††††††††††† Lunch duty. Bus rider duty. Car rider duty. Hall monitor duty. Bathroom duty.
††††††††††† If youíre a teacher and you just read those words, you probably got a queasy feeling in your stomach, because we all hate any kind of extra duty. Though itís not a waste of time, it takes us away from the normal routine in our classrooms, and away from work that we feel is more urgent.
††††††††††† But I learned a lesson last year. Sometimes the most urgent student needs are the ones that come up during our extra duties.
††††††††††† For me, the dreaded chore is breakfast duty. I have it once a week, always on Tuesday, which also happens to be pancake, syrup, and sausage day in our lunchroom. Itís always the stickiest day of the week at our school. I have to remind myself not to touch the door handle when I leave because itís always coated with syrup.
††††††††††† The kids trickled into the lunchroom at 7:15. The first five minutes are relatively quiet since there are so few kids who are dropped off early by their parents.
††††††††††† Then around 7:20 the buses arrive, and those of us on breakfast duty watch the kids sprint across the playground to the lunchroom door. They make their noisy arrival in the lunchroom where thereís a mad rush to put backpacks on stools and get into the serving line. Within five minutes the line snakes from the front serving door, all the way down one side of the lunchroom, all the way across the back of the lunchroom.
††††††††††† I usually stand by another door at the end of the serving line where the students come out with their trays and I tell them where to sit. There arenít assigned tables during breakfast; students just sit by whoever they were beside in line. Sometimes there are fifth graders by second graders or kindergartners mixed in with fourth graders.
††††††††††† Part of my job is to remind the students to eat quickly and not to waste time talking. They only have about ten minutes before the tables fill up, and I have to rush them out before the next group of kids needs to be seated.
††††††††††† There are always a few students who take longer to eat. Most of them are kindergartners, still babies, who look like theyíve just crawled out of bed. Theyíre still half asleep and have to be prompted to take another bite and another bite and another until theyíre done. I try to give those babies a few extra minutes so they can finish their food.
††††††††††† This past spring, there was one little baby who was like that. He was a meek little kindergartner who always sat quietly, so I often overlooked him. You know how it is, you pay more attention to the loud ones who are misbehaving and donít always notice the quiet ones who are following the rules.
††††††††††† One morning I was nagging the kids to hurry up and eat because the first bell was about to ring, but this little boy kept sitting there. Another teacher, Katie, went up to him and asked him what was wrong. He was timid and meek, and he whispered something to her. She didnít understand, so she asked him to repeat his answer. He whispered again.
††††††††††† Katie came to me and said, ďSee if you can tell what ĎRayí is saying because I canít understand him.Ē
††††††††††† I went over to him and bent down. ďRay, whatís wrong? Your tray is clean, so youíre done. You need to go to class.Ē
††††††††††† He hesitated, staring down at his hands, and finally looked up at me with the largest brown eyes Iíve ever seen, and he whispered, ďIím hongry.Ē I looked at his empty tray and milk carton, then back into his huge brown eyes, and my heart broke. I didnít know what to say.
††††††††††† I just stood there for a moment looking at him, truly seeing his tiny body for the first time. I knew there were kids in our school who didnít get enough to eat at home and who only got meals while they were at school, but Iíd never been able to identify one of them before. And now he sat in front of me, his eyes begging me to fix the problem, to stop him from being ďhongry.Ē
††††††††††† I told Ray Iíd see about getting him something else, and I went to Mrs. Bechiom, our cafeteria manager, and told her he was still hungry. She gave me a sad smile and said, ďHe always eats two breakfasts. I know weíre not supposed to do that, but I just canít let him go out of here still hungry.Ē
††††††††††† She went into the serving line, got another pancake, sausage, and syrup, and picked up an extra carton of milk. She took everything to Ray, and without a word he began to devour it like he hadnít already eaten a full breakfast.
††††††††††† I just stood and watched, trying to keep from crying, as he ate every last morsel of his second breakfast. Mrs. Bechiom watched, too. I realized that I only have breakfast duty once a week, and all year long I hadnít noticed this problem. I had overlooked such a simple, basic need, but one that was vital to Rayís well-being. I wondered how Mrs. Bechiom could face it every day, and then I gave thanks to God that she is our lunchroom manager, and that she is willing to bend or even break the rules to keep a child from going hungry.
††††††††††† After breakfast duty was over, I used part of my planning time to go to Rayís classroom and talked to the parapro. ďOh yes,Ē she said. ďHeís always hungry. We try to keep snacks in the classroom to feed him and some of the others when they need it. Did you know that heís the oldest of five children? His mother is single, and she works several jobs, but she still struggles to meet all of their needs.Ē
††††††††††† I looked at Ray, who was now sitting on the floor with the rest of the class as they went over their morning calendar work. I noticed how much smaller he was than the other kindergartners, and her words resonated in my mind:† Ray is the oldest of five kids. His mom does her best, but itís not enough.
††††††††††† My heart broke again, and questions raced through my mind. What are they all eating, those little ones who arenít in school yet? What is their mother eating? How does she handle the feeling, knowing that despite her best efforts, her babies are hungry? And finally, what can I do to help?
††††††††††† For the rest of the school year, I made sure that Ray got his second breakfast every time I was in the lunchroom. I made sure the other teachers who had breakfast duty knew to watch for him and help him ask for his second breakfast. But thatís such a small Band-Aid on such a large, gaping problem.
††††††††††† This story doesnít have a happy ending. It doesnít have an ending at all. I still donít know the answers to those questions, and I still worry, especially during the summer when I donít see Ray. How is he doing? Is he eating? What is his mother eating? Is she getting enough rest? Are the other babies in the house healthy?
††††††††††† I pray for Ray, his siblings, and his mother every day, and this coming school year, I will pay more attention to all of those who come in for breakfast while Iím on duty. Maybe Iíll even pick up an extra duty to try to keep an eye on the babies I teach. Through Ray, I realized that teaching basic math and reading isnít the most important thing we do. The most important thing we do as teachers is pay attention to our studentsí needs, no matter what those needs are. Maybe one day Iíll be a good enough teacher to think of another solution that will meet Rayís needs, and heíll be a better student because of it.
††††††††††† Maybe one day.