17: The Fly in the Room

17: The Fly in the Room

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales

The Fly in the Room

There can never be enough said of the virtues,
dangers, the power of a shared laugh.

~Françoise Sagan

I had officially spent only two days preparing for my first day as a teacher in a classroom of my design—lining up desks, decorating bulletin boards, planning engaging discussions and selecting life-changing literature. Don’t get me wrong—I had been preparing for this moment for years, arguably most of my life, but securing a teaching position just two days before school began didn’t give me leisurely time to reflect on the enormous decisions before me.

I jumped in, frantically pouring ideas into that first week of lessons, trying to remember all I had learned from my college professors, mentors and experiences, first as a teacher assistant and later as a student teacher. I was determined to make that first week perfect—perfectly mapped out and designed, perfectly paced, perfectly organized. While I didn’t sleep much the two nights before the first day, I was ready for those high-schoolers who would spend the year in my class, studying American literature, applying larger themes to their lives, learning from the experiences of the authors we were to study. Well, that’s what I thought anyway.

They would later become one of my most memorable groups, maybe partly because they were my first, but also certainly because of their lively personalities and willingness to let me, a first year teacher, into their minds and lives. But that first day, I wasn’t prepared for how all of their faces seemed to run together. As I facilitated a discussion about a poem we had read, I struggled to remember names, even of those students who eagerly participated. The quieter ones were even more of a challenge. John, Jana, Jory, Janelle, Julia, Jim, Jada, Jason, Jennifer, Jake, Joey, Jackie, Jared… they all ran together, tumbled over one another, mixed and blended until I couldn’t keep any of them straight.

By fifth hour, I was still running on adrenaline but near exhaustion when Jeremy lost his patience with my forgetfulness. With his hand raised, he made eye contact with me and knew right away that I couldn’t recall his name, even though I had spoken it at least four times that hour. Being a good sport, he helped me out by joking: “My name is JEHOVAH,” he boomed in a sinister voice I will never forget, his warm smile lighting up the row, belying the menacing tone of his joke. “No really, it’s Jeremy,” he reminded me. “It’s gotta be hard to remember all these names.” That sealed the deal—I would never forget Jeremy’s name again, even now, some fifteen years later.

As the discussion flowed into small group work, I wandered through the clusters of students, listening to their ideas bounce from agreement to disagreement to intense conversation. I watched Jeremy and his group point back to the poem and then connect it to their own lives. As I sat on the windowsill watching, I was secretly celebrating a successful first day—almost perfect. At one point, Kathy and Sara rushed over, serious looks in their eyes, pleading, “Can we see you in the hall, Mrs. Haberling?” I glanced at the rest of their group, still huddled over desks, just in time to see the concern flash over their faces. This must be serious, I thought.

This was it—the moment I had been preparing for. You see, I had plans early in my college career. Like most high school students at that time, I entered college intent on figuring out what I wanted to do. After dabbling in art, I found my niche in the field of social sciences and decided to get a degree in psychology, then go on to become a counselor. My plan was to help adolescents, and in that decision, I had no idea that I would really fall in love with teaching students. Here was my chance to combine my two loves—right here with Kathy and Sara. They must have a problem I could help them solve!

As we stepped into the hall, their eyes locked and I could see the concern exchanged between them. They turned to me, nervously glancing from feet to eyes to feet, and began. “Um…” Kathy stammered. “We just wanted to tell you something kinda… embarrassing.”

Wow, I thought, could they have already gotten that far in the discussion that they were dealing with some real life issues? I didn’t expect such depth on the first day, but I would later learn that much of the joy in teaching is not about what I expect or plan for.

“Uh, we noticed something that… well, we think you should know,” Sara continued, only making eye contact with her flip flops.

Kathy’s words tumbled out, and I could suddenly understand why they were so uncomfortable. “Mrs. Haberling, your fly is open and it has been all hour.”

My eyes must have told quite a story that moment as the day replayed through my head—the busyness of the first day, no break for lunch, no trips to the bathroom, no mirror checks… it had probably been like that since I left home that early morning! As I glanced through the window to the rest of my class, I could see that the news had obviously spread—everyone was watching to see how I would respond. My cheeks burned. I struggled to compose a coherent response before I gave in and burst out laughing, relieving the girls. As I walked back into class, Jeremy was the first to greet me with a round of applause.

At times like that, laughter is the only appropriate response—laughter at myself and my mistakes. On that first day of school, the one I had prepared for so carefully, I learned a lesson that would serve me throughout my teaching career. It’s best if the students I spend the year with see me as a fallible human being, who sometimes forgets to zip. It’s best if kids see me make mistakes and laugh at myself. It’s best if I listen carefully to the many things my students teach me, through what they say and what they don’t say. It’s best if my students sometimes know more than I do, and it’s best if I let them see that I, too, am still discovering. I was glad that Jeremy, Kathy and Sara took the time to teach me a lesson on that very first day. It didn’t need to be my version of perfect to be wonderful. Without the fly in the room, I might have given myself too much credit for the successes and beat myself up too hard over the stumbles. Instead, three freshmen reminded me that when all else fails, I need to remember to laugh at myself.

~Jennifer A. Haberling
2009 Michigan State Teacher of the Year
English teacher, grade 7

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