Teacher’s lounge – Isthmus | Madison, Wisconsin

As much fun as it is to see a child get revved up for a birthday, it’s even more of a kick to see a grown-up delight in one. My wife, Peggy, is a birthday person in the best childlike way. This is why it’s so satisfying to make simple things happen to make her birthday happy. Like planting a surprise sheet cake in the teacher’s lounge at Mendota Elementary, where she’s been subbing.

If croissants are the Shorewood Hills section of the pastry case and scones are the Willy Street region, sheet cake is a different area altogether: frosting like hardened candle wax, flashing bright colors, colors that I don’t think have even been invented yet, and golf ball-sized globs of whipped butter florets. You can buy one the size of a shuffleboard court for $20. I slid mine into the back of the Highlander with a big box of plastic forks and paper plates and headed to the north side.

Putting a sheet cake on the table in a teachers’ lounge is like chucking a slab of meat onto the Serengeti for lions. Total feeding frenzy. And if you think all of the high-speed feed is because teachers are savages, think again. That’s not it at all. Teachers eat fast because elementary school teachers get, like, 12 minutes for lunch.

That’s right. In the time you take at work to casually hear about Larry down the hall’s new Kia, elementary school teachers get that same amount of time to eat. And then it’s right back to the classroom. No Larry. No gabbing about the Kia. No hour for lunch. 

But I got off track. Sorry. The sheet cake in the teacher’s lounge….

I get nervous going into a teacher’s lounge. I mean really clenched and I’m not just talking about when I was a child, I’m talking about right now as a grown-ass man. I think it comes from the PTSD I took on in 7th grade when I was told to go into the teachers’ lounge. The principal asked me to go in and give Mrs. Barnette, my English teacher, a message. I don’t remember what the message was. I think I forgot it the second I walked in. 

Once inside I entered a world heretofore only briefly considered. The lighting was half of what it was out in the hall, causing it to feel, well, loungey. In a cheap way. My eyes had to adjust and as they did, a creepy confusion settled in: what’s going ON in here? 

This is what was going on in there: Seated at the center table was Mrs. Wright, smoking a cigarette. Huffing down a Salem. Mrs. Wright from Room 313 smoking a frigging cigarette! She looked right at me and we’re only three feet apart, and since she’s seated, her eyes and mine are on the same level. They were hazel, blank and tired. She squinted those eyes as she took a monster drag on the Salem, then made a perfect circle with her fire engine red lips and blew a long jet of blue smoke right into my face. As if to say, “You come into the teachers’ lounge, you deal with it, little man.”

That’s when I decided that the teachers’ lounge is like a cruise ship where, once you get into international waters, you can do anything you want. You can gamble. Buy exotic tax-free liquor. Anything. It still upsets me. Mrs. Wright from Room 313 and her red lips blowing menthol smoke in my face. Scarred for life. 

Fast forward back to Peggy’s birthday. “Thanks for the sheet cake!” Peggy announced when she walked into the house after school. She spoke of the gratitude of her fellow staff members. She described what a tonic unexpected events like that are for school workers. Things I already knew. But for some reason it all thrust me into an unplanned contemplation. It wasn’t the first sheet cake I’ve delivered to a teachers’ lounge, but it was one that made me actually reconsider my lifelong phobia. 

In the same way that teachers can be mysterious, powerful beings in the eyes of children, so too can they be in the eyes of the student’s parents (or in those of a teacher’s spouse). It’s a testament to the importance of what they do that grown-ups can get uptight around their child’s instructor. Teachers perform their arduous job out in the open where everyone can see and anyone can challenge. And they do so in the company of 20 children. Teaching professionals, in my experience, don’t crave social attention, yet they’re a daily focal point of a family’s life. And the public’s. 

A teacher’s lounge is a place teachers go to embrace the anonymity that, comparatively speaking, most of the rest of us enjoy all day long at our workplace. When the final bell rings on this school year, teachers will reclaim, if only for a couple months, privacy. 

So when you see your child’s teacher at the music festival this summer, a hearty “Hello there!” will be plenty. No need to tie up loose ends about Harper’s reading scores. Teachers are off the clock. They earned it! They made it to summer! The ultimate teachers’ lounge! 

Andy Moore is a retired PBS Wisconsin political news producer and a longtime Isthmus contributor.

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