn’t surprised. Orchestra and choir pictures were being taken at the same time, so the only sixth graders that remained in my language arts class were the four in band and the two who did not feel musically inclined.
I didn’t want to start a new lesson with more than half of the kids missing, so I decided to quickly to hang a sign that I had gotten for Halloween. The classroom had one of those drop ceilings that students love to launch pencils at to see if they’ll stick. Besides serving as a dartboard for pencils, these ceilings are perfect for hanging signs. I tied a paperclip to one end of the string that the sign was hanging from with the idea of sliding the paperclip just underneath one of the pencil-pocked tiles. After pulling a table underneath where I wanted to hang it from the ceiling I hopped up, balancing in a squat before popping up to standing on the table.
Normally, trying to hang a sign from the ceiling would be reminiscent of a carnival game. I would need a yardstick to try and hold a tile up while throwing the paper-clipped string with my other hand, hoping it would land in the right spot before I dropped the tile back into place. However, this day was Extracurricular picture day and I had decided to dress up a little bit, even adding black high heels to my outfit. Now, standing on the table in heels, I was almost able to reach the drop ceiling enough to push on a tile sans yardstick.
During the entire process the six kids sat and watched me, and when I stood on the table I remember one student asking, “Why can’t I stand on a table?”
“When you go to school for six years, you can stand on as many tables as you like.” The rejoinder had just slipped out of my lips when I teetered. It was a slight imbalance, the kind that makes you grab the railing to steady yourself. But there was no railing now, so my feet flew forward and I landed on my butt on the table, legs splayed in front of me.
Like a wave pausing for a moment at its crest before crashing over, I had a split second to recognize what had just happened before my entire body just toppled sideways, tumbling off the table. There I was, lying on the floor in the fetal position, heels still on my feet.
And then came the final blow.
“Honey, are you okay?” A fellow teacher, presumably on her way back from pictures, paused outside my doorway and poked her head in.
“Honey” is what you say to kids who have scraped their knee or dropped their sucker. You don’t call other adults “honey” unless you’re a waitress at a diner. Or unless they are lying in a rumpled ball on the ground. I looked up at her and toyed with the idea of making up a story about losing an earring or something. But instead I just gave a too-big smile.
I stood up quickly, fighting every urge I had to wince in pain, rub my aching tailbone, or just cry from embarrassment.
“Uh-huh, yep. I’m good.”
She tossed a little dignity my way by moving on and not offering me an ice pack for my butt.
Now for the first time, I looked at my students. They had been silent this entire time, not even risking to ask me if I was okay.
“Well go ahead,” I said. “You can laugh. That was pretty funny.”
And so they did. Hard.
In fact, they were still roaring with laughter when the Orchestra kids came back from pictures. The student who had asked me about standing on tables in the first place couldn’t wait to share the story with his classmates.
“Dude! You missed it! Mrs. V. totally just fell. Like, she completely fell off the table!” At this point he stood up and mimicked The Fall. Let me say, there is nothing more humbling than watching a sixth-grader imitate you falling off of a table.
It’s funny how watching a teacher fall on her butt can emblazon students with confidence. The shy sixth graders from the beginning of the period were now calling out every few minutes, “Are you sure you’re okay? I mean, you wiped out!” I knew that any hope of getting a lesson across was lost, and when the day ended I wondered if I had lost my footing (pun intended) as their teacher completely. How could I expect them to respect me?
And yet the next day came and so I slapped on a façade of confidence and continued on. Teaching is made up of moments. Some are those “teachable moments” of lore that reaffirm everything you do as an educator. Others are the type of moments when a lesson bombs or your feet slip. No matter what, you need to stand back up and keep going. After all, if you spend your time beating yourself up over one moment that went awry, you’ll miss the chance to make the others meaningful.