Charlie's teacher turned around and spotted me as I slowly approached the door of the classroom bearing my academic regalia and a sheaf of papers I printed out of kindergarten appropriate pictures of "research", "teaching", "hurricane", and "reading, writing, science, and math".
"Are you ready?" his teacher whispered. She was wearing a full-length ballgown for career day and telling the kids she wanted to be a moviestar when she grew up.
"I guess so!" I stammered. She turned off the lights and twenty little pairs of eyes turned to face me. This was terrifying. Give me a room of sullen twenty year olds anytime, but these eager little five year olds? SCARY. I spotted Charlie in the corner, working at his desk. He beamed when he saw me.
The teacher led me to the corner of the carpet, where there was an adult-sized chair (the only one in the room). I awkwardly sat down, still holding my purse and graduation robe, being mindful of my knee-length skirt and the twenty little kids sitting at my feet.
"Hello kids!" I began "I am here to tell you about what it's like to be a college professor!" Blank stares. "Does anyone know what that is?"
Charlie raised his hand. "A teacher for big kids?"
"That's right!" I said, my voice still shaky. "I teach big kids about science. A college professor also does research!" I held up the handy clip art I'd printed out of a flustered looking cartoon woman in glasses and a ponytail sitting hunched at a computer. Perfect.
"Research is like a big science experiment. I do research on hurricanes!" I held up the printed satellite image of a hurricane. "A hurricane is a big storm with lots of wind. So much wind it could blow the roof off of a house! Erm. Not your house though!" Shit. I frantically looked around and found a piece of chalk then drew a halfhearted picture of Texas. It looked like a half-eaten pancake.
"This is Texas," I continued optimistically. "Here is the Gulf of Mexico down here," I indicated the area below the pancake then wrote the acronym "GOM" which is highly meaningful shorthand to young children. "Hurricanes can come in here and affect the coast, here" (largest bitemark on pancake) "but we are waaaaaay up here in the capitol." I drew a star, highly conscious of the fact that some of these kids probably had relatives on the coast.
They looked concerned. I quickly changed the subject. "When I was a kid, the subjects I liked most in school are the same subjects I use in my job!" Bringing it back in! Stay peppy! Maybe they didn't notice the scary roof thing!
"I liked to read, write, do science, and do math! I still love these things, which makes my job fun! When you are in school, these may all be different subjects to you, but when you grow up and go to college, if you want to be scientists, you will use all of these subjects every day!"
I am killing this.
"If you want to be a college professor," (vaguely consious of the fact that I'm not a real professor) "you have to go to lots of school. First you finish elementary school, then you go to middle school, then you go to high school. Who knows what comes next?"
Someone offers "Cowwege?"
"Right! After high school you go to college. And then after that, if you want to be a professor, you have to KEEP going to school. It's called graduate school. Graduate school is fun because you get to focus on a subject that is really interesting to you, like hurr--er--weather!"
"And when you graduate from graduate school, you get to wear this neat hat!" I put on my mortar board and shook my head a little to get the tassel moving.
"Ooooh!" They like the tassel.
I am buoyed by their enthusiasm. "And then! You go up to the front with the teacher you had all through graduate school and he or she puts this long hood over your head and says 'Now you can be a scientist!!'" I stand up and unfurl the hood with great flourish and bang the crap out of my head, still wearing the mortar board, on the wall-mounted TV directly above the chair. The kids all gasp.
The teacher looks alarmed. "ARE YOU OK?" she asks.
I wave my hand, "No problem!", then continue with the hooding ceremony. When I get it on I model it for the kids.
"I have a picture at my graduation and I'm holding baby Charlie!"
I sit back down. "Does anyone have any questions?"
Someone raises his hand. "How do you measure wind?"
"That's a great question!" I erase the pancake with the side of my hand then draw an anemometer that looks like a cross between a cucumber, a rocket, and a flower. "This is an anemometer. This part here spins around and tells a computer how fast the wind is blowing."
"It looks like a flower" offers one little girl.
Charlie is next. "How do hurricanes move? How did you get interested in science?"
"Wind high above the ground steers hurricanes around in the ocean. WAY, WAY, WAY out in the ocean." I hold up the satellite image again "You see how far away the hurricane is from land?" he nods hesitantly. "I have always loved learning about weather and the way the world works. Why does it snow? Why does it rain? Why is it windy? Even as a little kid I loved science."
The teacher finally rescues me by telling the kids its time to go back to their seats. I unfold myself from the chair, being very careful not to hit the TV again. She says, kindly, "It's funny, I can't imagine teaching college kids, that seems so scary!" I respond "These guys are terrifying! I don't know how you do what you do!"
Then I went and sat on the floor by Charlie's desk. He's holding the marker, but not coloring. "Hey, Buddy, how are you doing?" I ask, "What did you think?"
"It makes my tummy hurt when you talk about dangerous things."
"Oh. OK. Sorry. You know that our house is not going to be hurt by a hurricane, right?"
"I just wish you wouldn't talk about dangerous things."
Oops! I joined Charlie for lunch in the (CUH-RAZY) cafeteria then left to go to my job talking and reading about dangerous things.