Not how I intended to start this post, full of sage wisdom, but true nonetheless. I was making part of a friend’s birthday present last week and as I was cutting strips of paper I started to feel the wet cement of sadness filling my eyes and ears, making my breath stick to my ribs. When I paused to question what was happening, I realized that I was cutting the strips in the shape of bulletin board borders. July is almost over. I will not be back in the classroom in a few weeks, yet the habit body is deeply entrenched. I find myself slowing down, frantically planning for last minute details, and starting to draw a ritual deep breath…for nothing.
People get plenty of permission to be sad after a death or a romantic breakup, but try leaving a job, a city, a faith, and not only are you supposed to have a plan, but you are supposed to be excited about it. Even if you have a dear and varied tribe that encourages you to feel your feelings, it doesn’t quite make sense in the face of a lifetime of absorbed lessons. There is no free pass for therapy shopping, therapy eating, or even just therapy. There is definitely less patience for emotional landmines.
When my first ever boyfriend dumped me, after two days of crying and not eating, I came into the kitchen for some food and the dish soap had sunflowers on the bottle. My alarmed roommate entered a few minutes later to find me clutching the bottle to my chest and wailing. “Ran-dall uuuuused to call me….SUNFLOWER!!!” I answered in reply to her question. I promptly went back to bed for another few days. Years later, I am currently watching a friend go through the same thing, never knowing when a great undertow of sadness will suddenly unseat her. It’s both an exasperating part of healing and a testament to how deeply you’ve let the love enter.
Thus, instead of running from the stirrings this week, I am trying to let them take up whatever space they need. In service of that I thought I’d share a (partial) list of landmines I expect I will trip over this year:
1. Free food (I know, y’all thought I was going to start out all heavy)–There will be a point this year when someone gives me food I didn’t expect on a long or trying day and I will lose my shit. It’s not the food itself that I will miss. At most schools, with maybe the exception of my last one, it was 90% junk food. It was the knowledge that someone thought of you, someone approached you with generosity instead of expectation. I find this especially true when parents cook for teachers. I always thought that, despite their occasional dives off the deep end, this plate of brownies or PTA lunch was their way of saying: “You have a part of my child’s life in your hands. He/she/they are my best thing. I don’t know how to do what you do. Even after you do what you do, I’m not sure if I know the depth and breadth of what you’ve done. But I trust you, even if it’s just because I have to. And I’m grateful.” I know that’s a lot to project on a plate of brownies, but snacks during the school day are pretty important.
2. Classroom control–whatever job/s I do this year, I know I’m going to have to answer to a lot more people than I am used to. I am sure there will come multiple moments when I have a great idea on how to do a job better and am ignored. I can taste the anger and panic at the back of my throat of, “I could’ve done it better.” I know this is a criticism of education, but it’s also true that the more years you’ve taught, the less micromanagement is exercised as long as you have basic classroom management: aka if the principal doesn’t get complaints, you’re pretty safe in teaching how you see fit. I know some people may think, “But wait, don’t we always hear about teachers having to spend so much time on test prep??” I am telling you folks that I have not paid more than a sideways glance to test prep in years and am none the worse for tongue lashings.
3. Awkward adolescent humor–I will hear a story, either through Facebook or in person, about the weird and funny thing a teenager did. I will laugh, and then I will get the same sharp pain in my chest that I get now when I realize that I have not known anyone with a pet potato in months, no one has offered to make me a duct tape purse, no one at my current work clucks like a chicken when they are bored or makes drawings of their colleagues to tape to chairs when someone is out for the day. For all the time they pretend that they’re grown–teenagers still have remarkable access to the unfiltered if someone they love and trust will play with them. I will have to fill my hunger to play elsewhere for the time being.
4. Always being right if I choose–I wish I could say I was enlightened enough to not miss this one, but then I would be a liar-pants-on-fire. Even now it feels traitorous to say, but for the most part teachers stick together, even when we shouldn’t. I’ve tried to run my classroom fairly, consciously, humanely, but I’ve also done and said petty things to kids, probably lost some of the papers I’ve been accused of losing, and ignored some things that should not have been ignored. Do we keep our mouths shut because we’re all so tired? Maybe. I suspect partly we’re afraid to admit our own inconsistencies lest the whole system crumble. Regardless of where this “all in/all out” mentality comes from, the result is the same. The most accountability I’m ever called to outside of testing takes one of two forms: a colleague saying, “Maybe you should have (fill in the blank) but it’s not your fault (fill in the excuses)” or an administrator saying, “I know this parent is (fill in the negative adjective) but I have to let you know (fill in the vaguely worded slap on the wrist).” Maybe I am wrong, but I think other jobs will require more real-time accountability. Do I have the humility for that, or will I find myself saying, “They just don’t understand…”
Side note: I am glad to hear any group of people condemn police brutality, but I am personally shocked to hear the it-would-never-happen-to-me self-righteous fervor of teachers condemning them. The theft of life should always be sickening, but if we are honest with ourselves, teachers understand where and how that sickness starts.
5. Creating–we are always creating something new, every moment, whether we are aware of it or not, but I was aware of it almost all the time on campus. The creation of a new curriculum, the creation of a new teacher who can finally handle the dreaded sixth period without intervention, the creation of a student who actually likes you after branding you a bitch since August. These creations don’t solve all the problems, but they are miniature miracles and they are everywhere when you are looking. There will be more than once this year when I will create something new. I’ll get that delicious, this is going to be awesome feeling, and either the audience for whom I am creating will be less visible, or they’ll havefewer pressing needs than a room full of thirteen year olds, and I will miss bringing my best gifts to a room that needs them.
Through all these landmines, after the blasts detonate and the emotions move through, there will come the same quiet that comes toward the end of every breakup. In that quiet I come back to something very important, gently and clearly, over and over again. The things I miss about the person/job/faith/city are less about the individual or thing in question, and more about the experience of being deeply connected, aware, and thankful. I may circle back to that thing I miss at a different time, as a different me. It is equally true that some breakups are forever. What I won’t do is let the reality of landmines decide the journey–past, present, or future.