Posted in Life, Teaching

May Memories

May is always a full month, but this year it seemed more full than usual. Despite the fact that COVID-19 has, in many ways, made the world feel smaller, it can’t stop time from marching on, nor can it stop people from celebrating its passage, albeit in new ways.

This May marked twenty-five years since I graduated from high school. I watched online from 200 miles away as my niece accepted her high school diploma and concluded her own strange senior year.

This May marked ten years since my husband and I got married. We celebrated at home with takeout from a favorite restaurant and lots of laughter and a few tears as we watched our wedding video and looked through a box of old letters and photos and other relationship memorabilia.

And this May also marked the twentieth anniversary of my first year of teaching.

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Me as a first year teacher

This particular milestone snuck up on me. Since I took time off in the middle of my career, I haven’t actually taught for twenty years. I just finished my seventeenth year of teaching seventh grade. But it was twenty years ago, in May of 2000, when I said goodbye to my very first group of students ever.

A lot of teachers have horror stories about their first year in the classroom, but not me. I loved it. I had great kids that year, and I bonded well with them. In retrospect, that was probably because I was a just a kid too, only ten years older than my students. Now that I’m in my forties, it seems a little odd to put a 22-year-old in charge of the education and well-being of fifty pre-teens, but I think I did an okay job.

To celebrate this life landmark, I read the notes written in my 1999-2000 yearbook. Then I reconnected with several of those first year “kids” (now in their thirties) on Facebook and posted a bunch of old pictures of them in their most awkward stage of life. It was so much fun seeing them now and watching them squeal at the photos of their former selves. I really loved those kids. I still have little gifts that some of them gave me and notes and drawings. All treasures.

As much fun as it was to reminisce with my former students, it made me more sad about what I missed out on with this year’s kids. I haven’t been as torn up about the strange ending to the school year as a lot of teachers. I’m not sure why. I think I was just so focused on the reason for the school closures and the anxiety over keeping everyone safe that not getting the last few weeks of lessons in didn’t seem like a big loss. Plus, I live in the neighborhood where I teach, so I’ll run into some of my kids at the park and the grocery store (when I start going back inside the grocery store).

But now I’m lamenting the losses. The lost conversations and end-of-year countdowns and talent shows and final reflections. And the yearbook. I bought one this year, and I’ll get it eventually, but it will be too late for signatures, too late to see who writes the funniest comment and who surprises me with a heartfelt note about something I didn’t realize made an impact.

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Packing up my classroom on May 8th. The board was still set up for March 13th, the day classes were cancelled.

There are other losses too. This is the first time in seventeen years of teaching that I didn’t get to share S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders with my students, didn’t get to gasp at their profound observations and cringe at the skits and videos they made of the novel’s violent scenes. (Every year, I’m convinced I’m going to get fired because of students acting out knife fights in the hallway with paper switchblades that I told them not to make or sharpened pencils that I have to confiscate. They learn a lot though, I promise, and have a lot of fun, and no one has ever been seriously injured.)

It took looking back twenty years to really see the past few months.

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Ready to congratulate the graduating 8th graders from a safe distance

Although the end of the year fizzled out in a less-than-exciting way, the rest of the school year went well. It was filled with hard work and reading and writing and stories and struggles and, as usual when you work with middle schoolers, some really interesting moments.

Here are a few that stood out in the 2019-2020 school year:

How My School Year Started

* Journal entry from August 20, 2019 *

This morning before work, I was getting ready to leave and microwaving a sausage & biscuit for breakfast when Hubby came into the kitchen to take my first day picture. He peered into the microwave (which was on) and said, “There’s nothing in there.”

“Ha,” I said. “If that were true, that would be really weird.”

Hubby looked at me funny. Then he opened the microwave and showed me that nothing was inside. There, on the counter, sat my cold sausage & biscuit.

*

Before school, I was on duty in the commons with E, politely telling students to put their cell phones away and keeping an eye on a group of 8th grade boys who seemed moments away from becoming a mosh pit. Exactly two seconds before the principal released 1,300 kids to stampede to class, a girl dropped her glass water bottle on the tile floor. It shattered, sending water and glass shards into a huge, dangerous puddle. E and I blocked the spill with our bodies, yelling, “Go around us! Broken glass! Watch your step!” to 1,300 stampeding kids. Then we FOLLOWED THE EXACT PROTOCOL AS OUTLINED IN THE SAFETY TRAINING VIDEO FOR CLEANING UP BROKEN GLASS. THE END.

