Teaching is all about perspective. January 23rd, 2014 changed mine.

Thursday January 23rd was truly a perfect storm day for me. It started when I arrived at school and I realized that, as I was about to get out of my car, the thing that I needed to bring for my 4th period class was sitting on my dining room table. It was legal sized paper. There is a particular lab report format called the vee map that works perfect on legal size paper, but that sucks donkey ass on regular paper. Really I mean it. It is nigh impossible to use on regular paper, but that extra little bit of space makes it perfect. So as I sit in my car I look at the clock – 7:25 – the first bell is at 7:55 and this is not enough time to run home and back. Balls, balls, balls, balls, balls – I heard somewhere that cursing relieves stress and I am sticking to it.

As I walk to my classroom I run through the possibilities. I already hit up the office secretaries, the real people who make the school run smoothly, and I know they don’t have any, but maybe someone else has some hidden in a closet. I only need 25 sheets. I send the desperate email to the whole school in a vain attempt to get this paper – a hope against hope. I text my husband, then I call him knowing full well that he must be out walking our 2 dogs, voicemail.

To pass the time I set up a lab for my other 4 classes. I had previously put together the equipment, but on Tuesday, you may have noticed that a massive snow storm hit the east coast of the U.S. So I didn’t finish. I didn’t get to put the chemicals together. I knew it was a risk to leave without the lab 100% together, but it was snowing like Khione was pissed off at Poseidon, and really I only had to put together 27 beakers with labels and the materials to go in them. That is 10-15 minutes worth of work tops. So I risked it.

And here I am on Thursday the day after a snow day doing the thing I hate, scrambling. I was scrambling putting labels on beakers and I was trying to plan. I figured that my prep is 3rd period which is before I need the legal sized paper – worst comes to worst I can drive home, pick up the paper, pet the dogs because you have to, drive back to work and if I have made the proper sacrifice to the copier gods I can print the lab report format in the 5 minutes remaining. Good plan? … I try to convince myself… damn it’s tight. I think this as I fill the beakers: 9 sodium chloride, 9 copper sulfate, 9 potassium dichromate. I clean up the mess I made because I was too distracted by my thoughts. No matter how many times I say the slogan: “slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” I still make a mess.

Phew 5 minutes until the 1st bell. This is the bell that releases the students from the cafeteria were they are held after they get off the buses. I check my email. Damn, no paper anywhere. People helpfully offer different paper that does not fit the criteria. I love the kindness of my colleagues, but damn! I call my husband again. He’s back! And generously offers to drive to my school to drop off the paper. This is why I married him! He incredulously asks why there is no legal sized paper in a building of my size? Wait let me check. I look at my email – Wha-bam- Mr. Dallas has a ream.

I will make double the offerings to the copier gods!

I go to Mr. Dallas, an old school veteran, who mildly chastises me for my unpreparedness. He tells me you can talk to this person at the warehouse or this secret secretary. I nod contritely making a note. I now have a line on the super-secret office supplies! I tell this veteran teacher, who I respect wholeheartedly and shudder to think what we will do when he retires in a few years, that I will do better next time. Actually I’m pretty sure that I did all that in my head. I think I might have just nodded my head, because I was so incredibly relieved to have the paper.

Bell – homeroom – normal homeroom stuff – attendance – pledge of allegiance – announcements for the day (ooh ski club has a trip tomorrow) – bell – 1st period – oh the lab that I prepared, first time doing it in 10 years. The district in its infinite wisdom added a chapter on solutions and acids this year.

Ok – lab – back to the lab – 3 parts to it. Part 1 directions are ok, but I should bold and underline that they need 2 samples not just 1. Part 2 directions – shit they were a little vague. Now imagine “shit they were a little vague” times 9 groups. That becomes holy fuck – It is now time to put out 9 figurative fires, luckily it is a co-taught class and I have some back up to deal with my mistake. Part 3 has fine directions now that the class did part 1 and 2, but of course part 3 literally has fire (the real literally not the new definition). It is now time for hyper-vigilance. 45 degree angle, hold the test tube at a 45 degree angle! Point it away from people. No, move your hand so that it is not above the flame, how did you do that for so long? That must have been hot! Like this, see my hand? It is off to the side. Remember, fire goes up. Fire goes up! Didn’t you play with matches? Fire goes up!

Beep beep. “First period will be held until further notice,” the announcement says over the loud speaker.

In my head: Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck a duck.

Out loud cool as cucumber: “You have some extra time let’s make it count. Finish the lab, clean up your area and start on the questions”.

A student asks me why class is delayed. I answer honestly as I could, “something happened.”

The two most terrible words a school teacher can say. I wait, listening for the lock down announcement.

