Today's newspaper carried a photo of the Justices of the United States Supreme Court. Most readers, no doubt, looked at that picture and saw nine wise and distinguished persons in black robes, the greatest legal minds of our time.
But as a teacher, I saw something more -- I saw nine board washers.
The Mantle of Responsibility
I have no way to be sure, but I'm willing to bet that all of those judges, back in their elementary days, held the job of chalkboard washer.
Board washing is the most trusted job in the classroom.
A teacher doesn't hand a water pail to just any child -- she’d be a fool if she did. Ask any teacher and she'll tell you that it's the most important decision we make. We choose carefully. We take our time. We ponder. We deliberate. We think, and then we think some more.
Every year on the first day of school, I look over my new group of first grade students. I peer at each of them, eye to eye. I try to see into their little six-year-old souls. I search for the person who is up to the task.
I'm looking for a child that I can send down the hall every day at 3:15. I want a child who can take that long walk, all alone, with bucket in hand, to the custodian's closet. Someone who can stand at the mop sink, fill the bucket, and remember to shut off the running water before she leaves. Someone who understands, innately, the perils of skipping while toting a load of water. I need a child who can hold a drippy, wet sponge and, at the same time, resist the urge to try out his curve ball.
The person will be on her honor, guided by her conscience. She must be capable, serious, and unwavering in her duty. She must be a follower of rules and a rock-steady citizen. She must be a miniature Supreme Court Justice in size six pants.
It's a lot to ask of a child, to have him walk out of the classroom, shut the door behind him, and deny himself the wonderful enjoyment of practicing his wind sprints up and down the corridors of the school. For most children, the temptation is too great, the freedom is too much, the custodian's room is too far away. They're in over their heads. The errand requires a measure of responsibility that many children, because they are children, are not ready for.
But there is always a child who qualifies. Every year, without fail, I manage to find my board washer. She is the sweet child with the peaceful manner. He is the child who sits quietly in the middle seat while the boys and girls around him are giggling their heads off. She reads during her free time. He gets nearly every answer correct, but you'll never hear him boasting about it.
She is the child who is ready to take on the first of many important assignments. A lifetime of official duties begins this day, with the teacher handing her a lime-deposited, hard-water-stained, metal bucket.
This is the kind of job that can take you places. The bucket in first grade could lead to another bucket the following year, and the year after that. One teacher will hear it from the next, that here is their go-to person. They're glad to have a child they can trust, and they tell him so. With each step down the hallway, he walks a little straighter. He's getting the message that comes with the bucket – that success is around the corner for him.
The Ultimate Qualification
I like to pretend that I can know the future. I imagine my first grade kids as they will be years from now, after they have grown up. Greatness can begin at an early age. It can be recognized and nurtured. It can be spotted and encouraged every day in the classroom. In a decade or two, when the greatness is achieved and the child's picture is all over the news, everyone back at her school can be permitted to take a silent, subtle bow.
Every so often, the President of the United States is charged with the task of selecting a new Supreme Court Justice. If I may, I would like to offer him a piece of advice. Instead of reading through thick resumes and consulting with throngs of legal experts, all the President really has to do is invite all of the top candidates into the Oval Office. Let them take a seat on the couch, and then say to them, "If any of you washed the chalkboard for the teacher, please stand and raise your right hand."
And there you go, Mr. President. Somebody in that room will rise, I promise you. Then, all you will have to do is get out the Bible. Swear that person in. You found her. She’s the one.