How I Got Clean

September 28, 2009

My Dad always told me to keep a clean house, and I never did.  I scoffed at his insistence that it was a clear and gigantic metaphor, that my inability to keep my room clean was a direct representation of my clouded psyche, of the frenetic confusion of my existence.  Like all high-functioning addicts, I insisted that I could quit if I wanted to and chocked the whole thing up to creative choice.  Ask me where something is… just ask me!  I’ll have it for you in ten seconds flat, retrieved from its spot on the floor that has been firmly captured and stored by my photographic memory.

In third grade, I developed a theory about why it is illogical to make the bed every morning (I mean, think about it in the long term). I kept my clean laundry in a pile on the floor next to the dirty laundry, thus forever blurring the line between the two.  By adolescence, I realized that in order to keep the family peace I had to at least pull my weight in the rest of the house, and so I actually became an effective and somewhat anal dishwasher.  See? I told my dad.  It’s a matter of choice.

This trend – keeping my room a mess while the rest of the house is, well, at least respectable – has followed me throughout my adult life, both professional and personal.  My union with Becky, whose cleanliness is consistently sporadic, has put our apartment’s cleanliness on the pattern of two overlapping sine waves with varying wavelengths, sometimes reinforcing each other to create the cleanest clean we’ve ever experienced, sometimes promoting such chaos that even my photographic memory has trouble locating the lint brush when we need it most.  Mind you, chaotic does not mean filthy, and it never has.  My room has always been clean, I’ve insisted, it’s just that it’s messy.

And, for the first four and a half years of teaching, so was my classroom.  At times even I would be frustrated by its disorder, or by the constant stream of lost items that disappeared from the possession of my students.  Where did you see it, I would ask incredulously, subconsciously determined to teach my students my own system of mental, not physical, organization.  I complained often to the class, but more often would just let it slide, figuring that if anything were truly important it wouldn’t actually get lost.  For the most part, my prophecy fulfilled itself.  I may have lost a kid once, and I think our once-class-pet snake Charlie still lives between the walls hunting mice, but beyond that nothing big.

Then, a few weeks ago, Laryza walked into my room and expressed to me that she’d had it.  This place is a mess, you’re a mess, she said with her usual sweetness. (Since Laryza helps me in my classroom more that anyone has probably ever helped me with anything, we have a dynamic where she can pretty much say whatever she wants to me, which is good because she probably would do so anyway.)  By that afternoon, the Queen of Clean, the Empress of Immaculateness, the Pharoah of Fung-shui, that mythical 3-day-a-week goddess named Dyanthe was in my room seemingly moving bookcases around with the power of her mind.   I think all the books should go together, in one place, she said with an air of calm.  She consulted her Spellbook of Sanitation and read off of what I swear was a stone tablet: If you label things, your students will know where to put them.  She turned to her right and stuck to a cabinet were two magnetic letter C’s; she parted them (get it?  Like Moses).  With heavenly grace she announced: If you give the room to them, they will keep it clean.

And thus my leaf was turned (well, truth be told, Laryza first pulled the leaf our from under me, slapped me with it a few times, and then held my hand as I reluctantly turned it over).  The children returned to the classroom, asking not what had happened to the space, but what had happened to their teacher.  Your eyebrows are all flat-like, one of them said, not all pointy towards your nose like usual.  Another one asked, You got a cold?  Why’s your voice so soft and relax-ted?  Little did they know, their entire world was about to change…


I have cried just five times in five years of teaching.  The first four times were on the same page of the same book over four consecutive years (the book: Bud, Not Buddy, when Bud finally realizes who Herman E. Calloway really is).  The fifth time was today.

For the past three weeks, my students and I have truly taken ownership over our space.  It started with the conversation we had after the Graceful Goddess Dyanthe graced our room with her flawless four-inch heals of hygiene.  As a group, we identified each and every part of the room that could be kept clean, and then we divvied them up.  Now, in addition to cleaning up their own workspace at the end of a given period, they would also be in charge of maintaining a specific area of the classroom.

Yes, I know, Teacher 101 says give them jobs to do and they will own them.  But for some reason over the first four and a half years of my career they didn’t, and we eventually abandoned them one year after another.  It wasn’t until I myself owned the cleanliness that I could actually transfer ownership to them.  Instead of watching them clean up and redirecting children who avoided work, I got down on my hands and knees and helped them clean, and it wasn’t in that that Fine-I’ll-Just-Do-It-For-You kind of way, but rather in a way that said: I’m a member of the community, too.

And the ownership didn’t stop there.  Upon the Queen of Clean’s suggestion, I started designating a student leader of our class meetings.  Instead of becoming frustrated with students who were not listening to me as I deftly directed the conversation toward a logical resolution to the topic at hand (ie, call on Garrett or Evan last), I sat back and watched as topics arose and fell without conscious direction but instead with the true and valid opinions of my students, flawed yet perfect.  I watched as the student leader only called on students who were being respectful. I watched as children watched me raise my hand to speak and otherwise sit quietly and listen to other students, their careful gazes impressed that I was finally acting the same way I always expected them to.  I watched as, slowly, I actually became an equal member of the community rather than its frustrated leader.

Of course, it’s not always like this.  I know they talk about a two-week turnaround in teaching, but I’m no miracle worker (Dyanthe, maybe, but not me).  There are still days when I have to direct traffic, when insecurities arise from them or from me or (more likely) from both, and even the cleanup process is never quite perfect… That is, until today.

Today we tore the room apart as they created models of the arctic tundra, working for 90 minutes straight without knowing we’d gone past 45.  There’s a buzz in here, Laryza said as she walked in 30 minutes into it, noticing that the talk in the room was all totally on task and totally productive.   Clay in one corner, dioramas across the middle of the room, a play about arctic animals being practiced on the rug: everyone was engaged.

Ten minutes before lunch I put on the “extended” cleanup song, the six-minute LCD Soundsystem dance track that I usually have to stop halfway through because there’s too much dancing and not enough cleaning.  Djoume started doing that high-pitched “ooo-a, ooo-a” sound that people used to do at dance clubs in the 90’s, and the other kids followed suit.  Soon after a conga line formed, at which point I almost snapped back into my former, frustrated self… until I noticed that it was no ordinary conga line.  They were actually bending over at the end of each measure, in unison, and picking up trash off the floor. That’s right, a Conga of Cleanliness.  The ooo-a’s kept going the entire time, never stopping just as no one ever stopped cleaning.  I didn’t say a single word to anyone, and at the end of the six-minute song there was a final scramble by the kids to get into their seats and quiet before the song ended.  As it did, you could literally hear the CD player stop and its laser return to the rest position.  That’s right, you could hear the mechanics of a CD player in a classroom of 25 eight year-olds.  It was such a beautiful thing, so independent and swift, such a drastic and marked turnaround from just three weeks earlier, it literally brought a tear to my eye.

Now, I don’t know if it was the cleanliness that did it, or the ownership, or what.  I just know that in the last two weeks I’ve grown more as a teacher than I have in the previous five.  Something clicked for me, and it wasn’t just the clean thing.  All of a sudden, differentiation is making sense to me, too, and I like my kids more.  More importantly, something clicked in them, and we’re all cooler with each other now, and much, much cleaner.

So thanks, Dyanthe.  Thanks, Laryza.  I love you, Becky – the house is next.  But most of all, thanks Dad.  It took a while for this lesson to sink in, but I think my head is finally clear.

Coming Soon… Part Three: The Differentiation Piece


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