animals in an umbrella: the kindergarten project from hell

Every Friday I spend two hours volunteering at the littles' school. I spend every other Friday in Campbell's class and every other Friday in Porter's. Campbell's kindergarten teacher likes me to come in on the afternoons she has meetings so I can help the teacher's aide. It's a pretty good routine we've got worked out.

The other day, she said she had a "great" project coming up for me to help with. "Awesome," I said. "Can't wait." Since we're all just returning from fall break and getting back into the routine has left me a bit scattered, I sent her a text the next day:

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I didn't catch on to the evil nature of the emoticon grin.

So this past Friday, I happily presented myself to Ms. Lacey*, the T.A., at the agreed-upon time. She was just starting to read a story to the class for their "author study." You see, each quarter, the class studies a particular author. Throughout the quarter they read books by that author, learn about the author's life, and do projects themed around that author's body of work.

"Who can name the author we are studying this quarter?" Ms. Lacey asked.

Everyone raised their hands, but Hailey was selected to answer "Jan Brett."

"Correct!" said Ms. Lacey. And today we'll be reading this book (holding up said book), "The Umbrella."

I'm a sucker for any book that involves animals, so I was pleased to see a bunch of them on the cover. Ms. Lacey pointed out the incredibly detailed illustrations. Since the kindergartners are learning how to add detail to their pictures, it was the perfect opportunity to drive home how much difference detail makes. Almost as if the teachers had planned it that way.

As Ms. Lacey read the story, I drifted in and out of paying attention, eager to get on with the show. Had I only known that this time would be my only piece of sanity for the next two hours...

After Ms. Lacey finished reading the story about animals riding in an umbrella through the rainforest (the vital plot point I gathered during the moments I was paying attention), she announced that the students would have the opportunity to make their own umbrellas with animals in them! Excitement mounted as the children disengaged their criss-cross applesauce poses and moved from the cozy rug to their tables.

Ms. Lacey handed me a stack of papers with outlines of the animal characters who appeared in The Umbrella. I passed them out as she instructed the children to "color the animals with colored pencils, and try to add as much detail as Jan Brett did in her illustrations. I know you are all budding Jan Bretts!"

As I passed out the coloring sheets, I noticed that most of the colored pencils in cups on the tables were very dull. "Ms. Lacey, would it be helpful if I sharpened some of the colored pencils, or would the sound be too disruptive?"

"That would be great," she said.

I got out the sharpener, plugged it in, and inserted the first dull pencil. That's when the madness began.

The sound of the pencil sharpener elicited a Pavlovian response in the tiny humans. A dozen of the twenty-one kindergarteners in the class were lined up behind me with their colors of choice.  

"Mrs. Carr, this brown isn't sharp."

"Mrs. Carr, I need the blue sharpened."

"Mrs. Carr, will you please sharpen the yellow and the green for me?"

"Mrs. Carr...

"Mrs. Carr...

"Mrs. Carr...

Riley said, "Mrs. Carr, I can sharpen my own pencil...see...but which hole should I put the pencil in?..." she trailed off as I watched her tiny finger go directly into the sharpening hole. "NO!" I snapped, grasping her hand and saving her finger from a gory fate. "Do NOT put your finger in the hole. Pencils only."

"Okay," she smiled, cheerful and unknowing.

While I recovered from the heart attack, the line behind me grew. Bennett appeared for the fourth time and presented me with a perfectly sharp pencil. "Mrs. Carr, this yellow isn't sharp." 

I examined it. "Yes it is."

"No, it's not. If you look closely, the very tippy-tip is flat."

"Bennett, I know it's fun to sharpen pencils, but there is a big line, and I'm not going to sharpen pencils that don't need sharpening."

"But this one definitely needs sharpening."

"It doesn't."

"It does."

"It doesn't."

"Yes it doeeeeeeeeeeees."

"Bennett, go back to your seat."

"But this yellow isn't sharp."

"Then go find another yellow. I'm not sharpening that pencil," I said, finally, beating my head against the wall.

Relief sprang in Ms. Lacey's voice. "Mrs. Carr, would you like to help me with the next step of the project?"

