Yesterday, I was due to have lunch with my 3rd grade buddies at Bishop John T. Walker School for Boys, which is in Congress Heights in SE Washington DC. I’d promised them the previous week that I would arrive earlier and stay longer after lunch: my intention was to get there at about 10.30 and stay till about 2pm. First, though, I was scheduled to visit my dentist for some work on my implants, to set up fitting crowns: I was scheduled for 9am, but got there at 8, after dropping my 3rd grader at school. Fortunately, my dentist’s first patient did not show up so she started on me early. She sprayed my gums with anaesthetic and soon gave me a few ‘little pinches’ as she injected the area she needed to numb. She then worked as fast as she could, but somethings did not go as she had planned. I was lying in the chair, my head lower than my feet; my mouth open–sometimes propped open by a rubber device; the suction gurgling; the cold water dribbling inside my mouth; the drills whirring; the implant puller yanking. I focused on the inside of my eyelids. She talked to me about soccer and how she felt now that her team was out of the African Nations Cup. I grunted support for her views, or grunted disagreement. I breathed evenly. I thought. I was in no pain.
Four hours later, she told me that I could take a final rinse and that she would call me when I needed to come back. I called the school and explained that I had been delayed but hoped to be there by 12.30, when lunch was taken. She told me not to worry and to reschedule, if I preferred. I got to my car, looked at the parking fine ticket that was pinned to the windscreen, jumped into the driver’s seat, and tried to navigate downtown then cross the river. I got to the school at about 12.35, whizzed past the front desk and ran to the cafeteria downstairs, just as the boys were being served, at their two tables. “Hey! Mr. Jones!” came a chorus. I plunked myself at the end of a bench and was just starting to talk. “Hey! You said you would sit on our table this week!” a pleading voice yelled. The boy was right. I grabbed my coat and move to another bench. A few boys left the first table and sneaked onto the table I had joined. I smiled at them.
I got into a conversation to try to catch up on what had happened earlier in the boys’ day and also what had happened since I saw them last week. Not a good idea, because everyone–talking all the time, anyway–now wanted to talk at the same time. I put my chin into my hand and tried to listen to the many stories that started to rush out towards my ears. Some of the boys were eating hot dogs, whole wheat buns, with beans and fresh tomatoes; they had apples for dessert. The vegetarians or those with food allergies were eating things suited to their diets. I had no food–no real problem: my face was beginning to get back its feeling and my jaw was starting to ache. However, I had come for lunch, so asked for my lunch. The hot dog looked really tasty, but I just could not try it right then. We talked more.
Milk cartons were shared out by one of the class. Some boys pushed their straws into their apples: “I’m having apple juice,” one chirped. Some boys managed to open their ketchup sachets so that the contents flew out, landing on another boy, if things worked well: “You have red hair now! Do you want it yellow? I have some mustard,” a budding hairdresser helpfully offered. I giggled and looked back at a female staff member who was supervising lunch. “Do you have children?” I asked. “Apart from these angels? No.” She tried to get the boys to focus on finishing lunch and clearing their table. The man who hands out the lunches had come to sit at our table. His look was a little glazed, but he had a smile on his face. Zen, I thought.
Lunch finished and some of my group went off for a music session in the school chapel–they will perform at the school’s annual dinner next week; the others filed back upstairs to the classroom. A short journey, but long enough to get up to much mischief. Fingers poked backs. Funky stares met wrinkled noses. “You always trying to get me into trouble!” Boys stumbled for no apparent reason–the stairs must be uneven.
The class resumed their work on measurement. Is it only in the hands of boys that objects such as pencils, markers, rulers, and paper can become instruments of warfare or the necessary percussion to accompany a speaker. I took up a position opposite the teacher as he tried to get the boys to measure their objects and work with the notions of width and length. Rulers rapped noses. Rulers tapped tables. Pencils twirled around fingers. Markers were uncapped and dotted onto paper. Boys asked for tissues. Boys needed sharper pencils. Boys needed to go to the bathroom. Chairs rocked. Desks opened and closed. I looked at the boys as they ‘wandered off’ in their own worlds. I put my hand on a ruler to stop it tapping. I picked up pencils as they rolled on the floor. “It wont move if you don’t touch it,” I suggested–wise guy. I held paper still while little hands tried to manage ruler and pencil. I helped spell ‘February’. Measurements were made. I helped with judging whether to round up or down to the inch. The boys worked with measuring other shapes. Explanations were given to the teacher by the boys: not all pencils were of equal length; not all markers of a brand were the same length (Subway is not alone). Creativity abounded: not everyone drew their lines in the same directions. After the boys had been asked to measure the width of their paper, that led to an interesting discussion about what was width and what was length. For some boys, the width was 8 inches, for others it was 11 inches. I listened to their reasoning: I majored in ‘Measurement 404’.
My time was running out; 2pm approached and I eyed my watch: my own 3rd grader needed to have her pound of my flesh soon. But, first, we needed to have cake. Another volunteer, who works on a little garden at the school, had sent in two pecan pies. The teacher asked me to stay to share a piece. Gladly, I thought, though with my lunch still uneaten, I had no plans to tackle pecans just yet. The hand sanitizer monitor selected whose hands should get ‘a dot’; the power of service, I thought. “My hands are dirty, too!” came a cry. “Man! He put the stuff on my math sheet!” The teacher’s eyebrows rose and he reminded the boy how his homework often came back with much of his dinner on the sheets: “You’ll get over it,” he advised the boy. I imagined that the cake would be gone in a whoosh. Shock. Most of the boys did not want pie; they wanted ‘Goldfish’ or tortilla chips. The dinner lady came to join us in eating pie: good reward for previous service rendered.
I made my farewell and asked the teacher and boys if I could go off-schedule and come in more than just once a month. “Whenever you like.” I checked with the school office if that would work and not clash with the schedule for other buddies. Let’s say that ‘my 3rd graders’ pose many a challenge to volunteers; I smiled and said “I love a challenge.”
My face still ached but I still had no major pain. I looked at my lunch and dessert on the seat next to me. I’ll looked forward to eating that later, maybe much later. I headed back north, across the bridge, thinking about whether I could make it for lunch with the boys again next week.
My church has just issued the Lent edition of its periodic bulletin, Chronicles Chronicles–Lent Edition. I see that it has profiles on a few boys at the school. Have a read or take a look at their page on Facebook: none of the boys is an angel, and none is a devil, either.