The Joys of Teaching
The bungalow with the neat beige walls and the turquoise door with the diamond-shaped glass window slowly loomed before the strawberry Poogle walking home, shuffling along the sidewalk. Her back was weighed down with an overstuffed pink knapsack, and her arms were filled with papers, books, and papers inserted into books. When she reached the doorstep of her Neohome, the Poogle had to shift much of her load into one arm to be able to ring the doorbell.
The face of another Poogle peeked through the window before the door was unlocked, and the strawberry Poogle was free to step – or stagger – inside, past the one who raised an eyebrow and scratched the top of her amethyst head.
“Emilia,” greeted the purple Poogle.
“What’s wrong, Reina?”
Reina shook her head, waving the Neopian Times that she had been reading. “What’s wrong? You look tired. You seem so worn out. Before I start asking the how-was-your-day questions, I’m going to ask you – no, order you to sit down. Seriously, have those students at Neoschool been rough with you today or something? You do realize you could talk to the principal about it...”
But the strawberry Poogle smiled widely at her, her eyes shining with delight despite being rimmed with dark circles from lack of sleep, and a few tiny beads of sweat trickling down her brow. It was not a forced smile, Reina knew, as Emilia gently placed her things on the mahogany table in the middle of the living room after flopping onto the dark blue sofa with a sigh.
A contented, cheerful sigh, the purple Poogle noted.
“Seriously, Em, don’t you get tired of being a teacher? From what I see every time you come home after being Miss Emilia Ford instead of just my older sister, you look as if you ran a marathon – even three!”
Emilia glanced at her disbelieving sibling as she wiped her scarlet forehead with a pink, lacy handkerchief with the monogram E.F. Reina sat down beside her and picked up the record book. Several papers fell out from between its pages, and she quickly scrambled around, picking them up before the strawberry Poogle could.
“There’s no such thing as ‘tired’ when you love your work,” said Emilia, nodding as she pulled her knapsack off her back and reached into a pocket for a pen. “And thanks – I’ll be giving a test tomorrow on converting fractions to decimals and vice versa, and I only have five questions so far.”
“But honestly, correcting quizzes, breaking up fights, watching every last kid in the room to make sure nobody passes notes, or chews gum, or sneaks food, or cheats during tests, collecting their projects and homework...” The purple Poogle took a deep breath. “Just saying all that tires me already, and I haven’t even started on everything else yet!” She handed over the record book with the papers hastily stuffed back inside, but didn’t sit back down on the sofa.
Emilia smiled as she took it, and pulled out a sheet with a few equations scribbled onto it, complete with solutions and answers. On top, in her nearly impeccable script, were the words, Fifth Grade Math Test – 21st Day of Awakening.
“Tell me, Ina,” the strawberry Poogle began, as she twirled her pen idly, “what made you choose to become a chemist? I mean, just thinking of all those formulas and elements that you have to know makes me twitch. And yet... you had half the second floor turned into your own personal laboratory, library and work space, and you even spend sleepless nights mixing chemicals and other substances together just to see what happens, and if it’s something new you could show your friends.”
Her younger sister rocked back and forth on her heels, staring at Emilia, who started writing something.
“What do you mean? If I was told that I had to teach younglings this stuff I do, I’d scale the summit of Terror Mountain, dive into the darkest depths of Maraqua, and cross the burning, rolling sand dunes of the Lost Desert first. When I tell my fellow researchers what I’ve discovered or my proposals and they don’t get it on the first try, I end up tripping all over my own feet rewording everything I say. And surely fifth-graders wouldn’t know the difference between Faeryllium and Faerlium.”
“I have a student who does,” said the strawberry Poogle without looking up from her work. “She even knows who discovered which, and how to separate the two elements from each other.”
“And what about that stuff you teach? What may seem to be layman’s terms for us might still be so difficult for them to understand. And... and...”
Emilia grinned slightly, finally glancing up from her quiz.
“We’ve had this argument dozens of times now, Ina, haven’t we? You see me come home tired, and you wake up in the middle of the night and hear me drop my books in the next room...”
