That Old Expired Jar of Mayonnaise (Part 2)

It is a good idea to read Part 1 (an event from the Spring, of 2022) before this piece if you haven’t. Even though this post is about an event that happened prior to that (the previous fall), the setup of the two is me providing this one as a backstory for Part 1. IF YOU HAVEN’T, GO READ IT NOW.

Fall, 2021

The return to live and in-person learning in the fall of 2021 was sure to be an exciting, challenging, energetic, almost combustible experience.

I had written clear directions on the board and had materials and prompts and discoveries in their locations. I had prepared a scavenger hunt of sorts to reacquaint the children with each other, and placed name tags at seats around the tables I had switched to years ago, having realized that for me student desks were a far greater pain in the ass than they were a convenience. It was one more thing to manage, including all the things a desk ends up holding-things that should be in a desk, and things that should not.

The four rules for my classroom were posted in at least eight different locations. Finding these rules was, in fact, one of the find-it-if-you-can items on the scavenger hunt. I had those rules all over the place on purpose, and every year I point them out. But by the time I do, on day one, the students already get that those are the rules. I mean, they’re everywhere and they just really seem like rules when you see them and see that they are everywhere.

I created this four-rule list early in my career, one that now spans over two decades. They came to me after having participated in at least a couple “hug the children and make them feel respected” type professional development offerings. These were largely focused on a classroom discipline approach that pretends to put students in the driver’s seat when it comes to establishing classroom rules by involving them in a leading conversation-one where the rules land pretty much where the teacher wants them to begin with.

I hate wasting time that way when it comes to rules.

The foundation for an effective lifelong learner, a great part of which is structure and rules, needs to be simple and easily understood so it can be generalized to more early-stage learners. I have rules when I teach. Pretty much the same rules I had as a child myself, the same rules my parents had, the same rules my daughters had… I think the same rules most decent people I know have had. They rarely needed to be listed the way I’m about to because the words might be slightly different but when you see someone succeeding either in school, at work, or in life in general, chances are they learned and internalized a similar set of all-purpose rules. My rules are:

  1. Listen
  2. Follow Directions
  3. Be Polite
  4. Do your Best

What we’re really struggling with in school is less about gaps in ELA and Math achievement and more about gaps in student experiences with structure and with basic rules like that, as well as appropriate rewards and consequences attached to those things. The lack of character, responsibility, and respect that are the products of structure and rules are the hurdles standing in the way of their achievement. Educators are perpetually directed to and held accountable for achievement in discrete skills and standardized assessments, away from long-established, understood, and researched-based developmental progress and practices.

Remember that scavenger hunt?

Maybe not. I ramble and go off on tangents but let me just say that my goal was to watch how these children would handle getting tossed back into the crazy, hectic, smelly, noisy salad of the classroom, as well as the rules that exist in the structures and confines of in-person, down-and-dirty learning.

Well, they were thrilled. They were happy. They were getting back together with friends and peers they had seen little or nothing of since the beginning of the pandemic and now here they were! Most couldn’t give two shits about rules, directions on the board, or any of that type of stuff. Oh their seat, sure. The novelty of a teacher that had tables instead of desks, yes. But what was written on the board?

Psssht. There were maybe three who got right to the tasks described on the chalkboard while still engaging in the more social aspects of this reunion and the “work” of day one/morning one, which was mostly social anyways. Most mingled and bounced around the room oblivious to any direction clues or cues that attempted to guide them toward a routine or requirement.

Now, as kids can and will, they DO notice the things you sometimes hope they don’t.

I set it up so that someone might because I wanted to see if any would, and sure enough one did: the package of Oreo cookies barely peeking out from a semi-bad hiding spot high on the shelf. That was Eva who announced it loudly to the class. The other item that got noticed by Eva, again loudly, was a little jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise sitting tucked back a bit on the top level of a bookshelf that sat behind his chair in his little teacher’s corner of the room.

“Hey, why do you have that jar of mayonnaise?” Eva shouted.

