Each table-for-two was filled on a daily basis, an hourly basis, with a couple. One young man with one young woman. A pair of sweethearts. The floor-to-ceiling shelf to the right of the door was packed with plastic 2-liter Coke bottles containing formaldehyde and dead creatures that had been found and brought in by children. Snakes, mostly. Skinks. Over on the window sill a potato, immersed in a water-filled jelly jar and perched on a tripod of toothpicks, was beginning to give off roots. This was my 5th grade Science class. My Science teacher was a man named Mr. Sanders.
Mr. Sanders was a small, cheerful black man. I’d guess he was in his 50s back in 1986 when I took his class. In my mind’s eye he is wearing a knit shirt, not a button up, and his hair is styled in a fashion that is really too short to be an afro, but too long and picked out to be anything else.
Students loved Mr. Sanders, loved his willingness to preserve dead but mostly-intact reptile and amphibian carcasses in soda bottles, but with very few exceptions, they hated his seating arrangement.
As a rule, a girl was always assigned a seat next to a boy. This would have been tolerable enough as we were all fairly-well institutionalized by this point in our lives, but he went on to say that the boy and girl at each table were “sweethearts.” That was the unbearable term he always used. (The way I remember it, he does not pronounce the “r.” “Sweed-oughts.”)
Mr. Sanders had lots of rules about how sweethearts behaved. Girls were not allowed to sharpen their own pencils, for example. If a female student raised her hand and asked to go to the pencil sharpener, Mr. Sanders would say, “Oh no, you’re gunna have to get your sweetheart to do that for you.” And he insisted.
When Mr. Sanders taught, he often worked the names of classroom sweethearts into the day’s lesson. There was usually a biscuit involved, too. Biscuits were another running theme.
“A chemical change is when Whitney bakes a mixture of flour, shortening and buttermilk to make some biscuits for her sweetheart, Jason. Once it has been baked, Jason wont be able to pull the ingredients apart again.” Mr. Sanders would explain. “He can’t get the buttermilk back out, because a chemical change has taken place.”
“Now then. If Whitney was to cut that biscuit open, let it cool off for her sweetheart before he goes to eat it, that would be a physical change, because it is still a biscuit. Jason could put the top half and the bottom half back together and make it how it was.”
I don’t think for one minute that Mr. Sanders was a sexist man. He didn’t think that 10 year old boys had superior strength that made them better-equip to sharpen pencils, and he didn’t think girls were suited only to cook for boys. He was just funny. He enjoyed a good laugh, and nothing cracked him up quite like the reactions of 10 year old kids when they’d been falsely accused of being in love with one another. Can’t you just imagine how indignant everyone got? There was always lots of loud, dramatic protesting. I DON’T LIKE HER! It made him smile. Sometimes a girl would snap and start crying, and he found that hysterical.
My table-mate/sweetheart was a boy named Bradley. Bradley had moved to Georgia from Hawaii the year before. Unlike most of the boys in the class, he did not live in my neighborhood. I didn’t know him well and was nervous the first time my pencil broke, but Bradley told me, before I even asked, that he didn’t mind sharpening it for me. To be clear, he didn’t like me, at least not in a “sweetheart” kind of way. It wasn’t like that. Bradley was just a restless little boy, and he relished any opportunity to leave his seat. I was sedentary and enjoyed bossing people around, so Bradley and I turned out to be, at least for the purposes of Science class, soul-mates.
Mr. Sanders was surprised to see how amenable Bradley and I were to his rules regarding sweetheart conduct. He didn’t seem to know how to react to our civility, so he goaded us further.
“Now Ginger, wasn’t that nice of Bradley? Say, ‘Thank you, sweetheart!'” And I did. I said it like it was no big deal.
“Thank you, Sweetheart!”
“You’re welcome, Sweetheart!” Bradley answered. He didn’t miss a beat.
Mr. Sanders wasn’t the only one with a sense of humor. I had one. Bradley, as it turned out, had one, too. Mr. Sanders smiled back at us affectionately, then lowered his eyebrows in feigned irritation. “Well, what am I gunna do with you two – can’t get a rise out of you.”
That is how it went all year. Bradley did everything I asked. He fetched tissue. Turned in my papers. Put my jacket on a wall hook when I got hot. There was nothing this boy wouldn’t do for the opportunity to jump out of his seat, circumnavigate the room, check the progress of that hydroponic potato, and gawk at the roadkill that floated for all time in the plastic bottles over by the door.
I learned a lot in 5th grade. I learned quite a bit about Science. I learned that life is easier, more fun, even, if you will give in and laugh at a joke that has been made at your expense. I learned that some people are happiest when they are taking orders so long as you ask them nicely (and maybe tag a term of endearment onto the end).