Tuesday is my day for drop off, and I was already running late when I rang the doorbell to pick up Janey. We needed to move fast so she could get to school on time, and I could make my 9 AM meeting. I am firm with her, I don’t want her to think she could slack off just because I don’t live with her anymore. And for me, being on time is important. Janey did not like rushing, and was not in a good mood when she climbed into the back seat. Her eyes went wide when I told her I was visiting her classroom later that day. She shook her head no. I knew she didn't want me there.
“No, you can’t come!” She shouted from the back seat. I saw a blur of her dark brown hair through the rear view mirror.
She blamed me for moving out of the house, blamed me for breaking up the family, and I still didn't know how to give a good explanation of why. How do you explain to a 10 year old when the attraction between two people just goes away, like a switch was flipped off?
She was wearing her favorite shirt, Captain Marvel, blue leggings, and a too small purple jacket. She was growing so fast, in Third grade already. Since the separation, I see her less, and am shocked each time how much she changes, even over a week.
This whole thing was Justine’s idea, a way for me to be more connected in Janey’s life by doing a Show and Tell in her class. To get on Janey’s good side, I would try anything, but I wasn’t sure if this was the way to do it.
Every time I spoke to Janey, I said or did something wrong. How would I be with a whole room full of kids?
Janey’s class was studying energy, and as I worked for the local electric utility I could participate in the class and meet Janey’s classmates. Except, I worked in Finance, my expertise was in accounting not electricity, and did not ever speak in front of people. But I could talk to a third grade class right?
Our trial separation was way past just a trial, over a year now, and Justine and I were delaying making it official. The divorce was hard for me to talk about. Which was the whole problem between Justine and myself, our conversations turned into arguments, and then just silent anger. I needed to learn how to express myself.
“It is all arranged. I’m going to visit your class this afternoon to talk about electricity and energy and-“
I glanced up in the rear view mirror and saw her head was down.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“What do I call you?”
“What do you mean what do you call me- I’m your Dad!”
“But we don’t live together.” Her voice was quiet.
“You live with me sometimes, on weekends.” That didn’t sound better. “Hey, soon you will grow up and move away to college. It doesn't matter where you live, or I live, I am still your Dad.” We pulled up to the school drop off zone. “And I'll see you after lunch. Ms. Betty told me to be there at 1.”
Janey gave me a last pleading look. “Don’t embarrass me.”
I fought to balance the several boxes of supplies I carried as I walked up the stairs to the second floor room. I had been late to my 9 o’clock meeting, and had been behind ever since dealing with the work, so had missed lunch.
Room 12 was warm when I walked in, the afternoon sun flooding through the windows. I was still in my wool suit and tie from the earlier meetings, and I thought it would be a good look for the kids to see what a professional dressed like.
“Ms. Betty?” I looked in the room from the doorway. A slight, gray haired woman was straightening the low chairs. She wore a thin sweater over dress slacks. Her warm smile made me feel right at home.
“Hi- I’m Joaquin, Janey’s dad. Here for the Show and Tell?"
“Oh hello!” Ms. Betty waved me in. “Janey was so excited you were coming.”
“She was? She didn’t seem to be this morning…”
Ms. Betty dismissed me with a wave. “She is looking forward to showing you off.”
“I brought some items to display,” I lifted the box. ”I probably brought too much stuff. Where should I put these?”
Ms. Betty pointed to a table in front of the room. “Why don’t you present from there, then all the children can see you.”
Goosebumps buzzed up my neck. “Present?” I stammered. “I thought this was a Show and Tell, where the kids would just look at the items, and I would be in the back?” I had not thought about this more than seeing Janey. I did not like to be in front of people. I was comfortable working on spreadsheets, or in one on one meetings. But something about seeing people look at me scares me.
“I don’t usually do public speaking. I…”
Ms. Betty tilted her head and laughed. “Public speaking? They are just Third graders. I’m going to bring them in from lunch.” She patted my arm like I was 10 years old myself and left the room. “They will love you.”
I looked around at the small desks and chairs, everything in the room was positioned low, for children. How could I be scared of Third graders!
I set up the electrical equipment and different types of light bulbs I had brought. What am I scared of? This will be easy. And I'm here for Janey. I will give a great presentation and Janey will get to ‘show me off’ as Ms. Betty said.