Having already started to realize that this group would have to be eased gradually back into civility from their largely feral existence during remote learning, and having already noticed that Eva was the sort to notice, think about, wonder about, and ask about everything except what she should and should not be doing, I decided to use a strategy mastered over the course of my lifetime.

I decided to wing it and throw out some confusing bullshit, just to get kids thinking.

“Oh, that mayonnaise?” I said, gesturing back to the jar. “Because… you never know.”

Here I nodded wisely as if having some experience knowing that keeping some mayonnaise around might come in handy. I told them how I had kept it for years and years, and just never gotten around to using it or throwing it away. They got curious and wanted a closer look. There was a little bit of investigation to find the expiration date (about three years earlier). I cracked the crinkly plastic seal around the rim of the jar and wondered aloud how old, expired mayonnaise might smell.

I realized a majority of the students were still caught up in the excitement, less focused on the activities he had set up for them, and knew I needed their attention. I also knew that kids are always watching and listening, especially to the adults who are near and are just waiting for something interesting to latch onto. Especially if it’s tasty, naughty, off-limits, privileged information, and so on.

So instead of yelling for their attention and demonstrating weakness and frustration in the face of adversity, I simply skooched my puffy, comfy green chair to front and center, facing the room to sit down and pretend to have a think.

I then put on my best, helpless, what am I to do now face, leaning forward with an elbow on one knee, reaching into a pants pocket with my other hand.

From my pocket, I withdrew a small, black, rectangular object. It was black, and it was a dull, flat black. It was about the size of a Zippo lighter. The whole reason I had it was exactly because it looked like a Zippo lighter. During the summer break before the beginning of the school year, I had done a brothers-get-together to help one move day, and one of my brothers had an object exactly like it. He had never been a smoker so I was a little stunned until I saw him carefully pluck and pull a pair of folded-up emergency readers from under the flipped-up lid, open them up, and then put them on.

“I could really use a pair of glasses like that,” I thought. I figured that having them in my pocket might come in handy if I walk to someplace in the building while forgetting my regular pair of glasses. Also, I almost immediately thought:

That looks enough like a zippo lighter, I can mess with some kids’ minds with that thing in my pocket!

A hush began to fall as kids noticed and some whispering began “Mr. McConnell’s got a lighter!”

Of course, it was one of those kids-notice-what-you-hope-they-don’t moments, but it was one where I knew they would and I wanted their undivided attention. I kept a somewhat perplexed look on my face as I absentmindedly flipped and clicked closed the cover of this Zippo-like thing to accentuate the lighter-like characteristics.

When the kids had gone quiet, except for you-know-who (Do you remember her name?) who shouted “Mr. McConnell-why do you have a lighter???” I pretended I was woke from my at-my-wits-end trance.

“Oh, this? It isn’t a lighter. Check this out.”

Very gingerly, like a street magician doing some kind of up-close trick, I carefully pulled the glasses out and unfolded them much as my brother had. There were some “ooohs” and some “ahhhhs”, and Eva yelled:

“Why do you have those???”

I got to deliver the message I would go on to deliver at least a hundred times from that day up to nearly the end of the school year.

“Well, I know I’m forgetful and tend to leave my real glasses (I take them from the top of my head) here or there and walk away, and end up needing glasses to read something. Having these in my pocket keeps me covered for those situations because, hey…you never know. You know, like that mayonnaise back there. Don’t forget, you never know.”

Now, you read Part 1, right? You know what’s going to happen with that mayonnaise after the state tests are done, right? What the students didn’t know in this moment we are in, or the one that will be after those tests is this:

I planned to play this “you-never-know” mayonnaise bit all year long, tweaking it occasionally, until the night before the day after state tests were all done. The stress, the ridiculousness, the scripted and onerous nature of assessment as it is currently done…All would be apparently eased out of my teacher’s soul by a big, sloppy, nasty spoonful of old, expired mayonnaise shoved into my mouth the day after tests were done. You’ve read about it so you know.

But the reveal is that the night before, I took that jar home and thoroughly cleaned it out, and filled it with vanilla pudding. Back onto my shelf it went the next morning, ready to play a starring role in that other piece I hope you already read.