There are times - many I am certain - when, because of my magnificent expertise in planning for engagement, every single one of my students is paying attention. To me. All of them. Eager to hear my every word. Eager to learn.
There are those other times too.
Ten minutes into a tale of the colonists outwitting the redcoats, ten minutes filled with rich discussion, Ian thrusts his hand into the air.
"Yes, Ian. What do you think about the craftiness of the Americans?"
"Mr. Ramsey," he begins slowly. "Did you get a haircut?"
After three decades of hair jokes from hundreds of kids, I have developed a thick skin and a few comeback lines as well. Without a beat, I respond, "Yep, I got my hair cut...both of them...plus the nose hairs. Okay?”
A collective "eeew," follows.
"Now...can we get back to the American Revolution?"
A few chuckles can be heard, but soon these give way to a discussion of the harsh winter at Valley Forge. Melanie blurts out, "Mr. Ramsey! You've only worn that shirt once, way back in August."
"You remember what I wore six months ago but you can't remember what you just read last night about George Washington? Or your times tables? Can we please get back to our lesson?" I plead.
But Melanie is unstoppable.
"I like that shirt, Mr. Ramsey. Blue looks good on you."
"Yeah," pipes in Ty. "My grandpa has a shirt like that one."
Then the onslaught of fashion advice commences.
"That shirt doesn't really go with those pants," offers Karen. "I don't see any brown in it. You got it all wrong, Mr. Ramsey."
I let out a frustrated sigh. "So I should've looked into some Garanimals?" I ask, knowing full well that these millennium babies will have no clue about that line of kids' clothing from the seventies.
"Garani-what?" blurts Evan. "This isn't science time, Mr. Ramsey!"
Another sigh. "Well, it sure isn't history either, now is it?" I continue, "Garanimals are clothes made with animal tags so that kids can mix and match shirts and pants and get their outfits looking right. You know, match a giraffe with a giraffe, a monkey with a monkey, an elephant with an elephant..."
A sea of blank faces stares back at me, followed by rolling eyes and chattering about how ridiculous such a concept could be. I smile. Inwardly, I am pleased that I have stumped them all!
"Your generation is so weird, man!" proclaims Alan who is sporting a black AC/DC t-shirt and red skinny jeans.
"Ain't no way I'd go out of my house wearing a bunch of dumb clothes with cute little animals on them," asserts Carl from the back. I can see his pink shirt and brown camouflage pants from my lectern at the front.
"Okay, let's just forget about the little critters and get back to Washington and his men," I interrupt. "They didn't have enough shoes or clothing to keep them warm. Frankly, I think they would have taken anything during that cold December of 1777."
"Well, they should've planned better," interjects Amy. "My mother always makes me dress in layers." Already three of those layers have been shed since the heater (with no teacher control) had begun blasting warm air into our confined classroom. A purple ski jacket, a brown sweater, and a blue vest are all awkwardly draped over the back of her plastic chair.
"My mom said to always pack a sweater. You never know when you might get cold," adds Michaela.
"Yeah, you never know," I reply sarcastically, wiping the sweat from my brow. "Come on, guys, let's get back to Valley Forge! How did these men cope with the fact that their shoes were ripped with holes from marching and now their feet were becoming frost-bitten?"
"I read a story about the men standing on their hats and taking off their jackets to wrap around their cold feet," Lonnie replies.
"Excellent!" I shout, thrilled that we were finally back on topic.
"I still think they should've planned better," insists Amy. I shoot her my best angry look.
Before I could begin to elaborate on Lonnie's point, Phillip speaks. "Those Vans you are wearing, Mr. Ramsey - they're cool. Where'd you get them?"
"Off-topic, Phillip," I warn.
“Well," he continues, "they're pretty cool. I have some like that with red laces."
"Nice, Phillip. Now can we get back to the freezing soldiers?"
"Sure," he replies. "But those would be stupid shoes to wear in the snow. They aren't water-proof!"
"You are right, Phillip. But the men wore leather boots which kept out the water. Only thing is they were worn out from walking so much. So the snow could seep right through to their feet. What other choices did they have?"
"I would've told Washington, 'I'm out of here,' and started walking home," shouts William. His buddies chuckle.
"Barefoot?" I exclaim. "You'd walk barefoot in the snow?"
"Any real man would," William replies puffing up his ten-year-old chest. Again, his buddies laugh.
"Right," I mutter, knowing full well that this little kid had never been out of the hot Arizona climate in his entire life. "Moving on..."
"Mr. Ramsey," begins Miguel. "Don't you have Nikes too? I thought I saw you with Nikes yesterday. I like Nikes. Nikes are great for running. I can move fast in my Nikes. Maybe the soldiers should have worn Nikes. Bet that would have surprised the redcoats."
"I'm sure it would have," I deadpan. "Probably would've helped us win the war sooner. They could've set up a booth, sold running shoes and the British could have gone home in style."
My sarcasm doesn't faze the little boy. "Probably," agrees Miguel.
I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. "We are going to try again. Valley Forge, okay? Soldiers, cold, okay? Middle of a war, right? Everyone with me?"
Thirty-one little heads bob up and down. "At last!" my inner voice rejoices. But the joyous moment only lasts thirty seconds.
"Mr. Ramsey, how did those guys get a bath?" squeaks Celeste.
"They didn't. Would you jump into icy water in the middle of December?"
Another collective "eeww." Mumbling ensues which reveals that most would not do anything of the kind. Except for William who is once again puffing up his chest.
"That's gross, Mr. Ramsey. I don't want to know about stinky men," shrieks Celeste. "This Civil War stuff is gross. Why do we gotta do it?"
"Wrong war, Celeste. We're talking about the Revolutionary War."
"What's the difference?" she asks, flicking her hair back.
Before I can respond, Hector interrupts. "They could've used cologne, Mr. Ramsey. I like Polo. Don't you wear Polo too, Mr. Ramsey?"
No time to answer as Miguel interrupts his fellow classmate. "Cologne bothers my asthma. You have asthma too, right Mr. Ramsey?"
Miguel is quickly interrupted by Stacy. "Polo? You wear Polo, Mr. Ramsey? My grandfather wears Polo!"
"My grandpa uses Old Spice," shouts Carl.
"Let's do a bar graph on our favorite grandpa colognes, Mr. Ramsey!" hollers Ryan.
Suddenly, our "discussion" is cut short by the shrill, high-pitched fire alarm. (Only a drill, but definitely a respite). I throw my hands up in the air and exclaim, "Straight lines! No talking! Move quickly! No running!"
Amy begins sorting through the outerwear hanging from her chair.
"Leave it, Amy. Let's move!" I bellow.
"But it's so cold," she whines.
"Move!" I bark. "This is a fire drill! Not a fashion show! Get in line! Move it!!"
I take up the rear of the line, class list in hand, moving as quickly as possible. Perhaps I should have worn the Nikes.
I join my kids outside and check that all are safe and accounted for.
I let out a heavy sigh of relief.
Saved by the bell.
Copyright, Tim Ramsey, 2016.
Note: This essay was selected as the first place winner in the 2016 Arizona English Teachers Association's "Teachers as Writers" competition.