Have you ever watched an event transpiring and said to yourself, “This can’t be happening?” The first time it happened to me was in the second grade. And, to this day, I am still amazed at what occurred.
Okay. Let me begin by saying that, when you’re seven-years-old—no matter how much you want to disagree—most adults are smarter than you. And if not actually more intelligent, they at least know more; they have more experience at life which gives them a bit more common sense. We can all agree to that, right?
But recalling this event still causes me to shake my head in bewilderment.
So. Second grade. Substitute teacher. I can’t recall her face, but I can still envision her standing in front of the class when someone—and I’m 99% certain it wasn’t me—threw a paper airplane. In second grade, that’s pretty close to a capital offense. And the Sub did wrinkle her brow as if to question the airplane thrower’s motives. To her questioning expression, someone said, “Our teacher lets us throw paper airplanes all the time!”
Her response was to simply shrug her shoulders. And it deteriorated from there. I can’t remember if the Sub left the plane where it had landed or gave it—or asked it to be returned—to the kid who threw it. But in what seemed like no time, another kid made a paper airplane and sailed it across the room. And another followed his example. And while the sub went on with whatever she was attempting to teach us, kids around the room began taking paper from their desks, folding various designs, and flinging them.
I was stunned at this development. How could she allow this? Even I, a second grader, knew that allowing a room full of children to fold and fly paper airplanes while attempting to teach was inherently and simply wrong.
But the folding and flinging grew exponentially.
While I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming or having an other-worldly experience, I shoved the tiny voice of my conscience into a corner and dove into the aviation revelry. At some point I colored a blue and red stripe onto the wings of one of my planes and soon cajoled a few other boys into marking their planes in the same fashion. The substitute had so little control over the class, or cared so little about what we were doing, that I actually formed a club!
Picture the skies over Chicago O’Hare International Airport. That was our classroom. Even as a seven-year-old, I was amazed that this was happening. Though I may not recall my exact thoughts from the time, I can tell you that I was thinking that something must be wrong with the woman. When you’re constantly folding and throwing airplanes, you can’t possibly be paying attention to your teacher.
Formulate a picture in your head for the word chaos. Now try a vision for anarchy. Combine the images. Double it. That’s what I felt was occurring in our classroom and I was amazed that this substitute was letting it occur.
And on through the day it went.
At lunch I recall talking with some other boys from my class about new and better designs and markings for our aircraft. At one point, our principal saw me with a plane in my hand. The events of the day in our class were so surreal that I must have thought they applied to the real world. I received a touch of reality when he reached out a hand to me to surrender it to him. While I giddily began explaining that the markings indicated our club, he gave me a stern look and crumpled my plane in his hand.
I quickly shut my mouth.
Once back in class, the bedlam ensued. You wanna know how bad it was? Girls were making paper airplanes and throwing them. The Sub stood up front and talked on while, as far as I can remember, every kid participated in airplane throwing. Kids even boldly stood, walked to the storage cupboard, removed a piece of poster-sized construction paper and created huge airplanes. They were of such size and weight that they probably bordered on being dangerous. Still, those designers took little heed of what a paper airplane of that size might do to an unsuspecting cornea.
The teacher blathered on.
We folded and flung.
Soon, the novelty of simply flinging planes into the air wore thin. Some kids then began trying to get planes to come to rest on the light fixtures. In those days, we had fluorescent lights. But, unlike today, these were not recessed into the ceiling with a translucent cover. These were long rows of fixtures, containing the fluorescent tubes, which were dropped about 18 inches from the ceiling. So kids began, some successfully, to try to get their planes to land on the fixtures. That’s how we spent the remainder of our day. And it was our downfall.
As we entered our class the following morning, Mrs. Lowry stood in her place at the front of the room, hands on her hips, glaring at us. Picture the first time you saw the Wicked Witch of the West when you were a kid. The look upon our teacher’s face was more frightening.
While we cowered from her gaze, our school janitor moved a ladder up and down the aisles, climbing up to remove the evidence. We’d cleaned up all of the planes the previous afternoon, but couldn’t get to the ones on the light fixtures.
We sheepishly took our seats. She never said a word while the janitor performed his task. When he finished, he walked towards her. Dear God, man! Take them with you! He handed her the half-crumpled pile of planes. The corpus delecti was irrefutable. She nodded to him and, without a word from either, he hauled his ladder from the room.
As the door latch clicked into place, it sounded like the cocking of a gun. She glared at us, one hand on her hip and the other holding the evidence. There was no denying what we’d done. All I could hear was the pounding of my heartbeat. Or, it may have been the heartbeat of the kids on either side of me.
I was positive my punishment would be a firing squad. At least that’s what most of us wished would happen. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman that mad. And I’ve been married twice. I don’t recall what she said to us; it’s undoubtedly blocked from my memory. But she was mad.
And, even though fear was moistening my lower extremities, I still had a thought of questioning my teacher; raising my hand and inquiring as to what was wrong with our substitute to let a classroom of kids behave in such a careless, disrespectful manner. What could she have possibly been thinking?! I was curious!
Luckily for me, I was too petrified to open my mouth. I’m sure that was probably for the best.