A fast-food chain. I was standing in line, waiting for my Oreo milkshake. There was a group ahead of me, with ages ranging from mid-twenties to mid-sixties, all dressed nicely. Mostly women.

The older group members were wearing pearls and blouses. The younger ones wore modern hairstyles, jeans and tattoos. They were all teachers.

“It’s Teacher Appreciation Week,” one teacher explained. “We’re here because we get free stuff.”

“They give us free burgers today,” said another excited teacher.

“This is a fun week for a teacher,” added another woman. “They have buy-one-get-one deals at all the good restaurants if you show your school ID. My husband is going to take me out every night this week. He just doesn’t know it yet.”

Turns out, the deals for teachers are never ending. All over the U.S., teachers are getting major discounts and freebies this week.

At Barnes and Noble, for example, all teachers get free coffees. At most franchise fast-food joints teachers get free fries, burgers, tots, hot dogs, sandwiches, shakes, cookies, ice cream and apple pies. There are companies offering discounted Caribbean cruises, half-price cellphone plans and even free underpants.

There are deals to be had at AT&T, Michael’s, Levi’s, Vineyard Vines, J. Crew, Verizon and of course, Crocs.

This week at Office Depot, teachers get 20% off. At Dollar General, teachers get 5% off for a whole month. And at select local restaurants, teachers receive free fishbowl margaritas the size of above-ground kiddie pools.

“But they only give you one margarita,” said a teacher. “And that’s not nearly enough for a teacher.”

While my Oreo delight was being whipped to perfection, I asked several of them how they entered into education.

“Oh, I always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” says one. “My mom says I used to line up my dolls in my room like students and boss them around.”

“I was a music major,” says another, “and I finally realized I was not going to make much of a difference in this world playing Chopin.”

The only male among them says he became a teacher because his mother was a teacher.

“Everyone who came to my mom’s funeral said, ‘Man, your mom changed my life,’ or, ‘Your mom made me want to do something with myself.’ So I think I became a teacher because of that.”

But there was one woman at the rear of the group who was older than the rest. She was quiet, reserved and seemed sort of like the team mother. Mid-sixties. Cropped silver hair.

“I went back to school to be a teacher when I turned thirty,” she said. “Everyone said I was crazy. But I just felt like there was something inside me that needed to get out. Can’t explain it.”

Her first job out of college was teaching special-needs kids.

“On my first day, they gave me this boy who had a brain injury from a car accident. He was a sophomore, and he was in bad physical shape.”

It was evident that the young man would likely not graduate with the rest of his classmates; he’d fallen too far behind in his coursework. The teachers didn’t think he would ever catch up.

After all, the young man had other important things to worry about. He had a hard time speaking, writing and reading. He was still relearning basic motor skills.

“It took us five times as long as other students to finish homework,” she said. “It took him longer to understand things because his brain was just not there. When I first started, he came to school wearing a helmet, if that tells you how bad things were.”

After one particularly taxing day, she told the young man that if he wanted to take a break from school, nobody would blame him. But if he wanted to graduate, she promised she was going to do everything within her power to make it happen.

He told her, through labored speech, “I want to graduate with my friends.”

So they worked night and day. He stayed after hours. She visited his house on weekends for private tutoring. Sometimes they ordered pizza and stayed up late into the night so he could understand the finer points of chemistry, history or the veiled mysteries within the systematic hell that is algebra.

“When he walked down the aisle to graduate,” she said, “I was a mess. My makeup was running everywhere. And just when I thought the ceremony was over, the principal called me up to the podium, and I was like, ‘Wait, what’s going on?’”

She made the short walk through the gymnasium and received a standing ovation. The boy’s parents embraced her. The staff shook her hand. The principal gave her a brass award the faculty created just for her.

That was a long time ago, but the plaque still hangs on the wall in her living room where she can always see it.

I asked what became of her student.

“What do you think?” she said. “He’s a teacher now, too.”


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