The Story of the President of the United States and My Nose

On May 1, 2014 the State Teachers of the Year were invited to the White House to meet the President, participate in a a ceremony and hear the official announcement of the National Teacher of the Year.  Our day started in the Executive Office building meeting with policy makers.

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Nervous, but ready to go.
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Yes, that is my (real) name with the White House next to it. I like how that looks.
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One to use, one to save!
The gorgeous Executive Office building
The gorgeous Executive Office building
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It’s the White House!

We walked over to the White House.  My fifty two friends, the 2014 State Teachers of the Year and I are lined up according to height in the State Dining Room.  Being slightly height-challenged and not wearing huge heels, I am toward the end of the line.

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How many presidents and dignitaries have sat at that table?

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Posing in front of Honest Abe
Posing in front of Honest Abe

We’ve been admiring the elegant table where so many dignitaries and presidents have sat. We’ve all had our pictures taken in front of the fire place with the giant portrait of Abe Lincoln towering above us. Some of us used the bathroom, not because we needed to, but just to see what it looked like.

This portrait of Jackie O. is in the bathroom.  Seriously.
This portrait of Jackie O. is in the bathroom. Seriously.

We had rehearsed the ceremony in the East Room.  I noticed the President’s glass of water covered by a Presidential seal.  I wanted to stand behind the podium that the President and Sean would speak from behind.  But when someone tried it, we were admonished by a staffer that “No one stands behind that but the POTUS!”  I settled for a picture in front of it.

POTUS Podium
POTUS Podium

Suddenly the vibe in the room shifted. We stood straighter, brushing non-existent lint off our best suits and smoothing our hair. This was it.

Nervously I waited my turn, thinking, “Whose life is this?”  Just then, I heard his voice. Yes, his voice, the one I usually only hear on the news.

I craned my neck to see his smiling face through the Red Room and into the Blue Room. I was glad we had time in the gorgeous rooms earlier because I was too focused on watching my friends meet him and I have no memory of waiting in them now.

We’re normally such a loud and chatty group, whom John Quam calls, “The most exuberant group he’s ever known,” but now we are silent, almost spellbound.

I’m in the Red Room.

The Red Room
The Red Room

Only a few friends ahead of me now. Last chance to straighten my skirt and make sure my grandmother’s necklace is just right. I know my mom  and aunts will want to see it in the picture.

All of the sudden I have a visceral reaction to this incredible experience.  My hands start to shake, my breath quickens, and tears flood my eyes. Now, we had been warned in advance that the White House photographer was there to make the President look good in pictures, not us.  So if we looked goofy in the pictures, that was on us.  No retakes on the pictures we’ll want our great grandchildren to see someday.

So I decide that tears must not flow for the sake of the picture. Out loud I say, “No tears-too much mascara.” The Secret Service agent next to me laughs.

Arne Duncan kindly asks me how I’m doing. I’m honestly too preoccupied to acknowledge the Secretary of Education right then.

My good friend John  Mastroianni of Connecticut steps up.

A Marine takes my elbow and makes sure he says my name correctly to introduce me to the POTUS. He must sense my nerves because he reassures me that he will be there to guide me the whole way.

My turn.

I had planned what to say knowing that I’ve gotten a bit tongue-tied around celebrities before. (Ask my husband about my brilliant conversation with Peter Sagal of NPR.)  I planned to tell him about amazing things happening in Arizona especially in regards to teacher leadership. I wanted to issue him an invitation to Sunset Hills.

I step forward, hand outstretched. His smile makes everything and everyone dissolve around me. His hand is soft, but his hand shake is firm. He pulls me in for a hug. He smells of nothing. Believe me, I took a big sniff, knowing I wanted to remember this moment with all my senses so I could remember this vividly. His suit coat was coarse.

He broke our hug and ushered me around to face the photographer.

So as I’m turning the President must have noticed a slight sparkle on my nose.  I have a tasteful, tiny nose piercing with a small stone in a silver setting.

Apparently it caught the President’s attention because he touched it.  You read that right – THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES TOUCHED MY NOSE!

He exclaimed, “They let teachers have their noses pierced? THAT IS SO COOL!”

Everything I had planned to say flew out of my head at that moment.

I sputtered something about being honored to represent the teachers of Arizona, although I was born and raised on Illinois. He asked me from where. I said, “Born in Peoria, raised in Arlington Heights and Barrington.”  He said, “I know all those places,” and asked me if I still had family in Illinois.  When I said yes, he told me to give them his regards.

So, Dad, Donna, Chandler, Aunt Deb, Aunt Sharon, Uncle Jeff, Aunt Carol, Uncle Ed, Cousin Dave, Heather and kids, the President says, “Hello!”

It turned out great, after all!
It turned out great, after all!

Before I knew it, the Marine was politely pulling me away by the elbow.