I did my best impression of looking relaxed as the kids began filing in. Loud and red-faced from the lunch recess, my presence in the room quieted them into whispers and curious looks as they took their seats, rustling until Ms. Betty’s voice quieted them.
“Hello class.” Ms. Betty had a strong presence, drawing all the attention to her. “I want to introduce Mr. Patel, he is here to speak to us about our latest science unit, electricity.” Ms. Betty moved to the back of the room. “Mr. Patel, please go ahead.”
I squinted into the bright sun coming into the room from the windows, and looked for Janey. I found her in the middle of the classroom, she was looking down at her hands, ignoring me. I recognized several of the kids from birthday parties and other school events. And then I saw Lizzie.
Lizzie had bullied Janey the year before, though they had come to a fragile peace this year. Small-boned with thin blonde hair I couldn’t reconcile this child with the trouble she had caused Janey. I glared at her as she smiled back at me.
“Hello everyone! Like Ms. Betty said I am Mr. Patel, or better known as Janey’s Dad.” My voice sounded high pitched and strange. The room stayed dead silent, all their eyes on me. Suddenly I was aware of the size difference between them, sitting in those small desks, and my large figure standing in the front. I locked my knees absentmindedly. “Who likes light bulb jokes?”
Several hands shot up.
“OK. What did the lightbulb say to the switch?” I paused for effect.
“You turn me on.”
I smiled and put up my hands expecting laughs, but there was no response. I noticed Ms. Betty's frown in the back of the classroom. My joke was not Third grade appropriate. Suddenly extremely hot, sweat beaded on my face. I pressed my sleeve to my forehead.
“Mr. Patel, do you want me to open a window?” Ms. Betty asked.
I raised my hand, putting her off. I could do this.
“Let’s talk about electricity. Who knows what electricity is?”
A few hands went up, and I picked the one kid I recognized. “OK, Lizzie.”
“You don't turn- a light switch, you flip it up.” Lizzie corrected me, her hand demonstrating the proper motion.
I knew it was a mistake as soon as I said her name. “I guess you are right.” Sweat dripped down from my temple and I wiped it off with my hand and then rubbed it on my pants. I shook my head to get rid of the light headed feeling. “But, what about electricity…”
“-You dummy- it is just an expression.” A boy’s voice came from the other side of the classroom. “Turn on means to flip it up.” A ripple of laughter flowed across the room.
“Maybe we shouldn’t call anyone dummy.” My voice was drowned out by the sudden argument of what ‘turn on’ meant. I felt the control of the room slipping away.
“Raise your hand next time Lucas.” Ms. Betty commented, and the room went silent.
“So, electricity?” I asked again, but now no hands went up.
“Electricity is -”
I looked out into the room and saw these people staring back at me. My mind went blank. I knew I was sweating, and my face blazed with heat. I felt their eyes on me, criticizing me. My shirt was coming untucked, and did I look fat? I am fat, but if my shirt is tucked in just right I look less fat and, oh I have been silent for a while.
“Electricity-” I started again, but the word made no sense to me. I was pouring in sweat and I felt dizzy. I am trapped, and want nothing more than to run out of the room. I was letting Janey down, looking like a fool in front of her friends. But I had to continue for Janey! I opened my mouth to speak but only dry air escaped my parched lips.
Ms. Betty spoke. “Kieran, why don't you say what we learned about electricity”.
A red headed boy, right in front of me, began speaking. “Electricity is the flow of charged particles as a current.”
I looked down, in awe of Kieran’s answer. The charged particles in this room were buzzing out of control, and about to electrocute me.
“Thanks Kieran.” I remembered the supplies and the light bulbs I was given by the marketing department.
“I have light bulbs!” I reached down and grabbed one. “These are powered by electricity- this one is 100 watt.”
I held up an incandescent light bulb and watched it vibrate as my hand shook uncontrollably. I brought it down quickly and handed it to Kieran, who took it from me.
Building on my limited success, I began passing more of the light bulbs to him. My hands were slick with sweat as I handed them over. I dropped one, and then another as I fumbled to open the boxes they came in. “Careful,” I admonished. “They’re made of glass.” Kieran, his desk covered in light bulbs was carefully passing them out to other kids.
