My heart was pounding. I entered the room. I’d faced mobs before. The Super Bowl. The Kentucky Derby infield. The Hertz ticket counter.
But nothing could prepare me for this. Nothing could prepare me for . . . the third grade.
The third grade?
“They’re so excited,” the teacher said.
“They are?” I said, clutching my car keys.
Slowly I turned. And there it was. A sea of nine-year-old faces, all wide-eyed and apple-cheeked. Some smiled. I half- smiled back. And all the time I’m thinking, “Don’t mess up. Stay calm. . . . Batting averages. What is Lou Whitaker’s batting average? Oh, god. You should know that. And Lance Parrish’s favorite cartoon. Damn. You forgot that, too. Does he watch cartoons? Wait a minute. Why didn’t you study? Now they’ll all know how shallow you are. Concentrate. . . . “
Too late, I figured. I was about to be leveled by creatures with name tags sewed in their underwear. And I had only myself to blame.
Dinner banquets I don’t mind. Or Jaycee breakfasts, or college lectures, or literary clubs. Not that any of these groups has asked me to speak. But they sound as if they’d be, you know, OK.
Kids, on the other hand, are almost certainly trouble. It just happens. Say you are addressing a group of kids and you are talking about Notre Dame, and you say something innocent like, “The Notre Dame team has a few weak links.” And one kid goes home to his father and blurts out, “Notre Dame is weaklings!” And the father, who attended Notre Dame on a wrestling scholarship, puts down his blowtorch and quietly asks his son where he ever heard such a thing, and the next thing you know, your car blows up. Asking for trouble? “Who has questions?” the teacher said.
“Questions?” I said, looking at her.
She nodded enthusiastically. Her name was Miss Flynn. She had called last week to say her class at Holy Family Regional School in Rochester often used my column as a reading assignment. Would I come by and speak to them? I had said OK, even though, thinking back on my childhood, I felt these kids could be doing something more constructive, like throwing mud.
“Do you like your job?” came the first question.
“Well . . . uh, yeah,” I said.
“Where do you get your ideas?” one asked.
“My editors wonder the same thing. . . .”
“Did you ever miss a deadline?”
“Well, you know, not the late ones. . . .
“Do you have any pets?”
Questions were coming rapid-fire now. I was battling them off, like Jimmy Connors might battle off some upstart’s volleys. Outside the classroom were some of my columns, taped to the wall. The kids had rated them from 1 to 10, with little comments. I was tickled, honestly. Until I noticed a few 7’s.
“Have you ever met Hulk Hogan? . . . “
“What happens if your computer breaks? . . . “
“Do you ever feel like quitting? . . . “
Strange question. “Well,” I said, “do you guys ever feel like not coming into school?”
“YESSS!!” they screamed.
Hmmmm. Where did he come from? Anyhow, after 15 minutes I was cruising. A few Tigers stories. A few wrestling anecdotes. I was going to make it, I figured. The clock on the wall was my buddy. No Notre Dame questions. No real trouble. And I’d be done soon.
A brown-haired kid raised his hand.
“Yes?” I said.
“How much money do you make?” he said.
And boom. Smack into the wall. “I, uh . . . ” Think, I’m saying to myself. Be witty. Be clever. Don’t use numbers. “I, uh, hmm. That’s a real good question. . . . ” Miss Flynn tried to dismiss it. But the kid just sat there, his chin on his hands, waiting for an answer. “Heh, heh, I uh, think, you know. . . .” I was sinking. The kid’s face was a rock. Like that of a cowboy who’d come 2,000 miles to find the man who killed his brother. He wasn’t leaving without a straight answer.
Oh, god, I thought. You’re losing him. Say something. “Well,” I said with a sudden smile, “I make enough to order food in a restaurant.”
Where the hell did that come from? I thought.
It was too late. We went on to other questions. But my stomach sank. I knew I’d taken a lick. Kids will find a way to nail you. They always do.
It was getting late. Miss Flynn thanked me for coming in. The students clapped. On my way out, I noticed they had made a banner that said, “Welcome To Our School, Mr. Albom,” which I thought was pretty neat, to use an old expression.
Neat enough that maybe, someday, I will venture out again to a third grade. But next time, things will be different. Next time, I am going to walk in, sit down and ask those little suckers how much allowance they get each week. And I’m not leaving until I get some straight answers.