Beginnings and Endings

The temperature on my dashboard reads 98, but the heat index adds another half-dozen degrees, and the infinite combinations of repositioned windows and air vents do nothing to make the car more comfortable.  I lean forward, away from the baking seat, as my fingertips gingerly grasp the wheel.  I am thankful, more than usual, for a blessedly brief commute.

The school is a sauna, and yet Sister Adele smiles cheerily at me from beneath multiple layers of black.  She is always smiling, and she knows my name; we are friends even though so much separates us, even though our private conversation has been limited to a few sentences.  She urges me to stay cool.  The development office is capitalizing on the heat wave, urging contributions to the fund that will provide us with climate-controlled classrooms in the fall.

And the students want to order pizza.  Piping hot pizza, dripping with melty cheese.  I feel as though my face is made from melty cheese this morning.  But it won’t stop: please, Mrs. Lowe?  PLEASE?!  I laugh and remind them that it’s 9:30 in the morning.  Still, they beg, lapsing into injured silence only when they’ve checked all the websites to ensure this really isn’t a possibility.

The first line of Valery’s paper reads, “Mrs. Lowe, before you say anything, I really didn’t like this story’s plot!” Of all the fiction pieces we’ve studied this year, she has chosen to analyze the one that brought me, by far, the most grief: a Cortazar short story in which the protagonist vomits bunnies.  (Why is everyone suddenly staring?!)  It’s brilliant writing, and although not the sort of thing I would seek out to read more of, I think it’s important for them to read as part of the mind-broadening experience that education should be.

She grudgingly admits that the epistolary style of the story drew her in, and that the hypnotically bucolic descriptions of the narrator’s surroundings contrasted nicely with his own deteriorating mental state.  I remind her that I selected the story, not because it’s my favorite, but because I thought it was important for them to read a wide variety of work.

She nods, then looks at her lap and forces the next sentences out with some difficulty.  “I wanted to tell you I got a 10 on the essay last time I took the SAT.  I think this class has really helped me to be a better writer.”  I lock in this moment, and the ensuing high-five, for the next Bad Day, which will come — I know it will.  For today, I am deeply gratified.

The next class has ordered pizza; the promise was locked in last week following a well-orchestrated campaign of badgering, and after a year of forgotten textbooks and homework assignments, every single student has remembered her four dollars to ensure she was fed today.  This small irony joins the greater one — this class, the one I didn’t want because of scheduling, that meant I had to stay later and chaperone a dreaded Study Hall and adjust my lesson plans all year long, is full of students I have grown to love, whose thoughtfulness and observations are inspiring even on the days I’m most tired.  Sometimes God has to force blessings upon us, and I’m glad He was persistent with this one.

My husband arrives with our food — salad and wings for the gluten-free, pizza for the rest — and the girls chorus hello, then fall shyly silent, then laugh at their own childishness and grab plates.  Rob and I hang back, sweating visibly in the haze.  Before long we are all laughing at a re-dramatization of one of my students’ recent escapades involving a baked potato, aluminum foil, a microwave and a broken window.

I drag myself back later that afternoon to sign my contract for next year, and while I wait I chat with three colleagues, about the future and past of this school.  I’ve seen more changes in my six years there than I ever could have imagined the day I walked in the door of a classroom with no computer, no projector, no air and a buckling carpet that tripped any hapless students who wanted a brief respite at the water fountain.  It was a day much like this one, my first day in the classroom: hot, humid and uncomfortable.  But then, it was a strange land, and now, it feels like home.

My principal calls me in, and she tells me they couldn’t give me the classes, load or schedule I wanted.  We are honest with each other about our mutual disappointment and the frustrations of part-time teaching.  I tell her that I can’t imagine the magical hair’s-breadth choreography that squeezes too many students and teachers into too few spaces, year after year, and in the end, I am grateful for this job.  I am grateful for any job at all.  I am learning to be grateful.

I sign my name on the line.  So begins, and ends, another year.