I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to write about something else, to distance myself from a profession with which I’m locked in a terminal love-hate relationship. Surely, as I boldy devoted precious morning energy hours toward the creative endeavor of writing, I would write about something that would transport me away, beyond, and above the all-encompassing world of teaching?
During COVID, I tried to dream, vision-board, and research my way out of the job. Would online teaching offer any relief from a 160 student overload, cut back on commute hours, and provide respite from challenging classroom behaviors? Was there a county Office of Education position, or a social services job that included health benefits and utilized bilingual capabilities?
Each time I dug deeper into any of the options, an immediate and total physical reaction overtook me that felt as if gravity had suddenly doubled. I could barely lift my hand to click on the next job opening, and when I did, the words of the description blurred and dribbled like broth down the chin of a sick person. What was I to do? Not inspired to continue, and without motivation to find another way.
As the saying goes, the only way out is through, and I was struck with the familiar urge to write about what troubled me. The three music recordings I accomplished consisted of songs that I wrote almost involuntarily. Words, melodies, and rhythms spilled out of me as I struggled with strong emotions from family and relationship trauma, gracing me with an opportunity for my own catharsis as well as those who listened to my CD’s, at Farmer’s Markets, restaurants, cafes, parks, and wherever I could get a gig.
A enemigo que huye, puente de plata construye. When your enemy flees, build him a silver bridge.
A proverb I used each year in my class openings came to mind. If I could use the tool of writing to explore what got me into teaching in the first place, what pulled me back when I tried to leave in the past, maybe I could re-discover my purpose, or find the will to try something different. Writing, recording, and performing my songs had helped process some of the dearest and deepest failed hopes and dreams of my life, so perhaps writing could again construct a silver bridge for all the frustrations and regrets that had tainted my teaching career.
With the help of the WOW(Women on Writing)website, I took a nine week speculative memoir writing course with gifted teacher and writer, Naomi Kimbell, that facilitated the beginnings of a memoir on my teaching experiences. During the asynchronous class, each of the participants submitted two different pieces to be reviewed and questioned by all in an encouraging, yet challenging manner.
Below, I share with you a section of my second submission that explores my own school experiences that led me to become a teacher. I hope to continue developing this idea into a complete memoir that guides me forward in my work as a teacher, writer, and singer, and encourages others who have surely hit the wall during this massive reset moment that the pandemic has so costly afforded us.
‘I cannot be a teacher without exposing who I am.’ –Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom
Whitfield Elementary Kindergarten-1st Reading, PA 1976-1978
An open classroom door invites her at the end of the wide hallway. Children giggle, find their seats, open squeaking desk tops to carefully arrange school supplies inside. Sounds recede like the turn of a stereo fader as the banner hanging high above the chalkboard in block letters comes into focus: T-R-A-N-S-P-O-R-T-A-T-I-O-N, illuminated by the diffused glow from a wall of windows. Anticipation, electricity surges through synapses tucked inside a skinny frame. Wispy, white-blond pigtails float backwards as the freckled-faced little girl contemplates, involuntarily vocalizes, trans-por-tay-shun.
“Very good! Very good, Karen.” Mrs. Braithwaite glances up from her desk and smiles with warm approval. Karen. Not “Kim and Karen”, “the girls”, or “the twins”.
This tiniest spark of recognition ignites an orange glow at the center of her chest, radiating outward to the tips of each extremity. She is going to like school.
Raymond C.Buckley Elementary 2nd-4th grade Ithaca, NY 1978-1981
Cayuga Lake’s finger points straight at Ithaca. Hills thick with trees line the shores of its green waters for forty miles. In September, she waits for the yellow bus with her sisters by the bed of pansies at the edge of the front lawn. She and Kim, Snoopy lunch boxes in hand, headed to different classrooms, Marcia off to junior high. By November, they trudge through frozen drifts, leap up grooved metal steps, and dive behind high backed vinyl seats, huddling for warmth.
At school, there is order, schedule. She takes comfort in the opening ritual of copying paragraphs from a flipchart onto delicate, dotted-green-line sheets. Each subject enjoys its own time slot, but the activities vary; a colorful spinning wheel of dictionary races, multiplication table flashcards, clacking red and blue wooden rhythm sticks, Around-the-World history challenges roll the day cheerfully along. When winter drives P.E. inside the gym, the children circle around a colorful parachute, marching in time with music. The song suddenly stops, little fingers lift and release silk into the air with a magician’s ta-da, dart underneath, rushing to the center; a momentary temple infused with stained glass light.
In Art, windows looking toward softball fields, she paints a green, wicker-wrapped wine bottle alone on a table in a sphere of light from a hanging lamp. Illuminated by yellow rays, surrounded by darkness on either side, she writes the words of her first poem:
Under the dim light
There is still stands hope
Under the dim light
There still stands truth
Under the dim light
There still stands love
At home, there is order, schedule too. Even in summer, she and Kim get dropped off at Stewart park on the lake shore for summer day-camp. They play capture-the flag and engineer coffee-can stoves to make grilled cheese. At dusk, their Papa guides his miniature ship from a gravelly beach with the remote control, sending arcs rippling back to his girls’ muddied shoes in the shallows. Back at home, fireflies flicker in the humid air. The three sisters run wildly after them through the dark, racing invisibly through a fenceless backyard opening to a half-acre field with a barn. Their mother chats with neighbors silhouetted in folding chairs on the lawn. On long afternoons, Marcia reads in her bedroom while she and Kim serenade the outdoor cats with clarinet from the willow tree´s lowest branch, crunch carrots and green beans from the garden with a satisfying snap and taste of rain flavoured by mineraled earth.
