The qualities it takes to be a good kindergarten teacher are as elusive to me as those of brain surgery. I saw many on display in the first moments of Miss Stewart's year's end field trip to the strawberry farm. I had heard that teachers need to make 300 rapid-fire decisions a day, but this is slanderous. Unless you mean before recess.
I walked into what seemed like pandemonium, but soon discerned that it was controlled pandemonium. Miss Stewart immediately looked up from a huddle and walked over to me, beaming through a face of about 25 summers, thanking me for volunteering to chaperone, and telling me that my granddaughter has been very excited that I will be coming along.
That was already four more things than I would have managed in her shoes-noticing the extra person in a crowd; doing triage of priorities; instantly summoning a mental connection between the new person and the right student; making the person feel, for a second, like the only one in the room; remembering to say thank you; recalling something pertinent about the student's psychological state from last week.
Amid the chore of slathering children with her own sunblock, and outfitting the ill-prepared with plastic bags to sheathe doomed paper lunch bags, Miss Stewart was approached by the closest shaved Asian head I have ever seen outside photos of a Tibetan monastery, and the following conversation ensued: "My head will hurt." "What do you mean, Chun?" "If someone hits me, my head will hurt." "Well, Chun, that's true for all of us, even if we have hair." This went on for a few more volleys until the plaintiff was satisfied. Then Miss Stewart remembered to have the one whose turn it was feed the lone guppy.
I was assigned four children to bring back alive. Miss Stewart came to me with their names on an index card and mine on top, and asked if she had spelled my name correctly. (Seriously.) Then we were soon shoehorned onto two buses, and I watched Miss Stewart from my seat a few rows back, she bantering playfully with her 5-year-old seatmate about his speckled sunglasses.
I have noticed that things like HIPAA, new tolerance policies, green regulations, evolving social sensitivities, and state guidelines governing appropriate teacher-student conduct in school settings have made me slightly paranoid and slow-reacting in a testing situation like a school field trip. I felt like a foreigner in a country he hasn't read up on enough. But Miss Stewart evinced a natural savoir faire, deftly dispensing caring touches and confident admonitions throughout the day. A good teacher, I also observed, is someone who knows, by instinct, when to rein in the five kids who got up from the picnic table to chase butterflies in the tall grass. She has mastered the thing that I failed at utterly in my try at teaching: allowing the low murmur that does not become loss of control.
I noticed Miss Stewart sat with the children on the benches that the tarpaulin shade didn't reach in the 90-degree sun while Farmer Bob gave city kids the real deal on insects: "Bees are good; butterflies are bad." (He really said that, it was a riot. The uncontestedness of the message, the tabula rasa receptivity of his subjects, all edified me on the ease with which Mao must have honed the Red Guards.) Then he let us loose in straight rows of shin-high plants with our white Styrofoam drinking cups, making criminals of us all as we stuffed our mouths with the warm sweet overflow.
By day's end, hygiene verities about sharing water bottles, and conventional wisdom regarding the prudence of always washing fruit before partaking, went by the wayside, as we rounded up to take count for the bus ride home. I freaked when I couldn't find Ethan-one of my only four charges-but Miss Stewart somehow heard me, as she was fielding port-a-potty issues, and tossed off rescue: "I just saw him over there," she motioned with her chin.
The only smart thing I did all day was bring a CVS unruled tablet in my pocketbook, which came in very handy for the return trip. I had brought it in case I got ideas for an essay. But I didn't, so it served us well for tic-tac-toe and drawing Greyhound dogs and butterflies.