Friday, November 27, 2009


I used to be one of those people who jockeys for the “best” checkout line at the grocery store. I would approach stealthily, counting the heads I could see above the candy racks, but checking for short customers as well. It’s often the short ones that get you to commit to an aisle before you see them.

If the conveyor belt had a lot of little items on it, that would be a bad aisle. Loaded with larger items (24-pack toilet tissue, large bags of dog food, or, my personal favorite, cases of beer) I knew that the clerk would be able to move it along quickly. It was amazing how much time I would spend analyzing such a small part of my daily existence.

Now I’m a little more relaxed. I don’t purposely aim for the aisle with the doddering or chatty clerk who will slow everything down, or the customer who doesn't begin rummaging through his or her purse or pocket for the debit card until after the grand total is announced . . . I’m not a masochist.

But I pick an aisle and go with the flow. No switching to what appears to be greener pastures once I’ve committed. If things slow down I’ll just read the covers of the silly newspapers and magazines in the racks. Or I’ll wonder how they can charge a buck ninety-nine for my beloved Reese’s peanut butter cup two-pack.

I was subbing in a kindergarten class recently that reminded me of the grocery line competition that we all go through. Really. Bear with me for a moment. As we approached the cafeteria at lunchtime we found a conundrum worthy of the most impacted register at the local Safeway (or Raley’s, or Whole Foods, or the regional food store of your choice). The line was long and it wasn’t moving. There were no options in this, the only, hot lunch line. Trying to move around a slower moving class would have just been rude.

It was the first day of a new ID card system, where the students were expected to walk up to a large display and promptly find their card amongst hundreds. Fact 1: the cards were not grouped logically by class. Fact 2: the font used for the students’ names was tiny. Fact 3: these were five-year-olds I was trying to help. Fact 4: I was the last of four kindergarten classes to get in the line.

Final outcome, half our lunch period was spent waiting in line. Just like when I show up at the store at 5 p.m. to buy a carton of milk and some apples (okay, a six-pack of beer and a box of Bagel Bites) and everyone else has a cart full of a week’s worth of groceries.

On the positive side, by the time we got to the board many of the cards were already taken, so it was a little quicker for us. Still, the pupils were quite antsy. I wondered briefly if these small citizens would be the ones to grow up and bollix up the lines at my neighborhood grocery. We may have been teaching math and reading in class that day, but we certainly weren’t educating them on effective line management skills.

That sub assignment was exasperating, at least during lunch. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I did a four-day stint in 7th and 8th grade P.E. Those kids don’t even know the meaning of the word line. We tried to line up to take attendance but they hovered around like drunken bees. Every time I got eight or ten to stand still, eight or ten others would flit about with their friends.

“Line up!” I’d yell again. Some smart aleck would point out that they are each supposed to stand on one of forty numbers that were laid out in a five by eight grid on the black top. “Fine,” I’d say. “Number up!”

“Number up?” several muttered. Others were tiring and began sitting on their numbers.

“Stand up!” Complaints came from every corner, except for those pupils who had already wandered off. I’d lost control. Line up, number up, stand up, none of it was working, so I went with my standard response. The one that indicates I have lost all control.

“Shut up!”

They hadn’t lined, numbered, or stood, so of course they didn’t shut either. Finally, I did what any self-respecting substitute teacher would do: I handed the roster to a future Employee of the Month grocery store clerk and asked her to mark down anyone she couldn’t see.

She would learn some valuable inventory skills, and the knuckleheads would get some practice lining up for detention.

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