The Great Gum Ball Caper

  • David Hoffman

    (Or Something to Chew On While Awaiting Conferences)

    When I was a fifth grader, I was sure I had the best teacher in the world. While I would like to say she was a great instructor because she challenged me to do my best, inspired me to become an educator, or introduced me to Shakespeare at an impressionable age, I must confess that her revered status is attributed to one simple fact — she allowed her students to chew gum in class!  And not just generic Juicy Fruit or stock Spearmint, but jaw gnawing, cow-chomping, molar masticating, teeth thrashing bubble gum.

    When Mrs. Richardson announced on the first day of school that we could chew gum as long as it did not end up on the floor, I remember thinking I had died and gone to Willy Wonka Wonderland. 

    Like Wonka’s visitor, Violet Beauregarde, once we started our gum chewing habit, we couldn’t quit. While we incessantly chewed Double Bubble, Bazooka, and Rainbow brands, our favorite was Bubs Daddy.  Bubs Daddy was a two feet long rope of bubble gum that came in regular, cherry, grape and apple flavors.  The meat of the sweet was covered with a light dusting of powdered sugar.  It was a gum squashers Shangri-La.

    Unlike Violet, who stored her ABC (already-been-chewed) gum behind her ear, we... well, how should I tastefully say this?... collected our used gobs of gum and started making one grand-sized gumball.

    If you have ever read Homer Price by Robert McCloskey, you will recall the chapter in which the citizens of Homer’s town create a giant ball of string and proudly parade it down the street.  We had no intention of showing off our creation.  We kept our sticky construction a secret.  Each day, usually when Mrs. Richardson was reading from a chapter book, we would surreptitiously pass our ABC gum to an appointed alchemist who magically transformed our small gum-based globs into a near globe-sized gumball.  The sticky sphere soon looked like one of those swirly-patterned bowling balls, sans finger holes. 

    By the time Thanksgiving rolled around; it was getting harder and harder to hide the giant gumball which we had fondly christened, Gummy. Our desks had hinged tops that, when lifted, exposed deep storage space. Gummy had grown so large it occupied the entire interior of an extra desk.

    And then, the bubble burst. Just as we had become quite attached to our pet gumball, Gummy became quite attached to the interior of the desk.  You might say the massive blob was cemented to the space it rented.

    After a lot of blaming and finger pointing, we calmed down and devised a plan.  We knew we couldn’t smuggle Gummy’s desk out of the school.  Kids brought assignments, friends, and uneaten lunch home from school. They did not bring school furniture home! Accordingly, if we couldn’t get the desk out of the school, we would have to get Gummy out of the desk.

    Billy Barber, known for his ingenuity and entrepreneurial prowess (his claim to fame was making and selling contraband cinnamon-flavored toothpicks) concocted a crowbar out of an amalgamation of rulers, pens, tape and other school supplies. When Mrs. Richardson finally stepped out of the room for a moment, he pried open Gummy’s roof and then chiseled out our chewed-up chum.

    Cindy Messinbrink, never one to pack homework, had ample space in her knapsack to accommodate the sticky stow-away. She took Gummy home with her, where, according to legend, the great gumball was a welcomed Thanksgiving guest.

    We had learned our lesson. Though we continued to exercise our jaws, we also started practicing ABC etiquette—the wastebasket became our gum-drop.


    And now, a very tenuous gumball connection (dare I say a stretched out association?).

    This is the time of the school year when teachers, parents and students sit down together to discuss academic and social progress. Conferences present a wonderful opportunity for you to ask questions, share relevant information, celebrate accomplishments and set short and long term goals. Teachers enjoy sharing work samples, assessments, classroom observations, and progress card information during these short, but important meetings.

    Conferences are also a time for honesty and openness.  While teachers are eager to make your child’s strengths known, they may also need to share real concerns without sugar coating them.  Likewise, it is your chance to share successes and concerns.

    A small issue that is not addressed is like that small piece of gum.  You chew on it and chew on it and it becomes less and less flavorful.  Concerns that are left unsaid and hidden away, soon grow in size, merge with other unrelated worries, and eventually become very sticky situations. 

    Together, like my fifth grade classmates, we can creatively and calmly design solutions to potential challenges. We can use meeting times to collect, share, examine and piece together data to expand our sphere of understanding of your child as a learner.

    Here a few other things to chew on while waiting to conference with your child’s teacher and review progress reports: 

    • Spend time focusing on the positive aspects of your child’s growth so far this year and set one or two attainable goals for the next trimester.
    • The difference between a 3 and 4 or a 2.5 and 3 is not monumental in the big scheme of a child’s elementary school education.
    • The purpose of a progress report is to provide parents and children with an update on how they are doing at this point in the school year. It is not determinative of how they will do for the rest of their school year.
    • We still have the majority of the school year to go, which leaves time for growth and improvement.
    • A child should not be defined by a progress report.  He or she is a wonderfully complex individual with the capacity to positively impact the world through the use of both head and heart.

    We are so fortunate to have a dedicated Island Park staff who works hard to know and educate children.  Conferences are a productive way to find common ground, calibrate expectations, and communicate ways to help our children reach their giant gumball sized potentials. 


    David Hoffman