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I stand in front of my class—25 freshmen college students—trying to instill in them a love for community service, for kind acts and the resulting bursting hearts. I haven’t done any community service myself in about thirty years, but I know it to be a good thing. I want to inspire them: Go to the nursing home and listen to an old person! Volunteer to scrub some graffiti! Go to the homeless shelter and serve some food. Then, of course: go home and write about it because you have a paper due next week.
Always at this time of the semester, when I am waving my community service pom-poms, I tell The Wake-up Fairy Story. It’s always waiting in my brain, ready to be called up as an amusing anecdote that will drive home the importance of giving back. I begin by suggesting that visiting a local kindergarten class and helping the teacher with art or reading might turn into an enjoyable learning experience for all.
“I used to be in kindergarten once,” I say, segueing into the juicy stuff. “When I was in kindergarten, many moons ago, we would have nap time every day. We’d have to get our mats off the pile and lay them on the floor, then the teacher would tell us to lie down and go to sleep, for probably fifteen or twenty minutes.
“I could never fall asleep!” I continue, elevating my voice as a preacher might do to startle his flock back to attention. “I would lie on my mat with my face turned to the side—no pillow, arms straight down—and at first, I would try to fall asleep. But I was never tired enough.”
I don’t tell my students that I considered the kids who did fall asleep to be weak and stupid. Did they not sleep at home? Did they not realize that they were being watched? Dummies.
“Since I could never fall asleep, I could never lie still, and since I could never lie still, I never got picked to be the wake-up fairy.”
I feel this to be the most powerful line of my story, and expect my students to be giving me their full attention. They are, kind of. I gear up to deliver even more rising action: “You had to lie perfectly still for twenty minutes if you even hoped to get picked as the wake-up fairy. The teacher had this wand with a star at the end, and you knew when she started walking around with it that she was looking for someone to tap. The kid who had moved the least would always get chosen, and then that person would get the star wand to tap everybody else on the shoulder, one by one. You could only get up and put your mat away after you were tapped.”
My students hang on every word of this story, every time I tell it. I know they do.
“Only two kids ever got picked to be the wake-up fairy,” I continue, lying for effect, but this was basically true. I’m sure lots of kids fell asleep and lay still and got handed the wake up-wand that year, but two kids got it more often than the others, and they all got it a hell of a lot more often than I ever did.
I look at the wall behind my students, not wanting to make eye contact with anyone lest they assume that what I’m about to say next has anything to do with them: “The only kids who ever got the wand were the fat kid and the pretty girl. The fat kid always fell asleep instantly and snored. The pretty girl would also conk out and I could never believe it. She’d drool on her mat. I saw her pick her nose one time, in her sleep. Drooling and picking your nose is okay? Snoring is better than turning your head quietly like me? Getting up still clean without drool in my hair doesn’t count?”
I cross my arms, the heat of my lecture on. “I wonder what that kindergarten teacher was thinking, always choosing the kid who could fall comatose in thirty seconds. I mean, that’s a natural ability; there’s no trying involved.”
My students sit in silence because if they don’t, our own class will never end. They are poised over their backpacks.
“My point is that when you write this next paper, I don’t want you to settle for what’s easy for you. I want you to aim high and try something new. Get out of your comfort zone and go out and learn something. Then bring it back to us.” I pause for effect. “This is the paper where effort does count. Okay?”
“Okay,” a few people say, winning a few extra participation points.
As my flock clogs the chute leading from our room to the weekend, I wonder if I will ever get over the wake-up fairy thing. I wanted to be so good at nap time, but I just couldn’t stay still. If ever there was a student who deserved an “A” for effort, it was me in kindergarten during nap time.
I walk out to my car hoping that my students decide to write about soup kitchens and animal shelters, nursing homes and kindergarten classes. Any topic that involves being at the mercy of someone else is a good one.
Any bit of humanity they can uncover will be most appreciated.