If you’ve ever wondered why the school year doesn’t begin until after Labor Day in Chicago, the reason is that the buildings are so antiquated that few of them are outfitted with air conditioners. Starting after Labor Day is meant to spare the children of the City of Broad Shoulders the discomfort of August’s relentless humidity. Instead, we start off the year baking behind tall windows that open only as wide as absolutely necessary in a second story school building.
On my very first day of teaching, I wore a khaki shirtdress. A-line and tied with a sash, it was something out of a movie about a lovely young teacher setting out to make the world a little more kind, a little more grammatically correct. I don’t remember sweating at all. My students were bright-eyed and darling, except for a few misfits and one boy I most definitely didn’t like the looks of. Eight-year-olds have surprisingly defined notions of themselves and absolutely no way to hide them. The baddies are blatantly sneaky: shoulders sloped in, eyes shining with naughtiness as they shoot sideways glances, always laughing with their mouths shut tight. This boy’s mother would be a headache for the entire school year – passive-aggressive emails, insincere smiles, tests returned with little handwritten questions posing as statements: “Mikey doesn’t recall learning it this way in second grade.” Poor Mikey, I got off easy only answering to her for a year of my life.
I don’t remember sweating my first day of teaching, or very many days at all that first year. Ever the contrarian, I breezed through my rookie year seeing success at every turn, innovating just enough to interest administration while still towing the line. The deck was stacked in my favor, of course, but I wouldn’t know the extent of it ’till the following year.
My mentor was also my teaching partner. We had met over the summer in her northside home, bees buzzing around our iced coffees. She encouraged me to think up a theme for my classroom. She shared every last resource she’d gathered and used in the past several years. She split the curriculum down the middle and we planned it together. I have a wonderful picture of the two of us, head to head, on that first day with me in my khaki shirtdress. Our rooms shared a wall that could be folded and pushed aside, which we did to foster collaboration between the classes, but more often to keep an eye out while the other went to the loo.
There were a number of afternoons I stood at the wall red-faced and sputtering retorts to Mikey’s mom that would later be carefully whittled down and sucked dry of all spitfire, then punted back via email with the principal CC’d. Sometimes she couldn’t help me, though, like when I accidentally filled the tank of our beloved class Beta with water that was too cold and he floated pathetically to the top, flipping his tail a bit. “Just take him away from me. I can’t bear to look. It’s too sad.” The fish later recovered, so I learned to do some things on my own.
There is a special power wielded by teachers using a red pen and letters of the alphabet. Adults understand the limits of this power, but children with their magical thinking can take things much too far. For some, the letters came like coins from the tooth fairy. For others, they were a symbol of the world’s unfairness. A not-yet-understood example of the lie that trying your best is always good enough. Emily had a particularly hard time swallowing these letters. They were never the ones she wanted – the A’s with their pinnacle; their ascending, symmetrical grace. She was an average student. She believed she was trying her very best and so did I and so did her parents. She crumpled under criticism. But Emily had this incredibly fascinating capacity for cutting away the fat when she spoke. Also when she wrote. But she never got an A, so she “wasn’t a good writer”. Adults understand the limits of a rubric, but still we stretch the students out on them like a form of medieval torture.
In November we got two new students in our classroom. One of them was difficult with a capital D. We could even call him Defiant, only he never threw anything, so that might be an overstatement in this day and age. Our lengthy sidebars regarding his behavior became tedious to my other students, patiently awaiting their lesson (yes, stacked deck). Eventually, Emily raised her hand and spoke directly to Capital D: “You know, D, I have a lot to learn this year and every time you interrupt Mrs. Garrison you keep me from learning what I need to know.” I was so incredibly proud of her – for asserting herself, her goals. But when the honor’s reception came around she couldn’t attend. Not enough A’s.
On the last day of school I put my beloved green viney plant in the back of my car. The greenhouse effect was somehow unfriendly to the poor thing and when I returned a few hours later it was black. Just completely black. I was wearing the shoes I wore on the first day of school but that day the glue attaching the wedged heel to the sole came undone. I cleverly reattached it using my stapler and managed to get through that day okay. Some of the students in the grade below came to me wondering why they hadn’t been placed in my classroom. “I’m not teaching here next year,” I told them.
“Where are you teaching?”
Five days later the wheels went up and my plane headed west where I would rejoin my husband. His residency had begun a few weeks prior, leaving me couch-hopping as I planned end-of-the-year reflections and read final essays.