Today I feel old. I part my hair with my fingers to reveal gray roots and wonder if a lighter color will hide them longer. I dot extra wrinkle cream around my eyes before turning away from the mirror. In the bedroom I try on a ten year old blouse, hoping it will make me look younger. But the sleeves are tight, so I put on my old lady teacher clothes and fill my travel cup with high test coffee. I’m usually eager to get to class, but today I need extra buttressing to face twenty-five ten year olds.
When the bell rings they come in chattering and laughing, tiring me before they even take their seats. Arithmetic quiets them, and I see the familiar glazed looks that appear when I say words like fractions and percent. They perk up during social studies when we play a game with the names of major rivers. We move on to language arts and they want more fun, but I don’t have the energy to organize a spelling bee.
I turn my back to the class and write the spelling words on the board. That’s when the snickering starts. I check the words I’ve written, but none are misspelled. Maybe my slip is showing or a lock of hair is sticking out at an awkward angle. I keep writing; generations of fifth graders have hardened me to childish humor. I don’t turn around until the volume rises and I hear giggles punctuated by snorts.
Everyone is looking at Alyssa Wagner who is standing by her desk. Her arms rocket down to her sides, but not before I have seen her parody, the fingers of one hand pinching the skin of her underarm. I glare at her and wait for the inevitable gasp and reddening face. Her eyes widen as I begin to stalk between the desks toward her. The room is silent now, but deep inside me a laugh is growing. I savor the terror in her eyes as I keep mine fixed on her. I stop five inches from her petite, young body.
“Alyssa Wagner.” I emphasize each syllable and wait, keeping my eyes locked on hers. I hope she can’t tell how much I’m enjoying this.
“Yes ma’am,” she manages to whisper.
“Put your arm out.”
“Put your arm out.”
She complies. I can see her fingers trembling. I’ve never touched a child, but she doesn’t know that.
“Jiggle your arm.” She moves it up and down a little.
Now I raise my arm, displaying the loose skin that hangs under my upper arm. I twist my wrist and the skin sways. Impossibly, Alyssa opens her eyes wider. I hear whispers around us, but I’m fighting to hold my frown.
“Go ahead and touch it. I’m sure you can make it really jiggle.”
Her hands shoot down behind her back and she takes a little step backward, shaking her head.
“Yes, Alyssa. I’m old. My arms jiggle. I have wrinkles. I need glasses to read. My joints hurt and I’m getting fat.”
As she jerks her head back I finally lose control and let the laugh out. Yes, I’m old. But I can still surprise a ten year old. And I still love teaching. Gasping for breath, with tears in my eyes, I finally manage to stop.
“Oh, Alyssa. I am old. And you will be too, someday. When your arms jiggle, remember the day you made your teacher laugh. Remember that jiggly arms are funny.”
I turn back to the list of words on the board, ignoring the whispers. I don’t feel old after all.
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