Possibly the Weirdest Moment of My Entire Teaching Career

* Journal entry from September 24, 2019 *

Today, three days after seeing It: Chapter 2 with my family, I was teaching my 5th period class of 33 students, plus me, plus my co-teacher, plus my college intern. I was standing on the side of the room, and every student’s eyes were focused on me when a boy on the far side of the room pulled a red lipstick out of his pocket and proceeded to draw lines from the corners of his mouth, up his cheeks, over his eyes to create the Pennywise clown makeup. (!!!!!) I raised my eyebrows at him and shook my head in a subtle but assertive, “No, uh-uh,” sort of way. The boy blushed, pulled the collar of his shirt up over his head and pulled it down over his face, wiping off all the makeup in a single motion. I glanced around. No one was reacting in any way. A student had transitioned into a clown in the middle of my lesson and transitioned back into a boy again in a classroom of 36 people and NO ONE SAW IT BUT ME.

You cannot make this stuff up.

A Proud Moment

There was a student I didn’t know who had a locker right outside my classroom. At the start of the year, he had locker trouble. He lost his lock. Then he lost his combination. I helped him once and I saw another teacher help him on a different day. Eventually, he just stopped locking his locker. It drove me crazy. Sometimes he didn’t even close it. So on October 16th, I wrote this note and put it in his locker when no one was looking. Later, I saw him find it, look around suspiciously, and read it.

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From that day forward, his locker was closed and locked every single day. I don’t think he ever knew who put the note there.

An Unfortunate But Portentous Moment

* Journal entry from January 10, 2020 *

During my grammar lesson today, I accidentally demonstrated how communicable diseases spread.

Students were labeling parts of speech in practice sentences. I went around with a marker and put a check on students’ papers that had every label correct. Those students in turn were deputized as teachers, got a marker, and walked around checking other students’ answers. The students they checked did the same. It was a wonderful, engaging, cooperative lesson that my coworker came up with, and it had worked beautifully all day.

Until 7th period.

In 7th period, I made a mistake on the first student’s paper I checked. He had an error I didn’t notice. Unknowingly, he passed his diseased answers on to others, and they did the same. By the time the problem came to my attention, it was too late. Half the class was already infected. We all just stared at each other, not knowing what to do, until student zero said, “It’s like the coronavirus.”

It turned out to be a great cross-curricular science-related discussion and a really terrible grammar lesson. Oops.

[Note: When student zero mentioned the coronavius, everyone laughed, including me. This was mid-January. The term was just a buzz word. I barely even knew what it was at the time.]

A Funny Moment

* Journal entry from January 16, 2020 *

The worksheet said: Write a sentence about a tiger using a semicolon.

The student wrote: The tiger used a semicolon as a weapon.

Touché, kid.

*

Good memories, all of them. But none of these memories could have happened if I hadn’t started somewhere. I’m so grateful I had such a good first year of teaching. The last thing in my journal from that inaugural year is a list I made. Everything on it still holds true.

10 THINGS I LEARNED MY FIRST YEAR OF TEACHING

  1. Decorating a classroom is more difficult than it looks.
  2. Over-planning is much, much better than under-planning.
  3. Be very flexible and calm and let things roll off your back.
  4. Don’t always proclaim a winner in games.
  5. Juggling is a great attention-getter.
  6. It’s important to write legibly on the board.
  7. Students mirror their teacher, so enthusiasm and smiling are essential.
  8. Teachers should be required to take at least one theater class in college.
  9. Gaining respect has little to do with age or experience.
  10. Be able to laugh at yourself in front of large groups.

*

Done and done, especially #10. Now to go brush up on my juggling skills.

Happy Summer, everyone.

Posted in Random, Writing

Me and Mags, Episode 1: My Friend the Witch

Nothing like starting a new school in a new town in the middle of September on a Wednesday. I leaned on the bus window and breathed through my mouth to escape the aroma of vinyl and exhaust, trying to memorize the route to school. It was no use. I’d be helplessly lost without GPS, so I prayed my phone would have enough service to guide me home if I decided to skip out early.