Fu¢k, yes. "I'd be happy to, Ms. Lacey. What would you like me to do?" I inquired.

"If you can work with one table (of five), I'll work with another. The tables we are working with can take a break from coloring for this part of the project, and then finish up afterwards. You'll need to provide each child with a sheet of white construction paper, a brown umbrella handle, and a wax paper 'umbrella' to cut out. They should glue only the bottom portion of the umbrella to the page with a glue stick so that it creates a pocket for the animals. That might be challenging.  Then a tray of glue with paintbrushes and a pie pan full of multicolored tissue paper squares to make the umbrella colorful. They can either paint the umbrella with glue and attach the tissue paper or they can paint each tissue paper square and attach it. OR, they can put the tissue paper on the umbrella and then paint the glue over the tissue paper because it will also stick like that." I started to zone out as if I was listening to the Peanuts teacher.

It was then when I began to understand the true nature of the "great" project and realized I was going to have to buck up for this. How was she maintaining composure in the face of it?

I played it off. I think I played it off. I'm sure my eyes were the size of saucers. "Okay...sure." I deliberately chose to work with a table that had four children instead of five. Two girls and two boys. Not the one with four boys. Not the one with the trouble-maker.

I gathered the required materials and approached my chosen table. "Hi, guys. Can we put down the coloring for a minute? I'm going to help you make the umbrellas!" I may as well have been speaking Chinese. They continued to color, not looking up.

I spoke slightly louder and with a smidge more authority. "Alright. Let's put the coloring away and move on to the next step! We're going to make the umbrellas!"

They looked at me and blinked their eyes, then went back to coloring.

"Ooooookay. I'm going to take away your coloring sheets for a few minutes while we do the next part of the project." I warned them as I removed the writing utensils and animal pages from the table. They looked a little pissed, but whatever. I glanced over at Mrs. Lacey's table, and her five children (including my daughter) were halfway done. The race was on. 

I passed out the white construction paper, and they all scrawled their names on their sheets. Sweet. I didn't think of that. It took me five minutes to get them to orient their construction paper vertically. I made the mistake of putting the "painting glue" on the table prior to the "painting glue part" of the project. They all picked up their glue-soaked paintbrushes. "Hold on..." I begged. Already, this had gotten out of control.

I am not one who has a great deal of patience for groups (more than one) of children who are not related to me by blood. Four at the table was an all-out intimidation factor. They didn't wait for directions, but simply plunged into for different tasks involving the materials I had prematurely placed within reach, none of which were correct, and all of which were messy. Did I mention I also have an aversion to messes?

While Leslie quickly glued her umbrella handle upside down, Stephen had painted the wrong part of the paper with the glue and Grace colored the construction paper. It took me eight seconds to shift my gaze to Carter, and by that time, the palms of his hands and fingers were completely covered in glue and tissue paper, robbing him of any function whatsoever. Maybe that wasn't such a bad thing. Could I just glue all of the children to the table? Because I didn't see a pause button on any of them.

"Carter, let's start fresh. Please go to the sink and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water," I directed. I'd be down to three kids, if only for a moment.

As soon as Carter got to the sink and my back was turned toward the table, I heard Ms. Lacey's voice. "Carter, you can't possibly be done with the project...should you be washing your hands?" Carter shot me a quick look.

I interjected. "Ms. Lacey, he was basically covered with glue and tissue paper, so I asked him to wash his hands...everything was sticking to him." 

"Oh. Okay..." she seemed to approve. 

I then removed all of the supplies from the table. "Okay. One thing at a time," I said more for my own reassurance than for their benefit. We worked through the steps together, and though there were quite a few misguided cuts and sloppily-placed blobs of glue, the five of us survived, and they each had an umbrella on paper. Basically.

I considered lingering a bit longer at the table in hopes that Ms. Lacey could cover all four other tables in the time it took me to finish up, but no such luck. Ms. Lacey handed me a new set of supplies. I knew enough, now, to not place everything on the table at the same time. This second table should go much better.

Only table number two had an entirely different problem. An opposite problem. The children didn't dive into tasks with reckless abandon. Instead, they just took off. They scattered in different directions. They couldn't go out of the confines of the classroom, but it was still like herding cats. It seems none of the children at table two were very interested in doing anything at all. Except Jack. Jack was banging his fist on the metal file cabinet. He was busy.

