It was the third day of the first week of my fourth year of teaching seventh grade. My students, whose names I was still trying to learn, were taking a beginning-of-the-year benchmark test, and, since it was the beginning of the year, I had nothing to do but pace the classroom and monitor them.
The students were studious. They were quiet and focused on their compositions, and the classroom was filled with the soft scratchings of mechanical pencils and the occasional honk, honk, honk of an eraser being rubbed across a misspelled word. My mind had begun to drift off to more pleasant locations when the boy in the desk in the front corner of the room caught my attention. His pencil did not scratch. His eraser did not go honk, honk, honk. His head was bent low over his paper. His hands were drawn close to his face. I worried he might be crying.
I made my way over to the boy’s desk and kneeled down next to him in the compassionate crouch which I had perfected during my first three years as a teacher. (I use the one-knee-on-the-floor-sports-team-photo-pose for best balance and least chance of wardrobe malfunction.) I saw that the boy was not crying, but he did seem somewhat distressed. His hands hid his eyes from me. There was nothing written on his paper.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, tapping the blank page with my hand.
“I just, I can’t get it out,” he said.
Ah, how poetic, I thought. He can’t get his ideas out of his head. “Well, why don’t we look at the prompt again,” I said. “Maybe…”
“No,” he said. “It’s stuck.”
At that point I took a good look at what was occupying this boy’s hands, and it’s a good thing I was already in my sports-team-photo-pose on the floor because for the first time in my life, my knees went weak.
The boy’s hands were gently tugging an un-bent paper clip, which was lodged in his right eye.
The next unprofessional words out of my mouth were, “Oh my God.” Before I could come up with a game plan (this situation had not been covered during ANY of our inservice days) he said, “Can I go to the bathroom?” and I said, “Yes! Of course!”
About two seconds after he left the classroom, I realized, standing on shaky legs, that I probably shouldn’t have said yes. I called the school nurse, told her what was going on, and she and I both arrived at the door of the boys’ bathroom just as the student was coming back out, the paper clip now resting in the palm of his hand.
The nurse took a quick look at his eye and saw no damage. Then we both asked the million dollar question. How did it get in there?!
The student admitted in a hang-dog, mumbly sort of way that he got bored with his benchmark test, so he un-bent the paper clip on the test booklet, made a small hook on one end, and hung it from his lower eyelid so that he could swing his head back and forth and watch it dangle. Then, somehow, the sharp metal end of the paper clip had become wedged in his eye.
The nurse and I gave each other that Oh my God, this is the future of our country look that all educators have mastered, while the boy shrugged and went back to his seat.
The rest of the students (who knew nothing at all about what had occurred—it was a near-silent near-catastrophe) continued scratch-scratch-scratching and honk-honk-honking their compositions while I sat behind my desk waiting for normal feeling to return to my legs. Later, during my lunch break, I made a phone call to the boy’s dad, leaving a rambling message about how his son had gotten a paper clip stuck in his eye at school and that it was out now and the nurse thought he would be fine, but he should probably be talked to about making good decisions. I never heard back from him.
By the end of the day, I had shared all the gruesome details with my coworkers. They, naturally, found it hilarious. For the rest of the school year, they left fake eyeballs on my desk and tons of paper clips. They continually reminded me that I needed to keep a better eye on my pupils.
But the strangest thing about story of The Eyeball and The Paper Clip is that it really isn’t that strange at all. When you teach thirteen-year-olds, you see (and hear) some pretty crazy stuff.