I Don’t Know My Ass from My Aardvark

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By the time I graduated from NYU with my Masters degree in English and had sat for the Praxis we were elbow-deep in renovating our 1920’s era farmhouse. Overseeing various workmen left me no time to teach so I subbed on days when no construction was ongoing at the house.

One morning the phone rang before dawn; a local district needed a kindergarten teacher for a day.

“Hmmmmmm,” I mumbled into the phone as Jamie shoved his head under his pillow. “I am not really qualified to teach that. I am an English major and I intended to teach high school.”

“Oh, please,” begged the disembodied voice of the recruiter through the phone. “The flu has decimated the district. Teachers and subs are both out with it.”

I considered; we could use the money. “Okay,” I agreed. “I will be there.” I rolled out of bed regretting my decision. I have no gift for friendship with small children. I really begin to like kids when they are high school age and understand my sense of humor. I am a lot like Jamie’s late grandmother who only warmed to her grandchildren when they were old enough to have a pre-dinner Scotch with her.

When I arrived at the school and saw the classroom I knew I had been correct in my original assessment. The walls were painted primary colors. The rug in the reading nook had large numbers dancing with mathematical signs. The chairs were the size of doll house furniture and the people sitting in them barely reached my knees. What had I been thinking?

The day progressed much as I had feared. Sing an alphabet song. Take a little person to the potty. Distribute healthy snacks. Take another little person to the potty. Clean up after healthy snacks. Call for the nurse when one small person threatened to throw up. Take several little people to the potty. Play a cd of Raffi songs so all of the little people could sing. By noon I was exhausted.

Finally it was story time and the kinder scrambled over one another to get a good seat on the dancing mathematics rug.

“So what book do you want?” I asked staring at the overflowing wooden book shelves.

“Arthur!” all of the Lilliputians shrieked at once.

“Arthur?” I wrinkled my brow. “Where is it?”

A cute little girl in rhinestoned jeans and a floral peasant top pointed.

I lifted the book. The cover read Arthur’s Pet Business. Okay, why not? I sat in the big wing chair and began reading aloud. The protagonist was a weird little brown animal with an oval head, round ears, and huge, round, black glasses: It looked like a rodent Lew Wasserman. I stopped reading and stared at the full-color illustration on the cover and asked, “What is this Arthur thing, anyway? Is he a mouse?”

A collective gasp arose from the entire rug of little people in response to my heretical question.

“What?” I asked.

Soprano voices quivering with threatened tears howled in unison, “He’s an aardvark!”

I stared at the drawing. “He can’t be an aardvark. Aardvarks have little ears and long snouts. He looks like a mouse. Are you sure he’s not a mouse?”

“No! He’s an aardvark!”

I peered down at the rug. Many of them were sniffling, some had actually begun to cry, and the rest were just . . . staring at me open-mouthed . . . as though they couldn’t believe any adult was so stupid as to think Arthur was a mouse. “All right, all right,” I mumbled, digging in my pocket for tissues to give to the weepers. “He’s an aardvark.”

Years later I told the story to the high school librarian who stared at me. “You’re an English major?” she asked in disbelief.

“Yup,” I nodded. “Victorian Lit.”

“It’s a good thing you are at the high school, Cella,” she snorted “because clearly you don’t know your ass from your aardvark.”

And I have remained in high schools for over twenty years because indeed, I still don’t know my ass from my aardvark.

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