Time passes. Lab is cleaned up, questions finished, students mingle. More time

Beep beep, “move on to second period.” Thank Ockabewis, no lock down.

Second period goes- I know they won’t finish part 3, not enough time with the shortened class, so I am mentally readjusting tomorrow’s class to add time to finish lab.

“Miss? Miss!?”


“How am I supposed to measure mass?”

What? With the electronic balance.

There is no balance


The mingling time – someone stole my balance. That’s a scale to you lay folk. Small, battery operated, the kind drug dealers use. In the hands of a student it is technically drug paraphernalia.


Expulsion level contraband.

I like these kids; they are nice kids. This taking of a balance, this is dumb kid stuff. “I’ll take this, it’s cool. I’ll just put it in my pocket.” There is no thought to consequence.

I scramble – run to another teacher borrow a balance. I do the universal sign for “sorry–explain later–I can have this right as I see you are currently not using it?” I get the nod and run back to my room. The rest of the class goes fine and as predicted. Lab not finished, but plans are made for tomorrow.

The delay from 1st period?


The house across the street was honest to gods on fire. Real fire, not whoops my candle caught this paper on fire and I dump a glass of water on it. PHEW, we’re all ok, but holy Pele the walls are on fire, the roof is on fire.

Students in another class looking out the window saw flames shooting out a window. They alerted the teacher, who alerted the office, who called the fire department.

Our building security guard, who is an ex-marine, a part time cop and now building hero, kicked in the door and along with a volunteer fire fighter who just happened to be driving by saved 3 people (1 adult – 2 little boys) who were still in the house.

I’ll say that again so that you are clear.


Doors are strong, this isn’t the movies you have to know where to kick and be strong enough to overcome the locks to kick in a door.

Our building’s custodian ran over with a fire extinguisher. The volunteer firefighter on the scene used the extinguisher; the fire was too big for a single extinguisher to do any good, but the firetrucks were on their way.

The family was evacuated to our school, the classes (remember them?) were held to give the family some semblance of privacy. Paramedics were evaluating them and then … They found out about the dog.

Our principal’s secretary ran.

Dog lover that she is she went up to a firefighter and told him there was a dog trapped inside. The first firefighter said no. His duty is to put out the fire, to prevent it from spreading to other buildings.

You can understand his perspective. In his mind 1) save people 2) save other people and their property 3) save the dog.

But our secretary was undeterred.

A second truck pulled up and she told another firefighter. This time the firefighter went without hesitation and saved the dog. The poor thing like its family was smoke filled and in shock. Everyone, dog included, went to their respective hospitals and luckily they are safe and sound.

The house is devastated, the family lost everything.

Me? I forgot paper and got a piece of equipment stolen (which was found later in the day in one of the usual hiding places.)

Nothing happened to me.

This is a 3 part lesson for me on perspective: 1) this, whatever it is, is not as bad as losing your house and everything you own in a fire. 2) The people that you work with are amazing. 3) Even if you do lose everything in a fire you are ok as long as your family and the dog make it out ok.

Now I feel horrible for the family. My school, the boys’ schools and the mother’s work are raising money to help ease the burden.

But I also feel bad for the student who stole my balance.

Here is why.

The following day, I started class holding the balance that was stolen. I played with it during my class opening.

Then I started.

I keep my voice calm.

I never yell.

“Many of you know why I am holding this. Someone took this from this class. I had expected honesty and honor, but what I got was theft and betrayal. This balance is a tool of science, but also one that drug dealers use to measure their product. If you are caught with this, it is an expulsion level offense. This is NOT a school suspension, this is you are escorted out of school by the police. Because of what you took innocent students have had their privacy violated and lockers searched. If your privacy was violated and you know who took this, you should make known your displeasure. Tell them how unfair you feel this was.”

At this point I began to feel terribly Orwellian and I saw a number of people get visibly ill and upset so I never finished the speech I planned, but rather transitioned to the lesson. During the lesson I stopped by the students who looked ill, showing them by my actions that I still cared for them, even if they were the person who took the balance.  They may have been the culprits, or they may have been affected by the emotion in my speech, either way their bodies rebelled and I could not in good conscience go on.

I had planned to say more. I planned to say that at the same time a person in here was showing one of worst faces of humanity by stealing, there was Mr. Tim who showed the best and the bravest face by helping to save people’s lives.

Thursday was the both best and worst day of some people’s entire lives. Good day? Bad day? It is all about your perspective.


Featured image: Nicholas Bonneel

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Jennifer teaches science in a public school in Pennsylvania. She lives there with her husband and two dogs.

1 Comment

  1. January 28, 2014 at 1:36 pm —

    Thanks for sharing this, Jennifer.

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