My vintage Jansport with the rainbow patch occupied the seat next to me. I gripped its strap protectively. Who needs a friend when you have a backpack that smells like your childhood? Charcoal burgers and chlorine. Cinnamon sticks and attic dust. Our new house didn’t have an attic. It didn’t even have a garage.

A tall guy with a baseball cap got on the bus. He looked like trouble. I opened my backpack and rummaged around inside like I lost something important—my home? my life? my sanity?—and hoped he’d walk on by. He did. When I looked up again, a girl was standing next to my seat. Short blond hair, pink hairclip, retro 80’s t-shirt. She had a cell phone in one hand and a yogurt in the other. We locked eyes, and I made a move to pull my backpack aside, offer her a seat, but then her gaze drifted to the back of the bus, and she said, “There you are!” in a relieved voice. Later, when I looked back, I saw her sitting alone looking at her phone.

IMG_20190722_120159840We were stopped at a red light when I heard, “Watch this!” I turned around and saw Baseball Cap with an apple in his hand. He was lowering one of the windows. Outside, a girl with crazy curly brown hair and a small round Band-Aid on her nose was walking down the sidewalk. She had a leather satchel slung across her body and wore a long skirt and black combat boots. She was reading a book as she walked. With no warning, Baseball Cap threw the apple at her. Before I could hold my breath and hope it didn’t hit her, she caught the apple one-handed, took a large bite, then hurled it back at the bus. It smashed to pieces on the side. The light turned green. The boys around Baseball Cap hooted and hollered. The girl never took her eyes off her book.

*

It turns out, navigating a new school isn’t as hard as you might think. Looking for the library? Tail someone with a lot of books. Need the restroom? Follow the smell of perfume and vapes. Trying to get to the gym? Just swim against the stream of kids carrying violin cases. Math is math no matter what color the fake wood desks are, and the art of evasion is consistent across time zones: don’t engage, don’t make eye contact, look bored.

I kept my head down through my morning classes and spoke as little as possible, observing my new classmates from a wall of body language that I hoped said, “Leave me alone.” In English, a girl argued with the teacher about her grade in front of the entire room, then muttered “Freaking Communist” as she stomped back to her desk. A guy with smooth tawny skin and dark curly hair whispered, “Calm down, Shay,” but she shot back, “Shut up, Vik” and sneered at him.

For the most part, life went on around me, and no one paid me much attention until lunch, when Operation: Avoidance came to a screeching halt.

I’d been expecting a cavernous room of long, prison-like tables where I could slip into a vacant seat and eat my chicken salad and Cheetos unnoticed. Instead, this school’s cafeteria looked more like a coffee shop on a Sunday afternoon. Small tables of different sizes and shapes crowded into a space that wasn’t designed to accommodate them. Students filled most of the chairs and stools, while some lounged on the tile floor, picnic-style. Every table with an empty chair filled quickly as more students arrived, fist-bumping each other and sliding into seats they’d obviously claimed weeks ago.

Every table but one.

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At a small round table near the recycling bins sat the girl who caught Baseball Cap’s apple. Next to her were two empty chairs. I tightened my grip on my lunch bag and walked over. The girl was eating a bowl of noodles and reading a book, but she looked up when I approached. The Band-Aid on her nose was gone, but now there was one on her chin.

“Hi,” I said. “Is this seat taken?” I gestured to the chair on her left.

“Yes,” she said, “but the other one’s not. Care to join me?”

“Sure. Thanks.” I sat down in the vacant seat just as an empty Coke can went flying over the table. It hit the rim of one of the recycle bins, then bounced inside.

“Yes!” Baseball Cap high-fived a fellow cap-wearer, then smirked in our direction. “What happened, Maggot? Nick yourself shaving this morning?”

The girl turned a page in her book, then said, “Better a nick than a celery stick, Mr. Brand.”

He rolled his eyes. “Freak.” On his way back to his table, his foot slid out from under him. To avoid falling, he grabbed the shoulder of a girl seated nearby, spilling her Smart Water all over her and himself.

“What did he slip on?” the curly-haired girl asked.

“Huh?”

“What made him fall? Can you see?” She was standing up, craning her neck.

