When I first started teaching, my mentor teacher coined a phrase that has since stuck: Every dung heap has its dung beetle. He made his comment about a veteran colleague, Ms. Irma, rumored to have pilfered a large stockpile of instructional materials – perhaps the largest in entire school if not the district. No coincidence that she had secured the classroom best suited to storing such a heap, nor that she possessed the only surviving key to her classroom’s storage closet. She was, at least, methodical.

One warm Thursday afternoon, she took a spill on her way to lock the closet. An unhappy incident for her and the event that ended her long run. Injuries prevented her return to the classroom after that day. Our department chair found her sprawled across the floor, summoned paramedics and then asked me venture into her classroom to close it up. Once I entered , I saw that the storage closet door had been left ajar. Of course, I went in.

Shelves of sorted – and rare – texts, office supplies, a six crates of old notebook paper, chalk, and ditto machine chemicals, out-of-print grammar books, every single teacher’s manual for every single adopted edition, and two boxes of books marked in black felt pen with other teachers’ names. Enough stuff to stock a small high school for two years, but mostly stuff no one wanted anymore.

To collect stuff in Ms. Irma’s way, you start practicing early. Early as kindergarten, for example. Last Friday, I spotted a budding expert, a kindergarten boy named Damion, head-down inside the ball cage. He had his clutches wrapped around one particular kick ball. When I approached, he crawled all the way into the cage, closed the lid and sat criss-cross looking up at me. “Mine” was all that he said. He had no plan to move. That much was clear. I could have turned the cage over to spill him and his prize out, but I didn’t want to drop him on his head. So, I let him sit out his recess in the cage to look out at his classmates as they played. That little ball cage looked like a jail cell with Damion holding the bars. Maybe next time he might make a different choice?

As a boy, I used to play an imagination game with the little girl next door. She would tell me to lie on my back and then instruct me to imagine different body parts disappearing. We started with my sneakers, then the socks, then one foot at a time. I was in all the way, knowing that my shins, and then my knees were, in fact, gone. She erased all of me from toe to crown. Then, invisible, I had to describe how I felt. Even with every part of me taken, I didn’t want for a single thing. I told her I was floating.

So that’s it, then. Feeling free as I did in those days is a feeling I’d want Damion to have for himself someday. He’d forget about his kickball. Safe, whole, held, and then free – even just once. It’s a release from want and a kind of cure with broad application. With just that much, I bet most of us would have the strength to get by on next to nothing.


Subscribe to our e-mail newsletter to receive updates.

6 Responses to Stuff