Lessons from Girls with Pigtails



Poor Janet.

Well, she was Miss. Forssell to all the other properly-behaved 4th graders who knew better than to inappropriately refer to a teacher by their first name. But you see, to Molly and I —class clowns, delinquents, call it what you will— she was Janet. Together we caused Janet more headaches in one year than she probably experienced in a lifetime. That’s why, on our last day of  fourth grade  —also her retirement year—  her actions towards us left us fully conflicted yet oddly comforted. 

The Antics

From day one, pigtails sprouted from our heads just as wildly as the shenanigans forming inside them. Room 116 was filled with moments like my pulling the chair in front of Scott as he chased me around the room during her retirement party, causing him to erupt in tears. Things like Molly hiding his favorite blue bulldog-shaped eraser, forcing Janet to keep the entire class from heading home until the thief fessed up. Sneaking into the auditorium during recess to play the piano and run around on stage. Laughing during class at a picture of Albert Einstein’s messy hair.

The Fist

Day in, day out, our Room 116 antics forced her to raise her arm high above her head, until in one fell swoop, her clenched fist slammed downward on her desk like a gavel. She demanded order from the Unruly Duo. BAM! Most of the time, her fist pounding was done in conjunction with the standard “Janet Scream,” her heavy English accent ricocheting off the walls:  “How Daaaaaaah You!” (How Dare You!)

Yet we continued to “accidentally” get locked in the coat closet.

BAM! “How Daaaaaaah You!”

Wedged chalk between the eraser.

BAM! “How Daaaaaaah You!”

Swung from the bars above the bathroom stall doors.

BAM! “How Daaaaaaah You!”


Janet in Room 116 at her retirement party

Lean on Me

However, it was that same angry fist that she’d gently wrap around our wrists every day.

A heavy limp plagued her every step, causing her to call upon various students throughout the day to aid her trek to the ladies room. Oddly enough, she typically called upon Molly or myself, rebellious little human canes walking in silence by her side.

Flash forward 10 minutes later.

BAM! “How Daaaaaaah You!”

Giggles. The sound of 25 children snickering at once.

Students about to Face a Death Sentence . . . or not?

Then, the last day of class arrived. We’d be moving on to the 5th grade. Janet would be a retired teacher. This was it.

We were moved to a room down the hall so that Room 116 could be cleared out and make way for the new teacher who would take her place. Even in that new room, Molly and I made sure chaos ensued.

Something about knocking down someone’s elaborate domino set up, me on the floor, almost pierced to death by an umbrella spoke . . . it was a bit of a blur.

Then the English accent. But this time: 

 “Jennifer. Molly.”

We walked up to her. Without a word, she positioned Molly to her left, me to her right and clenched our wrists. She exited the room with us at her sides, limping, gripping us.

Surely, she was taking us to our death.

We walked. Her grip tightened.

We knew, just knew, she was going to make us eat chalk til we choked on every last crumbly piece, laughing and saying How Daaaaah You while she watched.

She stopped in front of Room 116, peering inside.

The three of us stood in that doorway. Nothing but an empty room before us. No more bulldog erasers or Einstein pictures. Desks were gone, clearly all the mark of the next teacher’s soon to be redesign. All that was left of her  30-plus years as a teacher were barely legible math equations peeking through dusty chalkboard swirls.

 Heavy silence. 

We stood.

And stood.

Finally, the accent.

“Well . . . Good-bye 116.”

With that, she turned, still holding on to us for support, and led us back to the other room.

It would be the last time either of us would be called upon to act as a human cane, the last time teacher and student would walk side by side.

All that mattered to us then was that we never got to find out what chalk tasted like.

 Letting Go by Holding On

But as we grew older, we understood its deeper meaning, one that touched us immensely. Here was a woman who had taught for over 30 years and she chose us to stand by her side as she said goodbye to a room, an empty room once full of giggles and franticly waving “oooh, oooh, I know the answer” hand raises, and yes, plenty of shenanigans.

She could have picked Amy, who always sat properly and never talked back. Or Peter, probably the smartest kid in the universe. But she chose us, two wild, unpredictable 4th graders whose Strawberry Quick sugar highs should have forced her into retirement months earlier. 

It all came together: her embarking on retirement was in every way a bit like us. Unpredictable, crazy, scary, a bit of a wild notion, full of the frustrations and anxiety based on the unknown. Just like she never knew what to expect day to day with us, the same would go for her retirement: what next? What will tomorrow bring? There will be chaos.

Heck, the world outside of Room 116 might be even crazier than the world that existed inside of it. Maybe in some strange way, our antics weren’t that awful after all. Much as we were unruly, perhaps we provided her stability: literally in her wobbly walks to the restroom, and in some ways, stability in her mind knowing that silliness was always a given inside the familiarity of Room 116. Perhaps our silly 4th grade antics were a bittersweet notion, one that sharply contrasted with the not-so-silly notion and seriousness of retirement.

And so, we learned that she needed us as much as we needed her. As much as she was there for us with all that Einstein hubabaloo, we too, were by her side when she needed us.

So it goes. Turns out that in the madness and uncertainty of life, how you hold on matters just as much as how you say good-bye. The most important part, though, is making sure you have the right people by your side when you choose to do so.

Oh, and a little silliness doesn’t hurt either. 

 Jennifer Lilley, 35, likes this Horace Mann quote: “Mix a little foolishness with your serious plans; it’s lovely to be silly at the right moment.”

© Jennifer Lilley and Jen Lilley’s Thought Buffet, 2010.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Lilley and Jen Lilley’s Thought Buffet with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.