During the summer I made a promise to myself that once school got underway I’d volunteer in both Dylan and Riley’s classrooms. I haven’t done this before, and to be completely honest the prospect didn’t particularly hold a ton of appeal, but I know teachers need the help and I’ve got the availability now. Riley’s teacher wasted no time in scheduling me for a couple hours every Thursday, and yesterday I went for the first time.

I was oddly nervous about it beforehand. I mean, I know there’s no real reason to be scared of a bunch of third graders, but … I kind of was. I don’t know, I guess I just had no idea what I was in for, and felt unsure I was up for the task.

When I got to the classroom Riley’s teacher gave me a bunch of little books the kids were supposed to read, and I was assigned to bring small groups to the library and work on reading and comprehension with them. The first group was a little bumpy — I quickly learned that once we were done taking turns reading the book out loud and were supposed to discuss it for the remaining fifteen minutes or so the kids could get pretty distracted and rambunctious. By the second and third groups I’d worked out a better system: I brought them to a section of the library where we could sprawl in a reading nook rather than sit around a table, and once we were done with the books and I’d asked a few questions, I had the kids put on a little play and act out various concepts from the story.

They loved this, and thankfully the library had emptied out by then because they were pretty energetic about it. I don’t really know if that was an acceptable thing for me to do or not, but it really seemed like they needed to move around and shake things off after sitting there listening to their classmates laboriously work through their pages. God, I remember hating that as a kid, the seemingly interminable amount of time it would take slower readers to mumble each word.

So I guess that’s what I’ll be doing each Thursday for a while, at least in Riley’s class (I’ll be helping in Dylan’s in a couple weeks), and that one experience sure gave me a taste for how hard teachers’ jobs really are. Out of one relatively small group of kids, the sheer spectrum of personalities — the obnoxious one! The goofy one! The one who can’t sit still! The one who’s easily distracted! The somewhat rigid rule-follower! (That would be Riley, by the way) The one who’s incredibly shy! — required me to multitask to a degree I’m completely unfamiliar with. Quieting one kid, gently drawing another out, giving one a quick burst of the attention he clearly craves, praising another, and on it went. I went home with circles of sweat under both arms, no kidding.

I ended up thinking how deeply unfair it is to teachers and kids alike that classrooms are so crowded these days. With 30 kids in a room, how can one adult possibly give kids the one on one focus they need? When you have even one kid like the one I met yesterday who I’ll just refer to as the Energy Suck, how is there any space left to really help a kid who’s failing … or just stays under the radar?

I don’t know, but I’m blown away by the folks who can do it. Riley’s teacher is firm, funny, and seems to be able to spin fifty plates at any given time, and it’s goddamned amazing there are so many like him.

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