"Guys, I think it's time to tackle the office." I have several boxes of miscellaneous things stored in the office I share with the custodians. Files of short stories and poems from my days of teaching English, fabric donations, props, scripts, speech team stuff - it's a hodge-podge of items that I haven't had time to sort through. But I have two highly energetic boys for my assistants that period, and I warned them on the first day that this would be one of the main items on their to-do list for the term.
They groan, fulfilling their teenage obligation to at least appear to resent anything I ask them to do; but they listen as I go over my recommended strategy for sorting and organizing things. I know I only have about 30 seconds of their attention when it comes to instructions, so I talk fast. Sure enough, they cut me off before I'm done; exclaiming "We got this!" as they run into my office.
I shake my head and go back to grading. My planning period at the end of each quarter is densely-packed and highly valuable, so I congratulate myself for finding a way to keep my assistants meaningfully occupied without being distracted myself by their all-too-entertaining chatter.
About ten minutes and 35 worksheets later, I hear my name. "Waterhouse!" they call from the office. "Come see what we did!"
I leaned against the doorjamb. "What's this?"
"We made a fort!" they exclaim proudly.
"I can see that. You also found my practice swords?"
"Yeah! These are awesome!"
"I know. They were a birthday gift from my grandfather a few years ago."
"Your grandfather's awesome!"
"Yes. You do know that I need to have access to the mini-fridge back there, right?" I indicate the corner under the cabinets.
"Oh, we thought of that. See?" One of them drops to his knees and crawls inside the fort. "We built it so you can still open the door and everything. Like this." I hear the muffled sound of the door opening underneath the layers of cardboard. "And you can close it too." The door scrapes against the cardboard. "Wait, hold on." I hear him try again. "Okay, it worked a second ago." The entire structure shudders as he tries to slam the door over and over again.
"Yes, well, I don't think the janitors will be too keen on having to crawl into a fort to get their lunches," I point out as he makes his way out.
"No, I'm pretty sure they'll think it's awesome," they tell me.
"Sorry, guys," I say, smiling. "I need access to that fridge." I turn to go, then think better of it. "And the sink, the microwave, the desks, and my phone."
I leave them looking at their fort, one of them scratching his head with the hilt of a sword.
Midway through my next pile of assignments, I hear a shout, a crash, and a bought of laughter.
"We found a better place to build!" they say, squirming out from under the collapsed pile of boxes. "We just need to make it more structurally sound."
I do that teacher thing where I close my eyes and exhale through my nose. They know this gesture well.
"We'll clean it up, Waterhouse," they assure me. "Don't worry!"
Just then the bell rang.
"Tomorrow!" they shout, grabbing their backpacks and dashing out the door to their lunches and their girlfriends.
I turn back to look at my office:
I wonder what the janitors will think when they show up for their evening shifts.
The next few days are filled with tasks for all three of us as we prepare for the speech meet that weekend. The custodians are patient with me, accustomed as they are to finding all kinds of strange messes around show time, so the office moves to the bottom of our collective to-do lists.
Before third period starts on the Monday after the meet, I make my customary to-do list for them on the board.
"What're we doing today?" they enter asking with the usual bag-toss.
I point to my one-item list. "The office," I say. "Make it better."
They grin, salute, and run off. Forty somewhat-suspiciously quiet minutes later, I look up from my computer to see them standing side by side in the entrance to my room, grinning.
"Come see our fort," they say.
They give me a tour with the pride of new homeowners. "This is the clipboard where visitors have to sign in. This is the weapon storage. This is the doorway, and this is the animal hide for people to wipe their feet on. And see? You can still get to your phone!"
I decide not to complain about the giant paper banner I have to duck under to answer my phone and not to point out that I no longer have access to my filing cabinet. I won't need the stuff in there for another few weeks anyway. In fact, I am surprised, both by their creativity and by the sight of so many random artifacts of my 12 years of teaching displayed in front of me.
"And look!" they beckon for me to come inside. Apparently as the landowner I do not have to sign in. "Here's the weird green viney-curtain thing we found...
"...and here's our magnetic poetry wall with the Message of the Day!" They point to the side of my filing cabinet where my long-forgotten Magnetic Poetry Kit: Great Literature Edition was now arranged.
"Isn't it awesome?!"
"Yes, guys," I have to admit. "This is an awesome fort."
They spent the rest of the period and the first part of lunch giving tours to the other assistants. I return to my desk, listening to the exclamations of their friends as they show off my office as I work.
The next day, I hand them a stack of review packets to grade.
"Can we grade them in the fort?" they ask.
"Sure," I say.
"Whoo-hoo!" They snatch the papers from my hands and run off to my office. I pick up the answer key they dropped in their haste. By the time I walk it to them in my office they're sitting against the wall under the paper banner next to an iPod playing Imagine Dragons.
They do a great job grading, as always. They're smart, reliable boys, and they keep me entertained while doing what I need them to do; which is why they had a surprise waiting for them in the fort this morning:
The Fort Fairy (whose form references this video, a favorite of one of the boys and an ongoing joke between us) rewards good assistants with their favorite kind of food -
synthetic, neon-colored, and so spicy it's in the Mexican section of the grocery store.