The purple Poogle pursed her lips together and gave her sister a glowering expression.
“I’m worried, Em!” Reina said slowly and clearly. “Teaching is a hard job, and many of our neighbors even consider it a dirty one. Surely you knew what you were getting yourself into when you went to the principal and told him you wanted to teach fifth grade. Actually, at first you wanted the sixth grade...”
“Answer me first, Ina,” Emilia coaxed the younger Poogle. “Now, why did you want to don the white lab coat? Why did you choose that job, even though I told you how hard it would be, and how much work you would have to put into it... like what you’re telling me now?”
Her voice was gentle, but had a somewhat firm edge to it that made Reina sit back down beside the strawberry Poogle.
“Well... I like it,” said Reina, with a shrug. “I love working with elements and such, watching them react, and finding uses for them. That research I do... I love it. I discover new things as I read every thick volume on chemistry and basically science in general. You might think it’s hard, but I don’t. I could never see myself doing anything else, even walking in your shoes for a day.”
Emilia barely touched her paper as she listened to the chemist.
“Then there’s your answer.”
“You love chemistry. In the same way you love computing for the composition of unknown chemicals, I love to teach kids and open up the world of learning for them. Stop worrying about me. You always do whenever you see me tired. I know we’re sisters and everything, and we look out for each other, but shouldn’t you know by now that if I want to complain, if I need help, I’ll speak up?”
The purple Poogle nodded, but replied, “And another thing – it’s your birthday tomorrow.”
“This knapsack you gave me really helps. It was nice of you to remember.”
Her sister frowned and tapped her left foot. “You need a break, Em. You may love your job, but you need a day off. Come on; it’s your special day!”
“It’s not exactly worth missing a school day,” said Emilia. “Besides, we’re on a tight schedule, and if we want all lessons wrapped up before the exams, we need all the time we can get. When we come home, we’ll have some pizza and chocolate cheesecake and maybe even pay a visit to our parents and our friends. We’ll have a good time.”
“Those kids can’t give you all that,” Reina pointed out.
“You’d be surprised,” said the strawberry Poogle, a smile tugging at the edges of her mouth as she finished the last equation on her paper with a flourish.
* * *
Emilia Ford walked down the corridors of Neoschool, hugging her books and class record (with that precious math questionnaire tucked within its pages) and humming a little tune to herself.
Her colleagues, upon seeing her walk into the lounge to leave some of her things and get ready for her class, had greeted her enthusiastically and promised her a huge buffet during lunch break. Mr. Embers, the fourth-grade teacher, even wore his strawberry-patterned tie for the occasion, but Miss Tails chided the fire Scorchio for such poor fashion sense, as his tie apparently didn’t match his shirt. The three of them had a good laugh before they got back to work.
Now, walking past the classrooms and searching for hers, Miss Ford couldn’t help but expect something from her students. In her seven years of teaching fifth grade, she was often showered with gifts and serenaded by a chorus of slightly off-key voices singing her a song on her birthday, and it became quite the tradition.
And every year Reina insisted that there would be a group of students who would forget or wouldn’t give a hoot about her older sister’s birthday, but she was wrong every time. It was proof that Emilia was a very memorable, remarkable teacher, despite having taken such a tiring job, Reina finally admitted after Em’s fifth year of balloons and confetti.
But when the Poogle slowly pushed open the door to her class, almost grinning widely as she imagined the fifth-graders jumping up from their seats and greeting her...
The first thing that greeted her was silence, followed by a resounding chorus of the usual “Good morning, Miss Ford”.
Miss Ford couldn’t help it – the corners of her mouth turned down.
“Something wrong, Miss Ford?” asked Sweet, a striped Kacheek seated up front with his feet on the table.
“Oh, nothing,” she said, waving a paw airily. “Now then... if I remember correctly, we stopped our last grammar discussion on the types of adverbs...”
* * *
“It was nice of Miss Tails to bring the chocolate cupcakes with the pink heart sprinkles,” said Mr. Embers, leaning back in his chair and brushing some crumbs off his tie. “Happy birthday, Em.”
