I pulled my emergency backpack closer as the bus swerved from side to side. A half-eaten Hershey bar, a handful of Band Aids, two-thirds of a bottle of hand sanitizer, five packets of Oreos and one broken pencil completed the inventory. My straining eyes pressed against the rain-spattered window, seeking a place to evacuate all 16 second graders and their parents to shelter. Five packets of Oreos multiplied by the four Oreos in each packet equaled 20 Oreos. Divide those by 16 kids and you get… you get… well, what you get is a riot.
We reached the bottom of an overpass as I took deep calming breaths. It loomed, menacingly like any boardwalk roller coaster I had ever avoided. Were we truly destined to climb its dizzying heights only to plunge to our deaths, battered by a storm on a two-lane highway somewhere above New Jersey of all places?
Thoughts of finding any sort of safety were banished as the harsh wind ripped a tree from the ground and tossed it directly in front of us, initially blocking our entry to the steep, death trap. As the severed trunk was somehow scooped up and dragged along the flooded road by a Brinks armored van, I peered forward in the rain seeking Heidi’s bus.
I could not spy a glimpse of my co teacher as The Incredibles movie blared in the background. I did not want to die like this, Oreo crumbs covering my face, surrounded by the used vomit bags of second graders and a few souvenirs from the MET. Then I saw it, Heidi’s pending text, the three dots bouncing, noting that words of comfort and wisdom were soon to come. Her plan to save us from imminent death was at my fingertips. The message materialized, “This rain is a little annoying. Don’t forget to collect their museum maps so I can use them in Art History tomorrow.”
THIS is how my teaching partner/soul sister and I survive. We take turns being the sane one.
Our beginning-of-the-year ice cream party that ended in one bloody, knocked-out loose tooth, more than 10 stitches and a bird defecating on my arm was an opportunity for Heidi to come to my rescue. That time the parents got a “little” annoyed with each other while setting up for our annual art show (yes, blood was shed again) was my turn to quietly spirit Heidi away from the carnage to that oasis known as Panera. I’m told that my campaign to serve a Panera-Bread-Smooth-Blended-Heidi-Martini is still under thoughtful consideration by the manager.
Some mornings I hastily whisper the life-saving words to her, “Fire drill coming at 10:30,” when we pass each other in the hallway. You see, when these important dates are released in August, I’m the team member who immediately enters all several hundred of them in my Google calendar. In return, Heidi tells me when there’s hummus in the cafeteria. I’m a vegan in a world of Pennsylvania hunters, but she’s got my uncamouflaged back.
We’ve directed musicals together.
“Children,” Heidi will say in her refined, calm way, “the audience can see everything you are doing on stage. You need to stay in character, show proper posture, keep your hands and feet still.”
“Kids,” I’ll chime in, losing my patience, “this is what you look like.” Slinging my leg over an auditorium chair pushing my bottom into the air, I holler and wave at them. Their faces reflect the spectacle I have become. Heidi smiles, composedly, and continues.
Heidi tolerates my very loose planning style. I will run into her room during a free period, “So, I’m going to bring some test tubes, water, balloons, sugar and yeast to your room tomorrow and we’re going to see what happens. The kids will love it!” When her space smells like a combination brewery/bakery and the children are screeching as budding yeast bombs explode here and there, she quietly takes pictures and cleans up.
This is truly an amazing concession from the woman who will call me on a Monday night so we can discuss every detail of how we are going to handle our biography project. Will the students write on the top or the bottom of the paper? Will they make illustrations? Will they use crayons, markers or colored pencils? Will we assign partners or let them choose? Will we pair them by birthdays, interests, height? Halfway through the conversation Heidi will inevitably speak the words, “You must be so sick of me, dissecting every move. Why can’t I just make a decision?” The truth is, her thoughtfulness compliments my endless stream of big — sometimes hairbrained — ideas.
I don’t know what I would do without this teaching sister of mine. I recall the time my daughter had a callback for one of her favorite Broadway shows and thoughts of managing a move to New York with my aspiring actress were spinning in my head. Heidi appeared in my classroom doorway right before school started. “If you need a large amount of cash right away, you just let me know.” It kept me up pondering for many nights. Where had those Pokémon cards she’d confiscated from her students gone? Was my innocent sister running goods on the black market?
Covid-19 has truly shone a light on the benefits of our symbiotic relationship. My classroom sister and I were given two days to do a full pivot and transition to online teaching of 7-year-olds. She Zoomed me when she was having a meltdown and couldn’t login to Seesaw. (It turns out her screen was maximized thus hiding the links.) I Zoomed her when the cascading skin around my neck on screen caused me to have a meltdown, and she rocked my world with scarves.
As we struggle to imagine how our instruction is going to look in the fall, as we meet for face-masked picnics, and as we endure endless Zoom meetings which honestly make me want to peel the skin from my face in little bits and pile them onto the floor with tortured care, I know that somehow she and I will manage to pull this off, and we might even return to that overpass in New Jersey. The next time, though, I’m going to be on the bus with Heidi. Her yin to my yang definitely packs superior snacks.
— Vicki Austin
Vicki Austin, part of the faculty at Wyoming Seminary College Preparatory School, lives with her family in Kingston, Pennsylvania. Vicki has more than 25 years of experience in many facets of education and is currently shifting her writing focus from persuasive to creative. Her most recent work has been featured on the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop blog, included in the online journals Projected Letters and Wraparound South and printed in The Walls Between Us: Essays in Search of Truth, a Juncture publication. You can find Vicki on Twitter @VickiAustin02 and send encouragement as she finishes her first novel.