I’m conflicted about Career Day. On the one hand, the fact that your daughter wants you in her classroom serves as a nice reminder that she still considers you relevant and, on a good day, perhaps slightly interesting. On the other, when you ask her what it is that she thinks you do and she stares blankly at you, eventually stuttering, “Well … [long pause] you … [longer pause] talk on the phone … [long pause] and type,” you realize the enormity of the task ahead. This became painfully apparent when I received the note from Caroline’s teacher asking what it is that I do.
On a good day, in a room full of attentive adults, if I’m given roughly 5 minutes of uninterrupted time, I can successfully communicate the essence of my job to about 50% of the attendees. Unfortunately, my audience last Thursday consisted of 24 second graders. And Ms. Lupton wanted a one-sentence explanation so that she could prepare the class before I came in.
I stumbled through a written response that ended with the recommendation that she simply tell the kids I was a Vice President at a company. I figured the title would at least sound familiar to them since they recently completed a social studies section on the structure of the U.S. government.
Upon learning I was a Vice President, Caroline’s eyes widened, and she said, “I didn’t know you were a Vice President! You’re important!” I assured her that I wasn’t. She didn’t argue with me.
* * *
Caroline woke up on Career Day full of instructions. She had to tell me how to get to the classroom from the front door. (She apparently didn’t trust school personnel to direct me there accurately, which, in retrospect, should worry me.) She warned me that she was going to rush over and hug me when I got there. She quizzed me on my arrival time. By the time she climbed on the bus, I had been thoroughly prepped.
I then went into my closet and started pulling out the small museum of prosthetic parts I’ve accumulated over the years: knees; feet; foot shells; sockets. I tossed them all into a duffel bag and for good measure slung my running leg over my other shoulder.
As I walked in just before noon, I wondered if Security would jump a middle-aged man stomping into a building with a black duffel bag. The thought occurred to me as I pulled the door open that it might have been smart to call ahead. The guard just inside the entrance raised his eyebrows as he peered down at me from his 6’7″ frame. “Um, yeah,” I said. “This doesn’t necessarily look good, coming in with a bag like this. It’s full of prosthetic parts for artificial legs.” He smiled and started asking some questions about the running leg in my other hand. Crisis averted.
From there, I was sent to Caroline’s classroom, which proved not at all difficult to find. Upon entering, I was greeted by 24 kids, all peering intently at my blue jeans trying to figure out what freakish secret lay underneath.
Ms. Lupton introduced me as a businessman, which, upon reflection, made more sense than “Vice President.”
I then spent two minutes unsuccessfully trying to explain what my job specifically entails. Being met with blank stares, I quickly gave up and told the story of how I got into this line of work. From this I learned an important fact: kids find car accident stories enthralling. Their attention now completely focused on the guy who got his leg cut off because a car hit him, I broke out the props. I passed around prosthetic feet and knees. I stacked knee atop foot, and socket above knee to show them what a finished prosthesis for an above-knee amputee looks like. They loved it, though the demo did have one unexpected effect: most of the kids thought that I actually make these components. My explanations to the contrary fell on deaf ears. Sometimes the best story is the one that’s easiest to understand.
We ended with Caroline pulling up my pant leg to reveal my current prosthesis. She also got to demonstrate how wearing a prosthetic leg can convey certain advantages, such as the inability to feel pain. After getting my permission, she kicked me as hard as she could, falling to the ground and holding her foot while shouting in mock pain while her friends laughed.
When Caroline came home from school that afternoon, I asked her if she and her friends had fun at Career Day. She grinned and nodded. And with that, I thought my work was done.
The highlight for me, however, came the next day, when Caroline came home from school with a sheaf of papers from her and her classmates. I flipped through them, fascinated by the letters every child had written:
“I want that.”
“The robot legs are awesome. I think that being a businessman is so cool.”
“Thank you for coming to our class and showing us the fake body parts that you brought in.”
“It must be scary when you get a part of your body cut off. Thank you very much!”
“I really like all of your robot legs. They look very special to you and very very very expensive.” [True.]
“Thank you for letting us hold the fake feet. It scared me very much. Thank you!” [Not often you get thanked by a second grader for scaring them.]
“I loved the legs you showed us. I want to lose a leg!” [Um … no. You don’t. Trust me.]
“The things like the fake foot looked and felt a little weird and I sit next to Caroline.” [Not sure I understand the correlation between feeling weird and sitting next to my daughter, but great, I guess.]
“Thank you for bringing in body parts.” [Oh dear. This kid’s parents think that I’m in the black market for kidneys.]
“It was really funny when Caroline kicked your leg and it didn’t hurt you but it hurt Caroline.” [Watching your peers writhe in pain is funny when you’re in second grade.]
Thank you for coming to Career Day. My friends thought you were FANTASTIC!! So did I. They loved how you passed everything out. I loved when you let me be your volunteer. They loved when I kicked your leg. I love you. Thank you for coming to my Career Day. I love you.
Suddenly, not being able to explain what the hell I do didn’t seem so important.