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Sick days, sick days
Dear new golden sick days
Sniffling and sneezing and hacking cough
Kept me at home on a rare day off.
Were I a teacher I’d go to work
Share all my germs, make my illness worse.
But the job I have now I can duty shirk
Without hurting a classroom of kids.
— (my revised, working girl version of the 1907 song “School Days”)
Yesterday I went to work even though I felt terrible. My head was aching, my throat was sore, and I knew I was battling something. But I had an afternoon meeting I didn’t want to reschedule, and I knew I could muscle through the day with a little help from ibuprofen and friends. My symptoms weren’t visually apparent, and I tried to keep mostly to myself so as not to share the joy. But when I mentioned to my supervisor that I was feeling a bit under the weather, she said, “Go home!”
I didn’t, but it struck me that I could.
I am a technical editor with eight hours of work daily. I get to work early and sometimes scrimp on my personal lunch hour because I like to get work done. But I have generous deadlines, an equally generous, perpetual pile of work, and I leave work daily knowing I did the best I could and that I can take up tomorrow where I left off today.
Driving to work today — the first day of school — I saw the school maintenance man and his son, a high school senior, wheeling their way to the campus. Ken and Matthew didn’t see me, but I was acutely aware of their car, having seen it day in and day out for years, usually traveling the same roads to the same destination. At the traffic light, their little brown Honda turned left; I went straight, heading miles away from the sweet school that has played such a role in my life as a teacher.
School is starting without me. I am a teacher no more. Today’s encounter was a poignant reminder that I am not returning to the classroom, that school is going on without me, that “my” students now belong to another teacher, that I am no longer an integral part of daily life at the Academy. But like our cars on the road, the feeling quickly passed, noticed only by me.
Let me be honest. I am glad I am not returning to the classroom.
This summer, summer break was summer break, not an extensive planning period for the upcoming school year. When I cleaned my classroom and left it for the last time, I didn’t cart home books so I could plan afresh all summer. I didn’t go through the usual cycle of relief, regret, and resolve, the theme of previous summers. For years, my summer would begin with relief that the year was completed. I could clean house, weed, blog, regroup to my heart’s content. Then I would reflect on the school year just completed and begin the regret phase. Instead of focusing on the successes, I would peer intently at the hopes that didn’t become reality. I would experience regret that I hadn’t accomplished all I hoped — instilling in my students a love of reading and writing and seeking truth, and, more important, a passion to protect reading and writing and the pursuit of truth because of what it means in our Christian lives. And then I would resolve — to do things differently, to find that magical secret or system or sequence that would make those high hopes reality.
There is something idealistic about preparing lesson plans in the absence of students. On paper, on my computer, on my course website, I planned a great curriculum woven with creativity and skillful classroom management — the best of all possible classrooms. And then the students would arrive. As Robert Burns said in his poem “To a Mouse,” “The best laid plans of mice and men/Often go awry.”
“I have some news to tell you.”
My Aqua Zumba teacher gathered the class together in the pool before we began our morning workout.
“I’m moving back to Costa Rica at the end of July.”
While I was happy for her — she would be returning to her family and working with an ecotourism business — I was in dismay. Aqua Zumba is my favorite fitness class offered at the health club; it was my own version of “So You Think You Can Dance,” because when camouflaged by the water, I followed Anita’s cues and thought I could dance — and I knew I could work hard. I imagined the sweat Anita produced on dry land as she led us was reciprocated by my action in the pool. It was a great way to start the day, and, as we’d had a few (inferior) substitute teachers along the way, I was doubtful that anyone could replace Anita.
My belief that no one could adequately replace her caused me dismay — and helped me better understand the feelings of the students I won’t have in the fall.
“Chelsea sent me a message telling me to beg you not to leave,” my son Adam told me recently.
Chelsea is one of my homeroom students. I’ve had the same class for what we call “homebase” since they began their ninth grade year. This, their senior and final year at the Academy, they will have a different teacher for homebase and for English.
This is the first summer I haven’t spent preparing for an upcoming school year in some manner. I knew from the beginning of last school year that it would be my last year teaching, and so I worked from Day 1 to leave a legacy, to do my utmost to leave behind a path easily followed by another teacher, to make sure the students to whom I would not teach English would return to find the new teacher prepared and competent (and, likely, better than I ever was).
What surprised me about my first day of work was not what it entailed but the “when.”
I had long entertained the desire to work for my alma mater, and by the time my final year of teaching ended this spring, I already had numerous applications in the university’s system, all positions for which I was qualified. One job, in particular, caught my attention because it seemed to require every aspect of my eclectic background — an ability to understand technology and science, an ability to write and edit, and an ability to work with upper level students. I had taught middle and high school students Algebra and English for 15 years, often using technology to do so, but I had come into teaching through my journalism background, and I came into journalism through my passion for science and my desire to communicate environmental issues to the general public.
Within the job description was this detail: “translate highly technical information and scientific jargon into descriptions the general public can understand,” and I felt as if I were reading my own words. A large part of the job included acting as a writing coach to a dozen or so interns, mostly upper level undergraduates or law students. I believed that this position was a fit for me — but I had thought that about numerous job descriptions without much result.
As weeks passed after submitting my application, I wasn’t overly hopeful and was having communications with a couple other businesses that were displaying interest. Those potential employers scheduled a series of phone interviews, and I had just completed one of them when my cell phone rang again. It was the university’s Office of Technology Licensing.
Thirty minutes later, I had a paper filled with scribbled information and a smile on my face. I had been completely honest, completely myself; I had answered questions and then asked my own. I liked the voice on the other end of the phone, and the voice seemed to like me. I hung up with a face-to-face job interview scheduled three days later.
The interview was nothing short of miraculous. As a teacher, I enjoyed the knowledge that I was making a difference in the lives of my students every day, and the thought of doing just “any old job to earn a buck and benefits” didn’t excite me at all. (See “Why I teach…” for more insight.) On top of my own efforts to make a positive impact while teaching, I had worked with my seniors on their Capstone Projects, projects in which they had to change the world in some way. In the interview, I realized that making the world a better place was the vision statement for this office at the university. Changing the world in some way every day would be my job.
So when the director asked me why I wanted the position, I honestly (and, perhaps naively) said,
“This job is like my fairy-tale ending. It is the culmination of everything I have done so far — the science, the journalism, the teaching, and even my desire to change the world. That has been the goal of my seniors’ Capstone Projects, and now it can be my daily goal, too.”
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