Permanent Markers

The first year I taught in Austin, I had a chalkboard. I felt like it was a rite of passage—chalk on my pants, in my nose, on my books, and occasionally on the board. Then at the beginning of my second year, I got whiteboards—glorious, shiny, used, dirty whiteboards. I didn’t care that I had to put two whiteboards together to make a reasonably good size board. I didn’t care that the left side had a three-inch tear or that the right side was covered in scrubbed permanent marker stains. They were not chalky. They smelled of Expo. They were mine.

My third year began—the year that you think you’ve got everything figured out (ha!), and the day before school began, I stared at the right side of my board and thought, “What kind of moron used permanent marker on a white board? What kind of idiot thought it would be wise not to read the one word on the marker that could have prevented this mess?” I huffed elitist-ly and organized my syllabi and went home, ready for my year of saving the world and inspiring every single student Robin Williams style.

The next day was a blur as all first days are. I wore heels, so my achilles was blistered, and I drank too much coffee, so my hands were shaky, but I was having a great time giving the “I don’t take no crap from nobody” speech (don’t worry—I didn’t say crap or use a double negative). I wrote reminders on the board with a fancy new, blue marker, the smell of First Day jitters and fear filling the room. As the last student shuffled out with a nervous giggle, I patted myself on the back for a job well done. This year would be a breeze. These kids would stay in line. They would never dare to cross me and all the parents would respect me. I am teacher, hear me roar!

Around 6:30 pm, I started gathering my things and remembered I needed to change the information on the board for the next day. I slipped off my shoes for one last heel stretch, and started running the eraser over the board until I realized with horror what I had done. The shiny, blue marker I had used to write things like “No late work!” and “Happy First Day of School!” was in fact a permanent marker. Here I was, the moron, the idiot.

I started sliding the eraser frantically over the markings, trying to recall all the Pinterest posts about permanent markers but I was drawing a blank, which unfortunately was not happening on my board. I summoned the help of the teacher next door, googled remedies, and scrubbed until my arm was sore. The markings, while dulled, were still very clear all over the board. I gulped, wiped some sweat off my brow, and went home.

The next day before the first bell rang, I pondered what I would say to the kids about the board. They would notice it, I knew. Should I blame someone else? Should I make a joke out of it? Should I offer bonus points for the person able to get the marker off? I shook my head. I knew what I was going to do.

As the first class settled into their seats, I reminded them of the speech from the day before: I expect excellence. I don’t take no crap. Then I pointed to the board and told them what happened—the smug feeling of a new marker, the horror as I was about to walk out the door, the sore arm and rolodex of excuses.

And then I said this:

“If you are worried about messing up this year, about failing big time, about looking like a fool, don’t worry. You won’t be the first one. I have made the first mistake for you. I have looked like a fool first—we still have the very public evidence of it staring you in the face. If you are wondering what will happen if you make a mistake, I’ll tell you right now. I will point to the board. Don’t worry about making a wrong move or looking stupid. I have done it first for all of us.”

The kids, in true teenager fashion that many teachers will tell you about in tears, nodded their head empathetically and said things like, “It’s okay, Mrs. Dargai. It was an honest mistake. The blue actually looks really nice. I’ll look up how to fix it. What’s the lesson today?”

As the students filed out that day, I realized that this was it. The board, the markings, the speech, the responses. This was grace.