Each August, I climb the silent stairs listening as my own footsteps echo with each step I take. In my arms is a box of teaching materials that I took home with me back in June. I've spent hours on end perfecting each unit from the year before, culling the material down, distilling the information that needs to be taught until it fits neatly on a sheet of paper. My mind worked overtime deciding how best to teach each skill so that my students would not only understand it, but could also see its value and how to apply it in real life. "I cannot stand next to you," I often remind them, "when you are taking that state test or when the professor asks you what you know about poetry or when life demands that you read something difficult in order to get that job or that house or that car that you want. What will you do then? Will you know what to do? You can cheat now, but you can't cheat at life and win each time."
I reach the 3rd floor landing and the air temperature, although warm and "close" throughout the building, is decidedly higher here. It's only 8:00 am but I've already got circles under my armpits. "And I'm going to wear a skirt and dress shirt and possibly a suit jacket on the first day of school? Next week? In these temperatures? So that I look professional and feel confident in front of my new students? Am I crazy?"
Once inside my room, I open all the windows in a futile attempt at allowing cool air in and hot air out. I click on a few electric fans hoping that will help, too. I cross the room to my closet and find the bent key on the ring that has been housed in an envelope in the vice-principal's office for two months now. I open the door and find the box labeled "Decorations". On the top of the box are sheets of acid free oak tag with pictures attached. They are Senior pictures representing many of the classes I have taught over my career. I hunt for my container of push pins and begin the process that I do each year. That first year I only got one Senior picture. Marc. A boy who wanted to become an automobile engineer. The next sheet holds the picture of a boy who shot himself on my daughter's birthday. I went to the funeral home to visit his friends and family. I introduced myself to his girlfriend's mom. "I was Billy's English teacher," I said in what I hoped was a tone that conveyed my deep grief and bewilderment. The girlfriend looked up at me in panic and corrected me. "No, she means she IS Billy's English teacher." How do you reply to that? How can you console someone who has had this kind of loss? How can you reach students who have this to deal with?
Each sheet comes out of my "decorations" box and each sheet has a memory associated with it. Some are memories that make me laugh. Others make me want to cry. There are faces that I never saw again once they left our doors and there are others that I see every year at the county fair or when I go to the mall or stop by to pick up something from the auto repair store.
The ones that stick with me are often the ones that make me come back each day and each month and each year. There's Molly who is in college now, working towards a degree in early childhood education. I ran into her a few years ago at a community picnic. She was with a Head Start class, chaperoning them, because she volunteers there in her downtime. As I hugged her and stepped back to get a good look at her I was reminded of where she had been just a few years earlier. Poor. Black. From a broken home. Barely able to read or write. But her spirit....that was something that set her apart. She was determined not to let any of that bring her down. She worked hard to overcome her setbacks. Looking at her now you would never guess that one of her closest friends in high school who was 8 months pregnant at the time had been murdered....her throat slit from ear to ear....and 2 other members of her family with her supposedly over a drug debt. And Molly was supposed to be there that night. By some stroke of luck....luck? or divine providence?....something interfered and she stayed home. It might have saved her life. And now she is telling me how much of an inspiration I was to her. Yeah...she's got that twisted.
At the same community picnic, a little later in the day, I run into Andrea. She looks much the same as she did just 3 years earlier only now she's smiling. When she was a Senior in my English class, she rarely spoke, didn't register much emotion, barely looked at me or her classmates. Now here she stands....beaming. I give her a hug too and ask how she's doing. She's in college, too. A psychology major. She wants to help others who are like she was. She wants to make room for those people to share their feelings like I did when I gave her those writing assignments and then wrote long comments back to her. And do I remember that? I smile at her. Of course I do. And I give her my best wishes as she thanks me for what I did for her. Again....I think she's got it twisted.
I have pulled out the last of the picture sheets and am tacking it up on my board. Looking at all those young faces filled with hope, I know that many of them will not do or be what they originally wanted to do or be, but I pray that what I have given them in some small part has helped them to get a little farther down the road towards that goal.
And the last sheet that I pin to that board is plain and white except for large words in my own loopy handwriting done in black permanent marker that reads: Why I Do What I Do.
And that is the truth of things.
(All student names were changed and some stories were altered or combined so as not to indicate specific students.)