Lessons Learned in the Cafeteria

My responsibilities as a paraprofessional include lunch duty. Recently my schedule was changed to include kindergarten lunch time. Patience and machine-washable clothing are requirements for this duty. After emptying a bottle of spot remover one weekend, I was beginning to wonder how I could keep clean around five-year-olds with open milk cartons, sticky fingers, and numerous accidental spills, and not go bankrupt purchasing stain removers.

There was one spill that was the “Mt. Everest” of them all and caused me to take drastic measures. I actually knew better than to stand behind the trash can as the children marched passed depositing their garbage in the bin, but for some reason I did. One sweet, innocent boy accidentally flipped his tray too soon, which sent his ketchup on a trajectory I realized too late was going to intercept my pants. Although it was unintentional, any NASA rocket engineer would have been proud of its line of flight. It landed with a plop and then proceeded to slip all the way down my leg and come to rest on my shoe. The boy didn’t speak and I didn’t speak. Time stood still. After reminding myself that laundry soap and spot removers were my new best friends, I mumbled something about being more careful and then retreated to find something to somehow eliminate the red mess. That was on a Friday. On Saturday my daughter and I purchased a $5 apron. For a brief moment, I did consider donning a welder’s uniform, complete with face mask, a rubber covering, gloves, and steel-toed boots. I came to my senses quickly and dismissed that idea, shivering at the image it would create for the kids. But an apron would help.

That following Monday, I wore my apron and was greeted by funny looks and sincere questions, as well as outright smirks, and that was from my co-workers! One thing about children is that they are brutally honest. Some wondered why I was wearing a bib, others asked what it was, and the really informed asked what I was going to cook. I did receive an order for a grilled cheese.

So, what I recognized was that these modern, technologically advanced students had no idea what an apron was. It was an opportunity for a lesson—to blend different generations! I could merge my “apron” era knowledge with a tech-savvy generation. Life gets messy and things don’t always go as planned, even from a student’s perspective. We must prepare, do the best we can, teach, forgive often, and then move on. Our lifetime is a continual learning experience, so why not enjoy the adventure and accept that accidents, messes, stains, and unexpected surprises are going to happen? My first sewing project in home economics class was an apron. I don’t know what they sew in today’s home ec classes, but an apron represents rolling up your sleeves and getting to work. Aprons mean that I will probably get dirty, but I am prepared. They represent service and hard work primarily motivated by love, so much like the education profession.

Blogger Jennifer Fulwiler stated it well: “An apron is a simple act that sends a surprisingly powerful message … It’s a symbolic gesture that indicates that you’re seeking to thrive now, here in the midst of the toil that comes with nurturing new souls; that you see the work of serving others not as a temporary phase, but as a key aspect of a well lived life. Taking the time to fasten the strings of an apron around your waist sends a message (to yourself, as much as to anyone else) that it’s worth the effort.”

It is work to serve others and, like life in general, it can get messy. But that’s why we have aprons. The education profession is not always easy nor without its own type of “messes.” Whether we wear an actual apron or not, teachers and paraprofessionals care for students. We take it seriously by rolling up our sleeves, serving our students food for their minds as best we can, not fearing the often confusing, difficult plights, predicaments, and problems we may face. Armed with determination, we endeavor to make a difference. By the end of the day, we may have clutter and messes, but every splatter and stain means someone was fed!

As long as I continue to remind myself this is not a job, but a responsibility bordering on a calling, I attempt to face each day with renewed determination that I can make a difference, and, with God’s help, I will. I don’t always succeed. I have made many mistakes, and probably even invented some that others have never thought of or imagined. However, when I learn from those mistakes and make adjustments, I grow, which helps me help others. I also must recognize that what works for one group of students may not work for others. I must resist becoming a static and ineffective influence in students’ lives and instead must examine each class’s dynamics with as much wisdom as possible. So, with my apron tied securely, I am happy to welcome the messes that come with educating our next generation!

Kay Deckerhoff graduated from the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida, and is a certified elementary school teacher. She and her husband have two grown children, who are both graduates of Texas A&M. Kay is a computer paraprofessional at AR Turner Elementary in Willis. She was the recipient of the 2016 ATPE Associate Educator of the Year Award.

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