But unlike school, where rules are clear and interactions predictable, sometimes home’s spinning wheel jumps off its track. Plates and silverware rattle from slammed fists when dinner arguments get loud, Damn it, Doris! Will you just stop? Mom ends sibling bickering in the back seat on the way to swim practice abruptly with a smack across the face. I said knock it off! You girls keep on pushing me. Papa stands at the door with a suitcase and a weak smile, his words float to the ground like one of his white handkerchiefs falling from the clothesline, I’ll be back in a couple of days.
She wishes she could show him the draft she writes sitting at his big wooden desk for Ms.Bement’s class about the history of Cayuga Lake; the story of the Frontenac, a steamboat in the 1900’s that catches fire, and despite relatively shallow waters, causes eight fatalities. Six women, mostly due to drowning, weighted down by cumbersome dresses popular at the time as its sidewheel spun uselessly in the flames.
Graystone Elementary 5th grade San Jose, CA 1981-82
California. California. California. It sounds fake when she says it outloud, repeating her father’s ludicrously impossible declaration after a year of unemployment. The tech industry, Silicon Valley, Memorex. He pronounces carefully, like words from a foreign language.
Goodbye vegetable garden!
Goodbye willow trees with fuzzy caterpillars!
Goodbye secret creek in the skunk cabbage at the edge of the field!
Goodbye rope swing over haystacks in the barn!
She takes leave of the sacred places one drizzly, overcast June morning after the Mayflower moving van, big as a brontosaurus, swallows boxes of dishes, stuffed animals, ten-speed bikes, clarinets, the croquet set and badminton racquets, softball gloves, Black Stallion books, Papa’s beer steins, thick orange glass globe lamps, the artificial Christmas tree, folding aluminum chairs, the floral couch. It devours everything, leaving a blank stage, like their life there never happened.
The plane lands on the rain-soaked runway, there are no beaches or surfers nearby. Fat, four-laned freeways dump the rental car onto Almaden Expressway. She counts seven traffic lights, each one an eternity, before they get to Hurlstone Lane. Two-story, one-story, small front porch, wide garage, strange pointed plants and cookie-cutter lawns repeat. Brown, tan, beige. Isn’t that the same house from the last block?, she comments without expecting an answer.
At the end of the cul-de-sac, a tall fence separates the one-story ranch-style house from busy Camden Avenue. Across the street, a dark-haired girl her age rides a bike down the driveway onto the sidewalk. Birds of Paradise, her mother identifies unasked the orange and purple tropical flowers spiking up along the short path to the front door. Artificial turf lines the concrete slab threshold to the double front doors. She walks into a tiled entryway, brown carpet spreads across the living-dining room area with windows on the opposite wall overlooking a thin strip of backyard lawn and other sharp-leaved plants. To the right, more brown carpet leads down a narrow hallway to three tiny bedrooms and one small bathroom.
She walks with Kim to the new school, carefully memorizing street names. Buildings shaped like octagons give the impression of boarding a spaceship. Inside, the back of an otherwise normal classroom yawns open. Three other rooms can be seen across a carpeted center space, like three television screens playing at once; portals to three parallel universes. The teacher pulls a hidden folding accordion wall closed, dampening sounds of the other teachers and students, and begins a lesson.
At recess there is no kickball game. The other children play soccer and something unidentifiable with a rubber ball on the blacktop where painted white lines form four boxes. A few kids punch a yellow volleyball attached to a metal pole with a string. Her eyes compulsively follow its consecutively diminishing orbit.
“Off the blacktop if you’re not playing a game!”, shouts an older lady with an orange vest in her direction.
Without a clear destination, she heads back towards the soccer field, sticking out a middle finger from one of the hands folded behind her back at the yard duty, hoping both to be seen and not to be.
Bret Harte Junior High 6-8th grade San Jose, CA 1983-1986
At lunch, she pages through an American Quarterhorse magazine with her friend, Shannon, in the cafeteria. A fold out page shows an awkward, long-legged colt prancing wildly, still learning to control its limbs.
Are you still hungry too?, she asks, the two girls explode in giggles.
Are you going to eat that?, soliciting leftover cornbread or apples down the line of each table.
The outdoor campus no longer feels foreign, pathways from class to class trace the same geometric pattern daily, each angle’s degree calculated unconsciously. Who are these women in the front of each classroom delivering daily monologues, so certain of the weight of their words? She watches them closely, admires the revolving parade of outfits; wool pleated skirts, stockings with heels, flowy blouses with crisp blazers. These are Women in Command, Women With a Plan, Women Who Know Something. In Drama, she assumes at Ms. D’s posture at the podium; elbow out, fingers splayed across her chest, and delivers a perfectly parodied speech:
Acting, she intones with a New York nasal vowel, comes from the body. You have to feel it from your center, children. Breathe from your center.
The class cackles, Ms.D doubles over with laughter, her eyes a glowing endorsement of the performance.