During the ceremony to honor the State Teachers and officially name Sean McComb the National Teacher of the Year, I could see each hair on the President’s head. I could have reached out and touched him, but I refrained since I didn’t feel like getting tackled by the Secret Service.   I watched his hands, longer and thinner that I would have expected. I noticed his wedding ring. I could read along with his speech in a binder in page protectors.

Hey Guys!
Hey Guys!

I love this hilarious picture that looks like I’m peering between the President and Sean about to say, “Hey guys!”

The Seal
The Seal

The experience hasn’t quite sunk in yet.  Maybe it never quite will.

Looking comfortable
Looking comfortable

It helps that I got to sneak my husband in for a few minutes after the ceremony.

Don and me
Don and me
The Blue Room
The Blue Room

But like all incredible days, it had to end.  Back to room to 256 at Sunset Hills where I belong.

home again
Home again.

If you want to see more, here is the NBC Nightly News clipCSPAN Coverage, and our entrance.


Teacher Testing Torture

Let me paint a bleak picture for you: twenty-six ten and eleven year old students hunched over their desks, in rows like little soldiers, each an island unto themselves. Occasionally they make eye contact with me, to use our pitiful attempts at sign language to signal for tissue, bathroom, or drink. They know better than to ask for anything else because they know I’m not allowed to grant it. I glance around at the bare, stark walls. They are usually vibrant with posters, charts, and the evidence of our learning but all that had to be removed for the test. So much for what I always say to my learners: “Smart people use the resources around them!” The only sound in the usually boisterous room is the buzzing of overhead fluorescent lights and deep sighs of mentally exhausted children. I speed walk over at the familiar crack of a snapping pencil point to alleviate the nerves that usually accompany that sound. I trade pencils with a sleepy eyed boy and notice that his pencil has bite marks on it. I heave a deep sigh myself and keep on pacing, slowly wearing deep grooves in the carpet, wondering what my trusty pedometer will read at the end of today, Day 4.

Rewind to Monday, Day 1 of AIMS (Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards) testing. Motivation starts out high. I tell their beautiful faces over and over again, “You are so much smarter than this test! It tests low level knowledge- we are way beyond that!” We have sharpened #2 pencils straight up in a bucket with slogans like, “Do your best on the test!” and “I believe in you!” We have energy, enthusiasm, and bags of snacks to fill nervous tummies and mints to suck on to help maintain focus through the long sessions ahead.

Then the inevitable happens…the dreaded helpless hand raiser. Normally questions are allowed, no, encouraged in this classroom. After all, we usually sit under the amused eye of a poster declaring, “Even Einstein asked questions!” Not this week. Not during testing. We have been warned against even speaking to students during testing time, fearful that it may leave others to wonder about cheating. No talking for us, hence the sign language. So I speed walk over to the hand raiser, a darling girl I’ve had the pleasure to know since she was tiny and who’s sister was in my fifth grade class. She points down at her thick testing booklet and looks up at me, wide blue eyes filling with terror and tears.

“Mrs. Maloney, there’s a mistake in my test. These two answers are the same! How do I choose? What should I do?” she pleads up at me.

And here is the moment of teacher heart break. Although I cannot look at the test, having signed a waiver stating just such a promise, I have to do something for this poor child before the tears start to flow…hers and mine. So I do the only thing I can do, take a deep breath, look her in the eyes, and say, “Make your best judgement,” although it goes against every fiber of my teacher being. I can’t tell her to read carefully, look for clues, or even take a break and look at it again with fresh eyes.

It struck me again this year, like it does every April, just how crazy this week is. It used to feel silly. One test that measures such a narrow set of criteria is going to tell me what my students learned this year? I don’t think AIMS will tell me how Jorge moved up three grade levels in reading comprehension this year as an English language learner but is still not on grade level and fatigues easily.

Then it started to feel scary when our school label was tied to the results. The state is going to put a label on Karen, who came to me as a selective mute and is just now beginning to trust her classmates and me enough to let me hear her words? She just whispered in class last week, “I’m glad to be a Bobcat.” Will she still be proud if we get a C label?

This had a different, more sinister feel. This year our evaluations and status in the district are partially tied to how our students measure up during AIMS week. I’m nervous about Makenzie, who stopped coming to school for the past few weeks and suddenly showed up out of the blue today. I’m worried about Alexander who normally stands to learn because he learns best when he has freedom of movement. Today he is twitching while anchored in his chair, foot tapping a mile a minute.

I wonder how many people know we sign a contract promising to not even look at the test, let alone help a student. Our teaching credentials are on the line. I bet it is not common knowledge that many teachers wear pedometers during testing week to count how many miles we walk while proctoring the tests. I wonder how many people agree that our pay should be tied to the results of this teaching testing torture.

But I sigh another deep sigh and continue wearing grooves in the carpet of my classroom. I’m looking forward to tomorrow when teaching and learning can begin again.

*Note: all students’ names have been changed.