I suppose, at first glance, my school’s teacher’s lounge is similar to the break room at any other workplace. People drift in and out, checking for free food, using (but not cleaning) the microwave, coffee pot, or fridge, and leaving Avon catalogs and outdated newspapers lying around. The air is filled with the smell of burnt coffee, procrastination, and the depressing thought that despite our best efforts, the world of tomorrow will be run by the youth of today. However, there is one unique item that makes my typical, unassuming teacher’s lounge unlike any other. On the wall to the left of an ancient, unused two-burner stove, hangs a monument to teachers past, present, and future: the Coffee Mug Collection: an ancient pegboard with more than enough wooden dowels to hang over 40 coffee mugs of assorted backgrounds and descriptions.
I hypothesize that the Coffee Mug Wall must have begun (like so many public school facilities) as a result of budget cuts, eliminating Styrofoam cup distribution to over-stressed, caffeine-addicted teachers. As a result, perhaps a kindly old secretary thought she might bring a few of her floral-patterned cups from home to lend out. Probably thinking, “these youngsters’ mothers mustn’t have decent cups, the poor dears.” Others soon followed her lead, arriving at school with unused coffee-drinking detritus from the backs of their kitchen cabinets. Seeing the collection of mugs accumulating on the counter, a handy maintenance man decided to simultaneously get rid of an old pegboard AND cover up that hole in the cinderblock he had no idea how to fix, and the layering of mugs on the wall officially began.
Upon observation, one can see a variety of different styles of mugs on the wall, ranging from the easily forgettable floral or Christmas pattern (most likely a gift from an office-mate or other casual acquaintance) to the completely bizarre (I’ll describe those in more detail in a moment – I know you can’t wait). Many advertise various special events or private companies, telling me a middle-aged teacher cleaned her cupboards one weekend, saying to her husband “Mort, how many mugs do we have advertising Abe Froman and Associates’ semi-annual Frisbee throw to benefit orphan quadriplegic exotic bird owners? Perhaps I’ll take some to school.” There are the other expected mugs sporting pseudo-witty sayings (I Drink Therefore I am), showcasing the drinker’s high stress level (Bitch’s Coffee, Stay Away), love of cats (Cat People Rule), or unpleasant attitude that may result if he or she were deprived of caffeine (Don’t Stand in the Way of Coffee Consumption or I Will Stomp Your Ass).
The quirkier mugs are my favorite though, and I couldn’t help but wonder what types of people owned them previously. One has the entire US constitution written on it, complete in the script of Thomas Jefferson, big enough to allow the whole thing to be readable. I envision its former owner as the I’m-ready-to-retire American history teacher, vaguely resembling a cross between Mr. Rogers, my father, and the late bearded Civil War historian Shelby Foote. Clad in shirt, tie, and sweater vest, he would transfer his coffee from his 1981 plaid Thermos to his Constitution cup every morning, hoping to enthrall his students with the summative details of Churchill’s last moves during the final hours of World War II, or why Stonewall Jackson really believed he had to hold his left arm over his head to ward off evil spirits (or something like that). Another bizarre mug is an extremely clunky rendition of a tree trunk with a climbing black bear attached as a handle. Upon picking up this mug, it’s easy to see why someone discarded it. The sheer weight and complete lack of ergonomic styling was painfully impressive. The final mug that caught my eye was the “Official Left Hander’s Mug” with the handle on the “opposite side.” Hardy-har-har. It was almost as if the mug itself was immensely proud of its own wit. It was evidently purchased by the “funny uncle” of some unfortunate left-handed teacher, who dared not display such flamboyant dorkiness to his high school students, lest he be tarred and feathered before the end of September.
So although mugs continue to collect dust and become even less appealing beverage receptacles than when many first came to hang on the Mug Wall, they do have a special purpose. At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, they represent the efforts of those who confront daily the daunting task of inspiring America’s youth to become great thinkers, leaders, and creators. The Mugs hold the hot “Elixer of Life” that maintains the motivation to plow through 125 handwritten essays or negotiate with technological equipment suffering from permanent performance anxiety. It warms hands on days when the rain was just freezing enough to be miserable but not quite frozen enough for a snow day. If it lifts spirits just to the point of being able to ignore the implosion of the world from the multitude of insane youth we continue to introduce to society, then it’s doing its job. Because we just keep trying to make the world a better place, one rebellious teenager at a time, and you just can’t accomplish a goal that lofty drinking out of a Styrofoam cup.