Shakira Cherimond ’26
The Diary of a T.A.
Wake up at 6:30 a.m., leave the house by 8:00 a.m. The streets fill with the sound of sly crickets while everything else lies motionless. In just an hour, the sound alone will change drastically. Streets will be filled with the laughter of children, cars honking, and the vroom of bus engines. This is a perennial morning routine and, crazy enough, I wouldn’t change it. I’ve been employed by my local school district as both a bus monitor and teaching assistant for nearly nine months. My days are filled abundantly with various highs and lows. With adolescents, I must prepare for anything. First and second graders have enlightened me with their views on personal space. I’ve realized the idea has no resonance with them. Space is simply nonexistent. Physical touch (especially hugs) will be the prime way to communicate with them. Stickers will always rein as most prized. This job will become the highlight of my year, as I am building so many new memories I hope to never forget.
In anticipation of working for the school district, I struggled with my mental health. I became very unsure of how I would juggle life’s obstacles. My studies seemed to be going well in college but still, it felt as if I wasn’t making the cut. When I looked at myself in the mirror, the image reflected failure. Letting my loved ones down was my biggest fear. But I knew taking a break would be extremely helpful. I came to the decision that a medical absence was needed—my mental health needed to be considered. I had to stop neglecting myself. This was a challenging task. I lacked motivation and became very depressed. My family members refused to let me give up. They help me establish a blueprint of change. While on leave from school, I was encouraged to find work. I began working odd jobs here and there. Eventually, my mom’s boss encouraged her to ask me to apply for a teaching position at the local school. He explained how the district was always looking for T.A.s, feeling the fit may be good. He offered to write recommendations needed. In stumbling across this job, everything finally clicked.
As their new T. A., children adore challenging me. They pick away at pieces and turn knobs until they have plucked everything they can harvest out of me. In future instances, they know what buttons not to push.
Children behave as shy fawns when first making contact, watching my every move, wondering who I am, and what I could possibly be doing. They are timid to make eye contact and obtuse with verbal responses. Once comfortable with me, I prepare for mauling by the masses. There won’t be success in arriving at the school building without thousands of them scampering up to me with heavy hands screaming at 8:00 a.m., “Hi, Miss Shakira!” toppling me from all their affection.
Lunch is my most favorite activity to accompany my little ducklings to; it’s a ritual tranquil and deadly at the same time. Masses rush by to be “first.” The highest honor, line leader, is fought for. The best friend made moments ago on the playground climbing the monkey bars has now become an archenemy. You’ll take back your bracelets, Pokémon cards L.o.L dolls, and so on, in a fight to the death. Only one will be victorious in becoming the line leader. Others will shed tears. As a teacher, I must hold hands and reestablish confidence with a few pep talks before reaching the cafeteria. By this point, tensions have simmered, and past traumas have been forgotten. As we continue our journey down the never-ending hall, I pray we make it to the lunchroom in one piece. They follow behind me, like ducklings, waiting patiently for further instructions. “If you have home lunch you may go find a seat. Everyone else makes a line and follows me,” I announce.
Since COVID, fewer classes are allowed in the lunchroom. Teachers serve their students. The first and second graders preselect their meals a week ahead of time. Preselected options would make the distributing of the meals more time-efficient than you presume, but that is not the case, not in the slightest.
First and second-graders are very decisive when it comes to making choices. Friday’s lunch option is the only one where I don’t have to debate with them to come to a decision. The tray is arranged with a slice of cooked/burnt cheese or pepperoni pizza (triangle), precut apple slices, whole or chocolate milk (or as my kids like to call it chocolate white/ chocolate brown), and if you are lucky, an ice cream for dessert (only available with meal #3). During recess, I’m constantly asked to check how much longer till lunch. Quite surprisingly during lunch, no one is interested in consuming much. The cafeteria is filled with sounds of yelling from children who tell jokes to their peers. Teachers constantly ask for the use of inside voices, and you can’t forget the sprinting through aisles.
Twenty-five minutes is up. I make my rounds, announcing our departure. Their faces fill with signs of disappointment and confusion.
“Miss Shakira are you sure lunch is over? It’s been like one minute.”
I don’t fail to enlighten them that in the future they should pick eating over trading Pokémon cards. A Pokémon card is then usually held in my face, “But Miss Shakira, this trade was really important. This card is legendary!”
I smile and reply, “Nice, better keep it somewhere safe now.”
My kiddos form a straight line, and off to our activity period we go. Recess enemies, now friends, walk hand in hand down the hallway. I walk shaking my head in amazement at how lightly they use the words “friend,” or “best friend.” In an instant, the title can be ripped away. We now depart for forty-five minutes. In the minds of children, it seems like an eternity.
If nine months ago anyone had walked up to me and made it apparent that I’d become a teaching assistant, I would probably laugh. Redundantly, throughout the school day, I am flooded with many questions. When will I arrive to retrieve them? When will it be snack time? After reassuring them of my return, I am met with hugs that signify our farewell. I can’t always find the answers to my students’ many questions. I question things too, daily. I wonder why I do the things I do. I find myself in a constant cloud of uncertainty wondering what the solution may be.
In Joan Didion’s essay “Why I Write,” she writes, “Grammar is a piano I play by ear since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power” (4). Like Didion, I find myself getting stuck in recurring stages of uncertainty—of wondering what outcomes follow. While in reality, most issues are better off “played by ear.”
Working with kids offered me a sense of peace. It left no room for worries or doubt. The stresses of returning from school disappeared. Didion talks about writing without the use of structure or grammar. This is how I learned to live my life. Over-structuring life made things unbearable. I had to learn to be okay with change by finding healthy ways of coping. If I hadn’t “played it by ear” and gone out on a limb when applying for this position, I believe I would have been stuck in the same slump of depression. Working with children opened my eyes to a world of possibilities. Their free spirit nature of ignoring failure inspired me to start living carefree. I started by looking through their eyes. I knew I wouldn’t want any of them to feel down about themselves. So, I began to care about my mental health the same way I cared for theirs.
At 4:10 pm, the chime of school bells closes another day. The sound of squeaking shoes fills the hallway. Children scurry through and around the hall with book bags twice their size. Walkers have now been dismissed. Parents make singular lines waiting to extract their children. Buses have begun to arrive. One by one bus numbers are called aloud. Kids begin to make their way out the protruding doors. Tomorrow seems like a lifetime to small adolescents. One last hug until tomorrow my little ducklings.
26, Joan Didion January. “Joan Didion: Why I Write.” Literary Hub, 9 Mar. 2021, https://lithub.com/joan-didion-why-i-write/.