“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”Gilda Radner

Friday, June 16, 2017

A Teacher's Good-Bye

I am an English teacher. At least, that's what I am today. In less that two weeks, I'll be a stay-at-home mom again. Not just because of summer vacation, but stretching into next year. I have the gift of being home with my kids again. There's nothing greater I can think of. I can't wait for it to begin. Trips to the zoo. Vacations during the school year (oh, yeah, you BETCHA). Never missing a concert or a play or the Mother's Day Tea. If I have to, I'm telling you, I will follow my middle child around ALL FREAKING DAY if that's what it takes for him to remember his freaking homework. I bet he'll work a little harder at it if I do that.

But.

At this very moment, I watch my students take their final exam for my class. I know that I've prepared them. But I also know the strengths and weaknesses of each person in this room. Connor is brilliant. He's probably going to be a doctor, but he's hard on himself because writing takes him time. How unfair that his success right now is being measured by a time limit. He's better than that and I know it. Jake, who sits in front of me right now, just plain hates reading. I don't take that personally - no one is going to make me love math. But in this moment there is a great kid who is good at sports and loves science and he feels less than.

Grace. Grace was my hidden poet this year. Out of nowhere she called me over during writing workshop and as she began to tell me what she could not find the words to write - that she'd lost someone she loved to cancer and how unfair it was - we both teared up. She wrote it all in a poem then, and it was beautiful.

I could go on about all of them, as well as the students that are taking exams in different homerooms, but all it does is make me realize why I both love and hate being a teacher. I make it my job to know every kid by the end of the year. No one can escape me! If they aren't participating or try to hide their face as I move through the room, we take a class period and I turn my room into a talk show in which they are the special guest. And likewise, I make sure they know all about me. It's the only way I feel I can reach them and help them learn.

The problem is, once I know them, I can't help what comes next. I love them. I think I'm describing the plague of every good teacher. Because June comes, and I have to send them off. They forget all about the posters I made to help them remember how to say "AWkward" correctly and how to stop repeating themselves in their essays. They go to the next English teacher next year and, it pains me to know, it's like they've never taken an English class in their lives.

But I remember.

Worse, I kind of automatically dislike my new team of students just because they aren't my last team. That's not very fair, and it doesn't last, but it's how it is. I run around on my free time and check in with the eighth grade teachers to make sure my weakest or most troubled former students aren't lost or overlooked.

This morning, I think I really embarrassed myself in front of my coworkers because I ran around to every room where my students were testing and I made them jump and down - just to make sure they were awake. I told them I KNOW they are prepared, and shouted that I love them. Weird, I know.

It's just an exam. It's just seventh grade. So many of them will become hairdressers or mechanics or plumbers - people we need and whose jobs are necessary and important and require very little of what I've taught them. But I gave them so much of myself, and if they fail, well...then I've failed. And that's not something I'm OK with.

I work in a good school. No. A great school. It has nothing to do with programs or Common Core or statistical rankings...it's because of the people. The teachers are dedicated and the administrators care about everyone in the building. I will miss this in the fall when everyone brings in the New Year. But I have another job to do that matters just a bit more.

I just hope that these 125 go out in the world and make it better. They have so many unique gifts. I hope they remember that it's their differences that matter most, not the way they conform. I hope they choose kindness. Maybe they won't love reading or write great essays, but I hope they are good and happy.

I'm ridiculous. This afternoon I will go home and Max will wrap his awesome little arms around me and say, "I misseded you sooooo much." Noah will worm his way next to me on the couch and nearly break my arm forcing a snuggle. Joey will dance and sing through the house; you know, just getting from point A to point B. It will be wonderful. But there will be footprints on my heart always from the other children I can't help but love.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Ring Day

Tonight I was invited to my niece Olivia's high school ring ceremony. It was emotional for more than one reason. She attends my alma mater, an empowering all-girls school in the heart of South Buffalo, so I revisited the hallways and lockers and faces of my former teachers. I was excited to be asked to go. I don't know if "Ring Day" is a thing for other high schools, but it is at mine, and my godchild wanted me to be there. I wasn't about to miss it. As I dressed to go, selecting tasteful clothes that say, "I'm the fun aunt but I know how to be classy, too," (that's a tough combo), my sister texted me. "Are you wearing your ring?"

