Thursday, November 05, 2009

Confessions Of A Middle Class Bag Lady

Parent educator Jean Ward once said to me, “Preschool teachers are middle class bag ladies.”

It’s true. It’s hard to throw anything away knowing that, at minimum, it can be used to glue onto cardboard and called art. I’m forever stopping along the side of the road to dig through collections of “free” items. Defunct machinery and electronics are fun to dismantle because they have so many screws to remove. All those junky toys that well-intended relatives are forever foisting on kids become a collection for our sensory table called, “bottom of a kid’s toy box.” Up until this summer when my wife finally got fed up, not only had I taken over a large closet with potential preschool items, but the attached spare bedroom as well. I’m not exaggerating.

At school, we have over 100 straw and felt child-sized hats that came into our hands from a party store that had overstocked, not to mention the collection of patent leather black and red belts.

We have boxes and boxes of nametag sized sheet magnets that were left over from some industrial process.

There are several crates of frame store display “corners” in our storage closet just waiting for the right art project.

These are all things that were once on their way to the landfill and have now found new life.

But there’s more to being a bag lady than hoarding “garbage.” I’ve also developed what can only be described as advanced begging skills.

Our manufacturing patterns, for instance, came to us by way of my habit of pleading “wee and pitiful.”

I regularly stop by framing shops to beg for matt board scraps that we can use for collage.

When I first saw our light box, it was at one of the Fremont Arts Council’s rummage sales. I was working the event as a volunteer. We’d put a $20 price tag on the box with the understanding that if it didn’t sell I could have it for $5 at the end of the day. Sure enough, one of our first customers took a shine to it. As I helped him test it to make sure it worked, I just happened to tell him the story about how I’d envisioned using it in our small non-profit preschool, but that it was just a bit dear for us. I might have mentioned the joy it would bring to children all over the world. After paying $20 for it, this generous guy turned around and handed it to me saying simply, “Here. It’s yours.”

Sometimes my bag lady powers get me into trouble. One time I came across an artist in the University District who was selling acrylic paintings on the sidewalk that he’d copied from Sendak’s illustrations from Where The Wild Things Are. They were pretty good. I thought it would be nice to both support an artist while adding something magical to the classroom and the $25 price tag didn’t seem unreasonable. Out of habit, however, I told him the story of our love rich, but dollar poor preschool, and before I knew it he was trying to give me one of the paintings. Making matters worse, when I looked in my wallet I only had $11. We went back and forth, me insisting on finding an ATM, him saying he really needed to get going and wanted “the children” to have it. Finally, he sold me the painting for $11. I went back to that spot with $14 every day for a week, but never found the guy again. I tell this story to the children each year as part of reading Where The Wild Things Are.

But then there is the truly shameful side of being a bag lady, and that is when I take advantage of friends and family.

We have, for instance, a real, operating traffic signal with fully functional red, green and yellow lights. It belongs to my father, a retired transportation engineer, who rewired it for home use, and once employed it as a prized decoration in his billiard room. I “borrowed” it several years ago and just haven’t managed to return it. I can’t use it without feeling shame . . . Although obviously not enough to return it.

But my greatest offense involves our “milking cow.”

My friend Garth Stein (best selling author of the novel The Art of Racing in The Rain) made this magnificent cow for our children’s school’s Fall Festival celebration 8 years ago. It’s now been on loan to Woodland Park for 8 years. A latex glove filled with water serves as her udders and children milk her by squeezing the fingers. She’s something of a super cow in that she usually has two sets of udders to accommodate demand. Today, we’re going to fill her udders with “chocolate milk” (brown liquid watercolor diluted with water) and try making “milk” paintings.

Old Bessie’s paper mache head is a bit wobbly these days, and her ears are just barely hanging on, evidence that she’s been well-loved and well-milked over the years. Still, I can’t look at her without a pang of guilt. It would help a lot if some of you ran out and bought a copy of Garth’s novel . . . or even all 3 of them!

I’m sorry, it’s hard to control the inner bag lady.

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cathy said...

Good Morning!

I love your words. In a way you keep me connected to my many joys of teaching which seem to be withering as I am not working in the field and it feels an extreme grieve.

I am also a bag lady per my teaching. I grab stuff from recycling boxes. Free piles at garage sales open an immense pot of exploration and possibilities! As my career has dwindled- economy and ageism( cant hide being 62 on a resume- just those graduation dates tell it all)- I am slowly releasing my treasures - need some?
The treasures will go to other newer teachers.

The scary and biggest truth - as I release and prepare for my next journey - winter volunteer teaching in rural central america and teaching yoga here in a senior center my right-for-now-place will open more clearly. Whether it keeps my role as a bag lady as prominent as it has been only times secrets will tell.

Monkey's Mama said...

Apparently I need to become a teacher to have an excuse for all the "stuff" (some might say crap) that I hang on to! But now I can pass it on to our preschool instead :)

Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

Great post! So true, and I love the stories of how you acquired your stuff.

Anonymous said...

As a kid nothing made my day more than taking something apart that had a million screws to remove. I wanted to see how everything worked, but I could never quite get them back together again. I always thought I was destined for engineering given my desire to learn how things worked and the fact that my dad and his brother where plastics and electrical engineers, respectively. I guess since I decided otherwise when all the kings horses and all the kings men definitely were no help in putting some of my toys back together again.

kristin said...

yes! i am grateful to say our local thrift shop holds things in the back for us. just yesterday i picked up 1000 old computer labels, perforated card catalog cards, a globe, and 1970s era bicycle posters.

Unknown said...

I will look up his book right now and see if I can purchase it : )

The cow is fabulous! The light sounds awesome! And I would adore the painting. How nice that someone bought that light box for you. I love the kindness of humanity! : )

zameander said...

dearest, most-inspiring Teacher Tom,

I visit here daily to tune-up my inner 'mom of toddlers' now that I am parenting a 7 and 10 year-old, as well as to push myself towards eventually going back to work in a play based or Reggio preschool...

just a quick safety fyi from a fellow scrounger:
electronics bits (and the stuff used to store them) are often oozing with toxic stuff (and I'm not even talking about the plastic, which, if they're not, you know EATING it is the least of your worries).

here's some overly-technical stuff from which you can extrapolate enough non-panicky info that you may actually be able to clear out a closet or two...

stacey z

Anonymous said...

If only preschool teachers were middle class and not skirting the poverty what a great world that would be!