I squinted in the direction of the chaos. “It looks like a squished grape.”

The girl looked thoughtful. “Green or red?”

“Um… green.”

“Hmm.” She sat down and made a note in the book, which I realized now was actually a journal. Then she closed it and turned her gold-brown eyes on me. “I’m Magdalena,” she said. “People I like call me Mags.”

“Hi Mags,” I said. “I’m Hadley.”

I took my plastic container of chicken salad out of my lunch bag. Mags went back to slurping her noodles. No one ever sat down in the other seat.

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A few minutes before lunch ended, Mags shoved her empty bowl into a pocket of her satchel and closed her journal. “You’re new,” she said.

“Yep.” I licked Cheeto dust from my fingers. “Got any advice for me?”

Mags’ eyes lit up. “Tons,” she said. “For starters, never confuse nightshade with wolfsbane. Also, avoid the girls bathroom outside the library. It’s haunted.”

“Noted,” I said. The bell rang.

*

I didn’t see Mags again until 8th period AP Biology. The teacher, Ms. Archer, gave a pop quiz. She said I could take it “just to see how you do.” My last school was obviously ahead of this one because the questions were easy. I breezed through them, then went back and marked two answers wrong on purpose. Pretending I was still working, I snuck peeks over my cardboard privacy screen, scanning the room. Everyone had their heads down, working, until I got to Mags. Over her privacy screen, her eyes were fixed on me. She raised her quiz paper, as if to study it closely. On the back, in large, loopy, capital letters, it read “LUNCH TOMORROW?” I gave a quick nod, then went back to pretending to work.

*

After school, I got utterly, helplessly lost. I couldn’t find my locker because I was upstairs when I was supposed to be downstairs, and then I accidentally exited out the back of the school, instead of the side where the buses pick up. By the time, I got to where I was supposed to be, bus #313 was gone. I collapsed on a bench, dug out my phone and opened my map app. I was still sitting there, trying to figure out which direction I was supposed to walk when Mags appeared before me.

“Not a bus rider?” she asked.

“Not today.” I showed her my phone. “Can you point me the right way? I have a terrible sense of direction.”

Mags peered at the screen without touching it. “That’s where you live?”

I nodded.

“That’s close to me. I’ll walk with you.”

Mags walked fast and talked faster. She covered everything from politics to plant species to the perils of popularity in the span of a block. I tried to keep up.

“The biggest problem with teenagers today,” she said as we rounded a corner, “is that they don’t think for themselves anymore. Bunch of guppies, all of them.”

“You mean sheep?”

She shook her head. “Sheep don’t eat each other.”

I didn’t know what to say to that.

“Someday,” Mags said, “I’m going to turn this school into a fish tank. Can you imagine how awesome that will be? Standing outside, tapping on the glass, while all these wide-eyed mouth-breathers swim around in each other’s poop fighting for the crumbs we throw on top?”

“Um, yeah,” I said. “That does sound pretty awesome.”

When we got to my street, Mags pointed out my house and said, “Think you can make it from here?”

“Yeah, thanks. For everything—walking me home, letting me sit with you at lunch, the advice about wolfsbane.”

Mags tilted her head and raised one eyebrow. “Of course. After all, what are complete strangers for?”

*

“So, how was it?” Mom opened the pizza box and set down three plates.

Justin stuffed a slice in his mouth and gave a thumbs-up sign. Mom cracked open her sparkling water and gave me a sideways glance. “How about you? Did you talk to anyone?”

“It was ok,” I said. “I sat with a girl named Mags at lunch.”

Justin huffed, and a dot of tomato-sauce-spit flew out of his mouth. “Magdalena DeVille? She’s a witch.”

It didn’t bother me that after one day in a new town, my little brother already knew the ins and outs of not only his social circle but mine too. He’d always been plugged in to the gossip superhighway in a way I hadn’t, even at my most popular. I thought about what he’d said. Maybe Mags was a witch. I realized I didn’t care.

“Yeah,” I said. “She’s got some crazy idea about turning the high school into a fish tank.”

Mom and Justin froze, looking at me strangely. That’s when I heard it. That sound. That high, staccato sound that had been missing from my life for months.

I was laughing.

*

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

[Click here to read Episode 2 of Me & Mags!]