New clothes, new friends, and new advisory classes were in motion, which meant the new school year was underway! And, as true for some years, an imbalance of boys and girls seemed to be the general configuration that semester. It was no surprise to find my advisory roster included 12 boys and only 4 girls; a tremendous disadvantage for the young ladies in seventh grade that particular year.
As a way of building relationships between my students—and knowing the majority of my boys played football—I decided to use the NFL angle to engage the group. It was the mid-90s and Troy Aikman was a rockstar for the Dallas Cowboys, so unbeknownst to him, he would become an unsuspecting ally in my game-plan for building relationships at the middle school level.
In the beginning, I used knowledge of football, players, and events to motivate team-building. Our table groups were named after NFC and AFC teams; current events often revolved around sports updates and highlights; and a fantasy football school-wide competition was established to promote friendly class competitions.
Slowly, I began name-dropping Troy as my "secret boyfriend." The students would giggle, roll their eyes, and basically indulge me in this pseudo-relationship. On many Tuesday mornings following a Monday night football game I would share fictitious conversations I had had with Troy about his game performance and any secret signals he had sent through the TV to show his love and devotion. And as one might expect with young adolescents, mysterious love notes suddenly would appear on my desk "from Troy," complete with Dallas Cowboy ensignia stationary.
The kids were all in and LOVED every moment of this game! They often asked me to relay messages back to Troy as well as invitations to visit our class. I always responded with, "Well, he is pretty busy, but I certainly can ask!" And, as unconventional as this tactic might seem, it truly built peer relationships and bonded our advisory for the year.
As the class "Advisory Mama," as I was affectionately referred to by my students, I often attended events outside of school to support my kiddos. I would cheer them on from the sidelines at sporting events, bring cupcakes to birthday parties, and helped supervise cookie sales for local scout troops. I was even invited to a pet rabbit's funeral, but reluctantly (and secretly relieved) had to decline! In addition to the non-academic responsibilities, I participated in my share of IEP meetings, parent-teacher conferences, and counseling interventions when needed for any of my kidlets. It was at one of these support meetings that my most embarrassing and humbling experiences as an educator transpired.
It was early December, when our school counselor called a convening of teachers, administrators, and support staff who worked with Lucy* (*name has been changed) to discuss her progress, and set new goals for the second semester. As Lucy's advisory teacher I attended the meeting more for moral support, and to attest to her cooperative nature and positive disposition as a learner. Each member of the group took turns sharing Lucy's progress as her parents nodded and smiled.
When it was my turn to share, I echoed many of the team's sentiments and highlighted what a privilege it was to have their daughter in my advisory class. The parents just stared at me. No head nods, no smiles, no comments shared, in fact their body language actually looked somewhat hostile toward me. I was confused, but simply "passed the ball" back to the counselor to wrap up the meeting. As the principal proceeded to thank all participants for coming, and asked the family if there were any last comments or questions, the mother sat up straight and said, "Yes, we would like to have a final word with Ms. Cameli."
The group instantly was silenced by the tone expressed. My body stiffened and I sucked in my breath. Why did they want to talk to me? There's nothing academically-related to advisory, therefore no goals were set on the IEP. And, I had nothing but positive comments to share about their daughter. What could they possibly want? My head was spinning. "Sure", I finally exhaled, "What can I help you with?"
The counselor, unsure of where this conversation was headed, paused the group and excused the other teachers. The principal and counselor remained as I spoke, "Please let me know how I can continue to support Lucy", I invited the parents to share. Their demeanor lacked a friendly vibe, although their daughter sat next to them smiling ear-to-ear, not in a Cheshire cat sense, just her normal happy self, oblivious to the potential conflict.
Her mother broke the silence, "Lucy tells us you know Troy Aikman...", Her husband then interrupted, "...and, we would like you to get us his autograph."
Well, if there was ever a time I needed a proverbial rock to climb under, this was it. I literally could not speak. My principal stood up from the table to leave and gave me the you-got-yourself-into-this-mess-have-fun-getting-yourself-out-of-it look, as the door closed behind her. The counselor was stifling her snickers by trying to sip tea, but had to turn away from the table to compose herself. And as I sat facing these very determined parents who were expecting either an NFL autograph or a viable explanation, I turned every shade of red under the sun. "Um," was literally all I could muster at the time. "Well, it's … um", it was as if I had lost all ability to compose rationale thoughts or interact with human beings. I was dumbstruck.
"Well???" Lucy's mother prodded, while her father leaned his large statured build and tattooed forearms across the table.
"So ... we have been using the NFL as our theme for team-building this year," I tried to explain, "And, well, as a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, I reference Troy … um … Aikman, as a role model for the kids." My words were choppy and I was beginning to sweat. The parents' eyebrows were raised in unison, hanging on my every word waiting for an explanation. "So," I continued, "as a way of personalizing the experience, and to increase enthusiasm for the theme, I pretended to know ... um … Mr. Aikman." I swallowed hard.
"So, you lied to the students?" the father challenged. The mother's eyebrow hiked up another quarter inch.
Realizing this conversation was going south fast, I tried to regroup by inviting Lucy into the conversation, "So, Lucy", I smiled and pleaded, "You do know I'm just playing when we talk about Troy Aikman in class … don't you?" I silently begged, prayed, and sought a higher-power to get me out of this mess. "Oh, sure," the bubbly child responded. I looked at her parents who were not swayed an inch by their daughter's response. So I tried again.
"It appears we have had a slight misunderstanding, and I apologize for any confusion this may have caused Lucy, or either of you," my heart was beating out of my chest as I awaited their response. Her father readjusted in his chair and then just looked down at his hands, but her mother continued to glare. "Well, we just don't think it's right for a teacher to mislead or exaggerate stories since our kids look up to YOU...," she emphasized the last word with a punctuated tone, "...and, if you don't know someone famous, you shouldn't pretend to know them!"
I nodded emphatically, profusely apologized, and did my best to assure these skeptical parents that I would be more responsible with my team-building activities, as well as the characterization of who I knew outside of our small town, while the counselor stood up to see the family out to their car.
By the time the counselor returned, I was a puddle of sobs and blubbering my humiliation while she tossed me a box of tissue and began laughing hysterically! She walked me back from the emotional cliff I was teetering on and got me to giggle at the whole event. The fact that one of our darling students somehow convinced her family that a beloved Advisory Mama was dating an NFL star quarterback, took the "ordinary" out of what should have been a routine IEP meeting!
As the year wrapped up and football season (thank goodness) was on hiatus, Troy naturally faded into the background and eventually off the radar for the students. But what remained was a hard lesson learned, humility acquired, and a long-lost love note tucked into my teacher's planner "from Troy" that will forever be a keepsake from the most memorable faux pas in my middle level teaching years!
Sandy Cameli, Ed.D., long time middle level advocate, currently serves as an educational specialist for the Hawaii Department of Education. She facilitates Na Kumu Alaka'i - Teacher Leader Academy (TLA) and publishes its blog: http://tlahawaii.blogspot.com/.
Published June 2019.