Usually sometime after the Fourth of July “back to school” signs begin to creep into stores and advertisements, and with it the slow grip of anxiety begins to tighten in the heart of every teacher. Leading up to this fall, however, my heart has skipped a little beat whenever I see it, because it has no hold on me. People ask again and again, “are you sad you’re not teaching?” or “do you miss it?” The answer, candidly is no. Not at all. I miss people. I miss certain classes of students from years gone by, certain experiences I will always treasure. But Ms. Jones, an identity I cherished for so long, is decidedly gone.
I remember the exact moment Ms. Jones was born. After months of preparation, trepidation, planning, and envisioning, she had left the early morning faculty meeting on the first day of school with a small group colleagues and one by one they had broken off into their own classrooms and she stood alone in her own classroom. She had meticulously decorated for maximum autumnal excitement, leaves the color of fire crowning the blackboard and whiteboard. Her favorite detail was a bouquet of freshly sharpened pencil of rom-com fame, tied with a shiny orange bow next to the sharpener. Students began to trickle in accompanied by their parents and one by one the names on a roster became faces on a seat. She stood in awkward, uncomfortable silence and smiling through her fears as she saw in their faces the same trepidation and questions on their first day of middle school. Then the bell rang and in an instant she realized that she was the only adult in the room. The classroom was hers, the students were hers, and Ms. Jones was born.
It wasn’t long before Ms. Jones began to take form. She sat at her desk as another class met in her classroom and one little boy, crinkled his eyes through spectacles and grinned a crooked smile with a shy wave. One by one the students expanded her heart and the ones that flew under the radar she made attempts to talk to and connect with. They read together, they discussed, they put on skits, they had inside jokes. Of course, being middle school, there were many, many tears. The first time a student cried she felt her own heart breaking. By the end of the year, had mastered the art of the reassuring shoulder pat, the subtle slip of the kleenex, and the send off down the hall to the bathroom to wash up. They left the echo of their voices and the shadow in their faces when the classroom emptied out at the end of the day. She wiped down each desk, thinking of its occupant and replaying the outlandish moments of the day. She worked late into the night, preparing for the following day, excited to return and brimming with new ideas. In conversation, her students became “my kids” and she mourned their absence on days of faculty in-service and professional development. She screamed at referees along with their mothers, and cried with their mothers at parent teacher conferences. Her desk became the watercooler at breaks and after school, she learned to nod with interest at long accounts of video games and sports. She spent class periods on gingerbread houses and Christmas tree decorating. In the spring she began to lament the year passing quickly and savored each day. By the end of the year she tried to be brave as the final bell rang and she held a cluster of crying middle school girls while the boys ran down the hallway without a backwards glance.
I remember the exact moment that Ms. Jones died. Nine years and three schools had passed, and soured in later years with the difficult parents, administrators, occasionally even a student who knew their parents would believe their complaints and the administration would believe the tuition checks that parents waved in front of them. The toxicity of a broken system had begun to take its toll in the last few years mentality, and the toxicity of a broken building, fetid with flood residue swept, literally and figuratively, under the rug lay siege to her already asthmatic body. The autonomy of a class in her subject of specialty had taken a backseat to the interdisciplinary team teaching model, meaning that she often received parental and administrative backlash for decisions she didn’t make, and had to relegate the literary works she most loved to a hurried, rushed corner of the curriculum subject to the greater agenda of the class. Backed into a corner one evening, she had no choice but to post a spark notes summary of a beloved literary work so that the students could get the historical reference, but not linger on the text. The moment she hit “post” to the class site, she knew it was over. The love had died, and the spark was extinguished, and she had to start the long process of changing course. She gathered from the shelves of her desk, her most beloved texts from college: Faber’s “Beowulf” in Old English, “the Canterbury Tales” in Middle English, and others, and took them home, safe where they belonged. Of course, at that point there was no way of knowing that by late April, the physical deterioration would have taken a toll so great that long term subs would be running the show the last 6 weeks of the year.
In those painful last years, I hated Ms. Jones for not being strong enough, not being capable enough, not being confident enough like the other teachers that can walk into a room and immediately command an audience. Now that she’s gone, I think of her more kindly. I know she tried her best. I know there were schools and eras and days where she showed up every morning invigorated and excited to share the treasures on the syllabus for that day. I know she genuinely loved her students more than anything. But I don’t think I will miss her.