"Mrs. Carr," Ms. Lacey addressed me.

"Yes?" I turned around with giant eyes.

She giggled with me in solidarity, finally, and said "I'm so glad you're here today. If it wasn't for you...well...it would be just me." I thought she might have been better off, but I was relieved to know she didn't feel that way. 

"This is insane," I confessed.

She laughed more. "Maybe you can help Jack get started. He'll need someone to sit with him."

Jack is a special needs child. He has a great heart and is as cute as cute can be, but he can be quite challenging in the classroom. I'd take it, though. I'd take one kid to the twenty Ms. Lacey was handling. Seemed like I drew the long straw this time. Since I hadn't worked closely with Jack before, I asked Ms. Lacey a bit about his abilities and what to expect. I wondered exactly what I should let him do on his own and how much help he'd need with each aspect of the project. Ms. Lacey simply said "Watch the scissors, he tends to go like this..." She held a pair of scissors close to her own eyes and opened and shut them rapidly to demonstrate.

Um. Okay.

I took Jack gently by the hand, removing him from the file cabinet. I took a pair of scissors and the wax paper and hoped for a smooth start. Jack sat down the first time I asked. And then, the scissors. Just as Ms. Lacey said. I asked him to please stop and managed to get my hand around the implement before it could do any damage to him or me. "Do you know how to hold the scissors, Jack? Let me help you." We held them together, and I was proud that he managed to cut while I guided the paper. I have to admit that I was a bit nervous that one of us would end up in the nurse's office, but we managed. 

Then came the glue. At first, Jack didn't want any part of the glue. Having tactile-sensitivity, the sticky substance wasn't his favorite. After much going back and forth and retrieving him from various parts of the classroom, we finally worked out a system. each time he glued a square of tissue paper onto his umbrella, we'd high-five. He liked to high-five. Again, I was proud I'd figured out how to get through to him. 

All was going along well until some of the glue transferred from Jack's hand to mine. It was a microscopic amount on my pointer finger, but Jack felt it every time we high-fived, and it bothered him. He started to pick at it, which was a bit painful, but okay with me. I got him to leave it alone for a while, but then he'd come back to it. When he couldn't remove it (it may have been skin hanging off and not glue at this point), he took my finger into his mouth and started to try to bite it off. "Oh, no, no, Jack. Let's not put my fingers in your mouth." He tried again and again, and I determined that both of us had reached the limit of our patience for the project. I let him go back to the file cabinet as I admired our half-finished umbrella.

I went back to surveying the entire class, and realized that while I'd been so focused on Jack, the other students were all finishing coloring their animal sheet and began to cut out the animals. Many of the children were in various stages of distress, some crying because they accidentally cut the leopard's leg off. Others had lost their toucans. One child was being accused of stealing another's tapir.

"Okay, friends!" Ms. Lacey chimed. "It's almost time to clean up, so please finish up. If you don't have all of your animals finished, you can bring them home to finish."

Oh. Thank. God. 

My daughter, Campbell, who I'd all but forgotten about, hopped over to me and gave me a big hug. "I finished mine, Mama. Do you want to see it?" I couldn't think of anything better to do at that moment. Of course, I wanted to see it. At least one child had finished the project, and she was mine. I hadn't spent a moment with her at all during the past two hours, but she didn't seem to mind. She probably loved watching me flounder.

 Campbell's finished product.

Campbell's finished product.

I enjoyed the moment of parental pride, but I was exhausted. I needed a drink. And then I turned around and saw the messy aftermath that was "The Umbrella Project."

That's when Campbell's teacher walked in.

My eyes shot daggers at her. She laughed. She knew exactly what she'd done.

But I love her anyway. She and Ms. Lacey are awesome. I'll just make sure to ask more specifically about the nature of the project I'm signing myself up to assist with. My bad. My bad.

On a positive note, the kids learned a bunch about animals and the rainforest and how to draw a detailed picture. 

P.S. I don't do field trips.

 It's all in the details.

It's all in the details.

Book jacket photo source: janbrett.com

*Names have been changed.