The teachers spent their lunch break seated around the large round table in the lounge, with a big birthday lunch they prepared for Miss Ford. The place was decorated with streamers and balloons of pink and red, the strawberry Poogle’s favorite colors.
But despite the cordial atmosphere, the birthday celebrant didn’t look all too pleased. She merely stared at her half-eaten slice of pizza as though expecting it to greet her.
“You don’t seem happy,” sighed the island Lupe, who was smiling widely after a barrage of compliments for her cupcakes. “Come on, it’s your birthday, and it’s Friday tomorrow.”
Miss Ford mumbled something and pushed away her food.
“Lemme guess – your students don’t know it’s your birthday today,” hinted Miss Tails.
“Bingo, Minerva,” said the Poogle morosely.
“Maybe they’ll surprise you later,” suggested Mr. Embers.
Miss Ford shrugged. “I don’t know... all the classes I’ve handled in the past greeted me in the morning...”
“You’re setting standards as to how your students celebrate your birthday?” put in the island Lupe. “Shame on you.”
“It’s not that, Min,” said Miss Ford. “Maybe I got so used to getting surprised first thing in the morning to the point that I barely even get surprised and I start expecting things...”
“Who knows, it could be a different one this year,” said a green Kougra, putting his feet up on an unused stool.
“Mr. Leaf is right,” said Miss Tails. “You’re getting used to your rigid schedule as a teacher, and you start looking at everything else the same way. You’re overworking yourself. Why didn’t you ask for a day off, anyway? You never did for the past seven years.”
The Kougra shook his head. “Em loves teaching too much to ask for a day off,” he said. “I’ve been teaching for twelve years and I’ll have you know that I very, very, VERY rarely see her absent, or even running late. And when I do, I always wonder if it was already the end of all Neopia as we know it.”
“Well, we’re still alive now, right?” said Mr. Embers. He turned to look at Miss Ford. “Lighten up. It’s not the end of the world when things start going off balance. You really never know what can happen in the next five seconds, but isn’t that what makes everything so gosh darn interesting?”
* * *
That lunch break was one of the longest ones Miss Ford ever had in her history of seven years teaching at Neoschool, if not the longest.
She couldn’t help but wonder if they were all right – her sister and her colleagues – about her being so dedicated to her schedule and not asking for days off, and how it was starting to grow on her, but not exactly in a good way. Could it be that she was just so used to things done her way and done the way they were used to? The day wasn’t even over yet – neither she nor Fyora knew what could happen next.
And seriously, she could set all the standards she wanted on this world, but they would not always be met, if they were met at all.
The next subject was science. The strawberry Poogle shuffled her books and papers so that the ones for science were visible on top and within reach for the lesson, and took a deep breath as she faced her classroom’s door.
Time to find out what happens next, I guess, Miss Ford thought, and clutched the doorknob with one free paw, the other balancing her materials.
It felt as if all time suddenly froze.
And when it started moving again, confetti of all shapes and sizes started raining down from the ceiling, buoyed by racing bits of tiny paper streamers in every different color imaginable –
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MISS FORD!”
Time seemed to grind to a halt once again as the classroom was barely recognizable underneath all the balloons, streamers, and the huge red banner with the words the students just shouted with all their might seconds ago scrawled onto it with different kinds of writing materials and a hurriedly-drawn profile of a strawberry Poogle on the side with a pointer and a notebook. Students were running around wearing pink and red paper hats and crowns and a white Aisha was offering their teacher the biggest, shiniest one graced with a large, heart-shaped rhinestone. A striped Kacheek and a shadow Hissi brought over the huge strawberry shortcake and a red Yurble clutched a knife still in its leather case cautiously.
And there was no missing the pile of presents on the teacher’s table, building up with every student that passed by it.
Miss Ford tried to say her thanks, but her throat went dry, for some strange reason. They didn’t forget after all, she knew, as her eyes began to water... and the delicate balance of her scheduled life was shifting as she stood there in the doorway, it was true, and she loved every second of it...
But with students like these, she definitely didn’t want – or need – a day off.