First grade is a hot mess.

I've been volunteering in Eliot's school this year. I started with two hours a week in the library, which has been great. My favorite task is choosing books to pull from the shelves and display, and when kids check out the books I've pulled, my heart is happy. I like filling requests for books about horses, or snowmen, or bats and spiders, or whatever particular subject is making them curious that day; I like telling them, "Yes, there's a book about that!," and then leading them to its home on the shelf. I like sending them away with my own favorites, storybook gems they might not otherwise discover, like The House in the Night or It Looked Like Spilt Milk. I like reshelving books or clipping and sorting Boxtops for Education while listening to the librarian read to the whole class, her story inevitably punctuated by raised hands and excited, total non sequitur exclamations like, "My grandpa took me fishing once!" in response to a story about the Gingerbread Man.

I like that every time I walk through the halls of the elementary school, I'm an immediate celebrity. First-graders nudge and whisper to one another behind their hands, "Psst...That's Eliot's mom!" or call out to me, "Hi, Eliot's mom!" with gleaming faces as I pass by.

On Tuesday mornings, I spend an hour in Eliot's classroom, helping kids one-on-one with their reading or math. His teacher (we'll call her Mrs. Teacher), has specific tasks ready for me to help with, a list of sight words to help children practice at a desk in the hallway, sets of flashcards to go through with certain students. This week, I walked into the classroom at my appointed time, and Mrs. Teacher wasn't there. A substitute explained that Mrs. Teacher was in a meeting and hadn't left any instructions for me.

I probably could have just turned and walked away at that point. All my spidey-senses were telling me to run, but alas, I saw Eliot sitting at his table, grinning widely at me, delighted as ever to have me there in his classroom, if only for an hour. I stayed. Substitute was working with a group of about eight kids on a reading project of some sort, and the other students, around 14 or 15 of them, were split into groups, busy working at "stations." A timer went off at intervals, signaling to the children to go to the next learning station in their rotation. For about five minutes after I entered the room, everything was peaceful. Groups of kids were reading to themselves, reading in small groups, drawing, writing sentences, etc. There didn't seem to be anything in particular for me to do, so I walked around, casually observing. I sat down at a table next to a little boy drawing a picture on a worksheet, and said, "Hey, there. Whatchya drawin?" Mistake.

Within seconds, the delicate balance tipped, and the class descended into chaos. Apparently, giving a first-grader unsolicited attention of any kind immediately signals to all the other children in the vicinity that attention is being given. SHE IS GIVING AWAY FREE ATTENTION! I WOULD LIKE SOME FREE ATTENTION AS WELL! This is what happened in the brain of each little girl and boy within minutes of me striking up a conversation with that one kid, whom we'll call Tom. We'll call all the boys Tom and all the girls Susan, for the sake of expediency and protecting the privacy of the not-so-innocent.

So, as Tom is explaining to me his lovely drawing, which features him playing his favorite video game, I look up to see Tom holding a book high over his head, trying to keep it away from Tom, who is jumping and grasping at the air trying to get it while a third Tom tackles the knees of the first Tom, and soon they are all three wrestling on the floor, in a death match to determine who will get the book. Susan has appeared from nowhere and is tugging on my hand, pleading, "Will you READ to ME? I need you to sit by me at my desk!"

Mere feet away, Tom has thrown all the red laminated flashcards on the ground and is stomping on them, while two Susans yell at him to stop. Susan taps the glass aquarium of the class tarantula and yells to me from across the room, "Mrs....*breathy exhalation of air that moves her bangs out of her face* Mrs. Eliot's Mom, did you know that A SPIDER IS NOT AN INSECT IT IS AN ARACHNID?!"

I'm casting my eyes wildly about, trying to assess which situation needs my attention first (I'm thinking it's the three wrestling Toms), and Substitute remains blissfully unaware of the growing noise level as she works in the corner with her reading group. Eliot looks up from the book he's reading silently to himself and catches my eye. He smiles and waves and goes back to reading, an oasis of calm in the eye of a first-grade hurricane as Tom, and Tom, and Tom, and Tom, and Susans meltdown all over the damn place around him.

Tom tugs on my sleeve and complains, "Tom called me a bully!"
"No I didn't! You said it to me first!"
"He said the word 'kill'!"
"YOU said 'kill'!"
"Tom is sticking his tongue out at me!"

I take a deep breath and exhale a series of admonitions as I lunge across the room towards the wrestling Toms: "No name calling don't look at Tom we don't say words that make our friends uncomfortable and that IS NOT THE WAY WE TREAT BOOKS!" I blurt, shaking off Susans and pulling apart Toms.

The timer goes off and the kids all drop what they are doing and switch places, except for Susan at the aquarium, gazing at the tarantula. I sidle up to her and ask, "Susan, which station are you supposed to be at?" She ignores my question and whispers, pointing, "This corner is where she keeps the dead bodies." I look, and sure enough, in the back corner of the aquarium is a pile of empty insect husks. I grimace and say, "Ugh. That's pretty gross."

"It's not gross," Susan tells me solemnly, "It's just what spiders do."

I look over at Eliot, now drawing a picture of his favorite activity on his worksheet, and he smiles at me and shrugs.

I have a feeling I'm going to hear that timer dinging in my nightmares.