“These next ones are LEDs, and are more efficient, using less energy to produce the same light.”
“And this one is an older style.” To the class, I held up a large circular light bulb, the size and shape of a small watermelon. “This one is a 1000 watt light, and is very in-efficient, it uses a lot of energy for the limited light it produces.”
Staring at the light bulb, it’s round shape reminded me of me, large and using too much energy to provide dim light in the room. My gaze shifted to the back of the room and I saw Ms. Betty quietly watching the children. Small and lean, she barely spoke, yet had total control of the room.
“All these light bulbs use different amounts of energy, a watt, and-”
A hand was raised, and I felt I was getting in my groove. I handed the large light bulb to Kieran. “Yes!” I practically shouted. The students were asking questions, I was getting somewhere.
“What a what?” Lizzie asked.
“What a what?” I answered back, confused. “I don’t understand…”
“What a what.’ She repeated, and smiled. I looked out at her with sudden anger. My fists clenched uncontrollably. This kid was ridiculing me, bullying me like she did Janey, and I wanted to reach out and wring her neck.
“I think she is asking, Mr. Patel,” Ms. Betty’s voice interrupted my thoughts, “what is a ‘watt’.”
“What a watt!” I breathed out and my hands loosened.
“A watt is a unit of energy. Rate of energy transfer, one watt equals one joule per second.” I rattled the answer off, something I had practiced, as if I was the student being grilled by a professor.
I felt like I won the battle when I saw Lizzie put her arm down, a confused frown on her face.
A loud crash drew my attention, and I saw Kieran holding the remnants of the 1000 watt light bulb, shards of glass over him and his desk. An instinct to protect the child overcame me, I had to act fast.
“No!” I lunged forward over the desk to grab what was left of the light bulb from Kieran. But my intentions were misinterpreted. Maybe it was the redness in my face or the speed at which I reached for him, but Kieran’s eyes grew large in terror. He defended himself from me, a large, enraged man coming at him with the best weapon he had, a broken light bulb. The sharp glass shard went directly into the meat of my hand and the blood sprayed on his desk.
Adrenaline fueled my grip, as I squeezed what remained of the light bulb and pulled it out of Kieran’s hand, impaling it deeper into my own.
‘Be careful! I shouted. “You’ll cut yourself!”
The blood poured out of my cuts and dripped onto Kieran’s desk. I looked at my hand, saw the embedded glass shards, and then everything went black.
I blinked awake to see Janey’s face inches from mine, her hair a halo around me.
“Are you alive?” Janey asked. She was holding her purple jacket to my cut hand.
“Yes, I think.” I was on my back on the classroom rug. Whispered conversations of concern came from the circle of kids surrounding me.
“Everyone step back,” Ms. Betty said, her voice calm. “Let Mr. Patel sit up.”
Ms. Betty had a good supply of paper towels along with kleenex to sop up most of the blood. Kieran’s desk was covered in deep red spots, and all the kids were excited to help clean it.
I took that opportunity to thank the class and to leave. I went to the bathroom and cleaned myself as best I could. Blood covered my shirt and suit, so I changed into an old Disney sweatshirt I had in the car.
I dreaded picking up Janey after school.
“I’m sorry Janey. The class presentation didn’t go so well-” I stood at the far edge of the playground, hoping to avoid any of the Third grade class.
“I’m very proud of you, you are just like a superhero!”
Janey smiled at me, for the first time in a long time. My heart jumped, even though I didn’t understand what she was talking about.
“I am scared of bugs and creepy-crawlies.” Her face wrinkled in disgust. “I won’t even go near a spider.”
“Yes, I know-”
“Ms. Betty told us you are scared of giving presentations, just like I am scared of bugs. But you did it anyway, just to talk about electricity. It must be really important.”
Janey took my hand like she did when she was little and we began walking to the car. “You conquered your fear to come today. You’re a hero.”
Being the tough guy has not been working out for me. Maybe I should try to be myself more, let Janey know what scares me. I was just happy to see her smile again.
“You helped me when I cut myself, so you are a hero too. Maybe us heroes can go get ice cream.”
“We’ll be late for piano lessons!” Janey looked at me, her eyes wide.
“Today, I think ice cream is more important than being on time.”
I smiled. "You showed me that."