By Guest Writer: Rebecca Linam
“Don’t step on the turtles!” Mrs. Hays’ voice rang out across the crowded hallway.
A dozen students screeched to a halt with another dozen crashing into them from behind. “What? Where?!” one of them asked, panicked.
Mrs. Hays pointed to an empty spot on the tiled floor between her classroom and mine.
The students played along. “Ahh, okay, Mrs. Hays.” They carefully tiptoed around the empty space to their next class.
Mrs. Hays was the strangest English teacher I had ever encountered. Her room was decorated in about eight hundred smiley faces, and she had been teaching at Cherokee High School for at least forty years. We were all used to her sporadic bursts of spontaneity to keep her students from falling into boredom.
I smiled. Here it was the last week of March, and we were all ready for a break. The school board had decided to try something radical this year and push Spring Break to the last week of April. Even I was ready to play along with Mrs. Hays’ invisible turtles.
The bell rang, and I got ready to teach algebra II. I followed the usual routine—check homework, teach a new lesson, give the class time to work on homework. As my class worked on their quadratic equations, I stared out the window with a sigh.
Suddenly, the door burst open, and Mrs. Hays trotted into the room with a smiley face rubber stamp in one hand and an ink pad in the other. All twenty-six of my juniors looked up at her in surprise.
“You’re either for the turtles or against the turtles!” Mrs. Hays exclaimed. Turning to the nearest student, she said, “Are you for the turtles?”
The student played along. “Yes!”
Mrs. Hays stamped her hand with the smiley face.
All at once, the whole class supported turtles…or was it a break from algebra?
“Me! I’m for the turtles too!”
“Hey, Mrs. Hays! Over here!”
I spoke up. “Me too, Mrs. Hays! I support turtles everywhere!”
The whole class applauded when I held up my stamped hand. Then, Mrs. Hays left just as quickly as she had come.
The next day, Wednesday, was even more mysterious. Mrs. Hays had cut out some turtles from construction paper and arranged them in the space between her classroom and mine. Every time the bell rang for classes to change, she ran out into the hall and made sure the turtles were in place for students to step over.
“Don’t step on the turtles!” she shouted, and another crowd of students would tiptoe between the paper cutouts as if they were real.
“Save the turtles!” I added. Might as well join the fun. Usually, by this time of the year I was marking the days off the calendar in anticipation of summer, but now I found myself looking forward to school the next day.
Thursday rolled around, and the art teacher across the hall, Mrs. Burns, joined in with our cheers: “Save the turtles! Don’t step on the turtles!”
Mrs. Hays confronted me at lunch. “We need to kick it up a notch,” she said in a serious voice, as if she were James Bond on a top-secret mission. “Some of the kids aren’t on board with the turtles yet.”
Mrs. Burns, who always sat next to me, said, “Too bad we don’t have t-shirts that say, ‘SAVE THE TURTLES.’”
I gasped. “We can sell t-shirts!”
They both looked at me in disbelief. “Do you know how much trouble it is to get a t-shirt made?” Mrs. Burns said. She had been in charge of prom t-shirts for the past ten years. “You have to find someone to print them, take up money, hope enough people buy—”
“No,” I said, shaking my head with a devious grin. “We tell everyone we’re selling t-shirts, but it’s a joke.” I pointed to the large wall calendar on the far end of the lunchroom. “Tomorrow is April Fool’s Day. We’ll prank the whole school.”
“That’s a good idea!” Mrs. Burns said. Our students loved jokes. Last year for April Fool’s Day, they had moved Coach Robinson’s classroom outside to the parking lot and set it up as if everything were normal.
We huddled together like three conspirators. “I’ll go buy three cheap t-shirts and decorate them,” I said. “And we’ll wear them tomorrow so that the students think it’s real.”
That night, I got to work. Using iron-on letters, I wrote, “SAVE THE TURTLES” in a large arc across the top of three cream-colored t-shirts. Underneath it, I stamped a picture of a turtle using fabric paint. On Friday morning, Mrs. Hays, Mrs. Burns, and I sported our brand new “Save The Turtles” t-shirts.
“I want one!” practically everyone in school said. “How much do they cost?”
“One dollar,” I said.
The students looked taken aback. “Only one dollar?”
I shrugged and thought fast. “It’s for the Save the Turtles Foundation. The t-shirts help raise awareness of turtles.”
Mrs. Senter, who valued each minute of class as if it were made of sixty golden seconds, volunteered to let me model one of the t-shirts at the beginning of her honors English class. One student raised her hand and said, “Ms. Linam, is this for real? They only cost one dollar?”
I played it cool and tugged on the front of my t-shirt. “This is as real as it gets.”
“I want a medium,” she replied. “Do we pay you?”
I shook my head. “Coach Robinson is coming in at noon today bringing the t-shirts. You’ll pay him when you get your t-shirt.” Because he wasn’t scheduled to come into work until noon, Coach Robinson had been nominated to take up money for the t-shirts. The minute he entered the building, he was mobbed by a group of students armed with one dollar bills.
Things were getting out of hand, so Mrs. Hays, Mrs. Burns, and I headed for the office to use the speaker. I let Mrs. Hays do the honors.
“Attention, students!” she began. “This is your ‘Save the Turtles’ committee live from the front office.”
Together, the three of us yelled, “April Fool’s!”
The shouts of disappointed students reached all the way to the office. We laughed and gave each other a round of high fives. The entire school had fallen for it hook, line, and sinker.
“Good one, Mrs. Hays,” one of our students said that day as we left for the coming weekend. “You got us all.”
I went back into my room to get my keys and drive home.
I turned to see Devin Bowling, a junior I had taught last year, standing in my doorway.
“Um, I know it was just a joke, but can you still make me a Save the Turtles t-shirt?”
“Sure, Devin. I have some paint left over. What size t-shirt do you wear?”
That’s what it boils down to in teaching; the students take us seriously even if we have fun in the process, and they never forget those moments. Even now, years later, I run into former students in public, and they say, “Hey, Ms. Linam, you remember ‘Save the Turtles’? That was awesome!”
The students take us seriously even if we have fun in the process, and they never forget those moments. Click To Tweet
For me, it makes teaching worthwhile, even while saving the turtles.
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