This is officially the strangest moment in my teaching career, I thought to myself. It wasn’t because of the fact that I had a mask on my face, or that the 9 kids that represented the entirety of my class were masked, either. Sure, a global pandemic that had upended the entire world was definitely strange, but it had become normal. We were used to the day to day of life under covid. My students and I had made it our new normal.
What was not normal was the fact that I was laying on my stomach in the icy slush, one hand gripping the side of a moss covered boulder so I wouldn’t topple in, and the other submerged up to the elbow in the frigid muck of a swamp.
Let me back up.
Denied many of our usual class game activities by covid restrictions- we couldn’t tag, couldn’t share equipment like balls, and the kids were sick of the play structures on the playground- my students had created an elaborate manhunt style elimination game based on a favorite video game. The playground and fields we usually used didn’t offer enough of a challenge, so I had brought them into the back woods behind our school. It was a cold day, the temperature hovering barely above freezing.
The woods had a maze of downed trees, rock walls and tumbled chunks of granite, all weaving over and around swampy pools laying low in the dead leaves and ferns. I’d told them to stay away from the water. “If one of you falls off a log into a swamp, they won’t let me bring you out here any more”, I said in the way of a warning. They stayed off the logs, but apparently the lure of the water was too much. During an attempt to cross one particular swamp puddle, someone slipped, planted a foot firmly in the muck, and then lifted it, sans shoe.
I became aware of this when this huddle of kids started freaking out. I came over and tried to understand what they were yelling about. Shoeless boy was standing on one foot like a damp, muddy flamingo, looking forlorn. His friends were gesticulating wildly, pointing at the swamp and yelling that the shoe had disappeared. I made sure the shoeless boy was ok, and reassured them that the shoe could not, in fact, have disappeared. “Where did you see it last?” Four hands pointed in four different directions. Ok… “Where did you step that you lost it?” Shoeless boy shrugged sadly, waved his arms to indicate the entire surrounding woods. His friends, by now, were even louder and more vehement about their individual claims of where the shoe was.
At this point, it was dawning on me that there was not a shoe in sight. Although I kept insisting otherwise, it certainly seemed like the shoe had disappeared. I looked all around. No shoe. I grabbed a stick and started poking around in the mud. Shoeless boy had tears in his eyes. By now the rest of the kids had come over. I didn’t see another option.
I pulled my coat off, draped it over a rock, and knelt down by the side of the muddy water. Poking with a stick wasn’t achieving much. How would I know if what I was poking was a shoe or not? I gulped, rolled up my sleeve, and tentatively reached into the slimy surface. Leaves, sticks, and lots of mud. I grabbed handfuls of goop, poked around deeper. No shoe. Shoeless boy turned around so his classmates wouldn’t see him cry. I gritted my teeth and reached my arm deeper.
I expected to hit bottom fast. This was not actually a swamp or pond, it was a large puddle. Instead my arm sunk in past the wrist immediately. “Whoa….” the kids, now in a circle of awe and disgust around me, exclaimed. I crouched lower, knees above the snow, leaning precariously against a rock. I rolled my sleeve up as far as it could go, and plunged my arm in. It sank into wet, viscous mud up to the elbow, but I still couldn’t feel bottom.
Visions of the shoe sinking into the abyss filled my mind. I imagined the parent email I would have to send. “Your kid stepped into a mud puddle” was one thing but “Your kid lost his shoe in a bottomless swamp hole and I could not retrieve it” was another. I started reaching all around, digging my arm in as far as it could go in all the spots the kids remembered stepping.
Part of the fifth grade science curriculum is a study of aquatic ecosystems. Thanks to that unit, I knew full well what sort of things were dwelling in a half frozen winter slumber in this muck. Have you ever seen a dragonfly nymph? The image that name conjures does not match the wriggling, razor jawed nightmare fuel of a larval stage dragonfly. It was all I could imagine as I wriggled my fingers in the dark water.
“This is freaking me out, man.” One kid said. “I have a phobia of water you can’t see in.” “It’s fine.” I said calmly, internally screaming as I imagined hands grabbing mine from below, giant monster larvae, my brain regurgitating every scary thing it had seen since the 1980s. “That’s called thalassophobia.” Another student helpfully added. “Yeah, I just keep imagining creepy stuff, like-” “OK THANKS THAT’S ENOUGH!” I hollered.
Then I slipped, landed on my butt in the slush, shifted to my knees to avoid falling into the swamp. My pants were wet, my arm was frozen. I had mud on my mask. The kids all leaned in to see, crowding in close. “Six feet apart!” I yelled. No shoe. I transitioned to my stomach, laying nearly flat so I could reach in as far as possible.
It was at that moment that it occurred to me that this was the strangest moment in my teaching career. After over a decade and a LOT of weirdness, that was saying something.
Shoeless boy was no longer teary, but wore the resigned, worn expression of someone who has given up and accepted their fate, of walking on one muddy, frozen socked foot through the forest and into their school, of going home and announcing to one’s parents that they had lost their shoe in a swamp. Thalassophobia kid was still listing the various terrifying things he imagined below the surface. Two of the girls had gamely decided to help, and were poking all around with a large stick and succeeding in flinging mud everywhere.
Suddenly, I felt the unmistakable smoothness and give of man made material. Never had I been so happy to feel a polyester blend. “SHOEEE!!!” I shrieked. I wrenched it to the surface, and it exited with an obscene SHHHHLORP, spraying more muddy water than the girls with the stick had. I held the shoe triumphantly over my head. The kids broke into excited cheering and applause. Shoeless boy had a huge smile on his face, until I handed him the shoe shaped mud blob, at which point his expression was back to concern. But at least he wasn’t crying.
We left the woods, climbing up towards the playground, watched by kindergartners with open mouths who stared at our strange procession. Shoeless boy held his dripping mud blob, limping across the ice in his dirty sock. The girls still held large sticks, dripping with mud and algae. Thalassaphobia kid was listing all the terrifying things he imagines in the water- “Sharks with human heads, people with shark heads, ants”. His friend was listing all the other phobias he knew- “Agoraphobia, arachnophobia, galeophobia.”
I held my frozen, muddy arm out in front of me. A student held my coat for me, walking behind me like a personal assistant to someone famous and important, instead of someone wearing a wet sweatshirt that said ‘I ❤ science’ and mud covered jeans.
We entered the school, where the office staff looked at us with confusion and concern. I held my head high and tried to have a facial expression that said This is fine. Everything about this is normal. Because we can make anything normal.