Guy And Dolls

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As a man in a woman's world, my teacher-husband leads a strange life.

When I, a newlywed, am asked to produce my ring, the ritual goes all wrong. I am supposed to brandish a good-sized diamond to a brood of women who will coo over it like it's a towheaded newborn boy. But my ring is Depression-era, very small, with seven tiny bead-set diamonds. I love it. Two month's salary? Tee- hee. Try one week's. Of a teacher's salary, no less. My husband is a 1st grade teacher.

I must admit, I never had thought much about teaching before Josh entered graduate school to get his master's degree in education. This was when I got my first taste of my unique role, and he of his. He was a man in a woman's world. His fellow ed school students were boy-crazy and cute, in a junior high kind of way. They took it as their mission to edify him on a number of topics: why "girl butt" is the worst thing ever on a guy; the relative merits of cold, sweet, frothy, coffee-flavored beverages from Starbucks and the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf; and the latest plot twist on Party of Five. Josh perfected one line for the latter topic, which he rendered in the uneven tones and incorrect emphases of someone practicing colloquial business English: "Julia is such a bitch."

Teachers tend to congregate at mediocre Mexican restaurants. Take a look around next time you're at an El Whatever. You will know them by their cardigan sweaters, large blended drinks, and air of wholesome bad-assery. I mean that as a compliment: Many teachers deal daily with children whose families have been destroyed by poverty, drugs, and violence, while often teaching in facilities far worse than prisons. Yet, they soldier on and try to remain upbeat for the sake of these small, forgotten people.

Whenever I agree to join Josh for a night out with his fellow teachers, Josh is always the only person at the table who isn't saying, "Oh really, I shouldn't," while scarfing down basket after basket of delightfully greasy tortilla chips. One time, several of my husband's colleagues took advantage of their margarita-induced drunkenness to guiltily admit their still-passionate love of Sanrio products. These are Josh's friends?

On a recent Saturday, I was at a school picnic talking to some parents of Josh's students. I stumbled into a sentence where I was about to say, "I was totally screwed." But I took in the scene—children everywhere, frolicking on the field, hanging off of monkey bars, skipping, singing—and me, with an audience of three nice ladies. I stammered, "I was, I was, I was..." and took a moment to come up with the appropriate phrase. The moms were watching me intently. "Rather inconvenienced" for the save!

I took this as a sign that it was time for me to clean up my lexicon. Josh has taken to grade school teacher swearing, which includes such classic phrases as "Feldercarp!" "Cheese and crackers!" and "Sugar!" Now that our once-robust expletives have become flaccid and watery through overuse, alternative swear words actually seem to make sense. We've invented some new ones (feel free to adopt at will): "Manilow!" "Crust!" "Cruise control!"

Picnics, parent conferences, faculty meetings—like many things that women do, teaching comes with all kinds of extra work. For example, before one school year, Josh and I spent an entire day cutting out bubble letters and construction-paper decorations for his bulletin boards—a fascinating part of the elementary school teacher's cosmology.

Looking around my husband's classroom—at the wee chairs and the bins filled with crayons and markers, the picture books and stuffed animals, the fat pencils waiting for little hands—I had a wash of emotions. First, maudlin sentimentality of the kind that overcomes adults when they are greeted with evidence of how many years have passed since they were themselves runny-nosed and losing teeth. Then, I felt sympathy for the children who are entering the system. What can you say to a beginning 1st grader? "Chin up, kiddo, you've only got 12 years to go?"

And last, I felt awe at what my husband does. I had a glimmer of the feeling that men must have when and if they confront what pregnancy and childbirth actually entail: I could never do that.

Josh is the Zen master of children. He exerts an almost unworldly calm and civilizing influence on the little ones. "They are people first," he says. "You just have to trust them."

He gives his children a 15-minute free period at the beginning of the day when they are coming in, and they are allowed to do whatever they want. Lately, this has meant playing a version of live-action Pokémon: They chase each other around while screaming nonsense words from the game. It is annoying. But it's also their own time. Josh wasn't going to tell them that they couldn't play the game. "They'll sort it out for themselves," he said, philosophically.

And he was right.

During circle time, one girl, with a thoughtful expression on her face, piped up, "I don't think we should play Pokémon in the morning anymore. I think we get too excited and silly and it's hard to calm down. I think we should only play it on the playground." Another boy raised his hand. "I don't know what Pokémon is, I don't have it, and when everyone's playing it, I can't play."

Hearing this story brought an unconscious truth to the surface. When I met Josh, I was running around and shouting nonsense words metaphorically, and, well, literally. Under his patient tutelage of love and trust, I too have begun to make positive decisions about my own behavior.

Josh gets called Mrs. Valle a lot at the beginning of the school year. He's always the only man at ladies' birthday brunches. A mother of one of his students nervously asked him what she should get him for Christmas. While shopping for his school clothes, we joke that perhaps he should just start wearing corduroy jumpers with wooden apple pins on them. At night, when he tells me about the day's activities—making Napoleon hats out of paper, listening to jazz, writing spontaneous poems, and cutting up vegetable sushi with safety scissors—I feel contact exhaustion. I sit on a chair all day and type and talk on the phone and feel like I'm working really hard. It's hard to believe that some people don't consider teaching a real job. I can't imagine anything more real.

Vol. 11, Issue 7, Pages 60-62

Published in Print: April 1, 2000, as Guy And Dolls
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