I glanced down at my right hand. It is not a lovely hand. I am in my late thirties and I'm a mom and I don't do manicures because they are ruined within sixty minutes of spending however much money they cost these days. But on my right hand there rests a ring always, and it isn't my school ring. Today of all days, I felt torn about making a switch.

Still, if ever there's an occasion to break out the high school ring (the one my sister wears daily, as do many other fellow "Mercy girls," as we call ourselves), it's the night you're attending the actual ceremony. In a frenzy, I began tearing through the half dozen jewelry boxes I've acquired through the years: those made for me by my sons with cardboard and tissue paper, the one I received as a gift in high school, my grandmother's, and a few other random containers that I've picked up along the way. I dug and dug. We moved recently, so it made sense that the ring might not be in an obvious place. In my search I found my mood ring from junior high, my first pierced earrings, a tape measure, every toothbrush I've ever received from the dentist, and thirteen dollars. But I did not find my Mercy ring.

As I sat, disgruntled, through the ceremony, I was bothered further by the fact that many girls in attendance were bequeathed rings from moms and relatives. I think my sister will be buried wearing her ring, so that was a no-go for my niece, but why did I not give my godchild, my baby girl, my ring? Blessed with boys, I will never see my child in my high school (unless he's on a date or very, very misbehaved). And there is no one else who should have it but Olivia. I sometimes think she reminds me so much of me, maybe she should have been mine. My sister is a wonderful mother and my best friend, but I do secretly plan ways of kidnapping her firstborn child. At any rate, I have no one to give my ring to, and I don't wear it myself. As I've mentioned, that finger is taken.

The evening continued. It's astonishing to see that Mercy girls are Mercy girls no matter the decade or year. The ones who look effortlessly beautiful, the ones who are self-conscious but hold their shoulders back and their chins up...and why do they all try not to smile as they process in? As each one received her ring, she took her seat and held up her right hand, turning it this way and that, to see her new ring shine. It really is special to be a Mercy girl. Even the girls you don't talk to much or would never hang out with share a deep bond with you. You wear the skirt. You wear the ring. You are given, almost as a gift, the ability to hold your head up wherever you walk, by the teachers and the walls of that school. You are taught that as a female, you can still be strong. In fact, you are strong because you are a female. You have sisters who will stand beside you. Friends who will last a lifetime. Teachers who will know your face twenty years later and remember your dreams of becoming a writer.

When they sang our school song, fondly known as "The Suscipe," I sang along. I don't think I was supposed to and my sister was a little embarrassed. I didn't belt it out or anything, but my heart felt so at home. My eyes teared up as I imagined glancing over and making knowing eye contact with Kelly or Alice or Carolyn, bumping shoulders during Mass or exploding weird sneezes that gave us all the giggles, assemblies when one girl scandalously wore nude panty hose (an inexplicable but carved-in-stone fashion DON'T among our kind). All those memories from one song that at the time seemed like not such a big deal. But I guess it was, because I sat in the chapel with tears in my eyes.

And then I looked down at my right hand. What a strange day. My own Ring Day had been November 9. I still remember. Why did they move it to February? February 2. An odd coincidence. It wasn't easy finding a babysitter and making arrangements to get there, but as I said before, I wouldn't miss it for the world. 

The older I am, the less I believe in coincidences. I sat in the chapel as "The Suscipe" ended and I looked down at Grandma's wedding ring on my right hand. I can't not wear it. It keeps her with me. And it's funny, but she never missed any of my big events, either. If I asked her to come, she'd say, "Oh, Lovey. I wouldn't miss it for the world."

Thank you, Grandma, for teaching me how to love, and how to be there for the people who love me. As I said a year ago, you are not forgotten. Maybe not finding my school ring tonight was not a disaster or a coincidence at all.

P.S.- Grandma? You'd have loved "The Suscipe."