Anyone who has left teaching can tell you that leaving doesn’t happen all at once. You peel off layers of the experience, like winter clothes in spring.
The first thing I did was sleep like I’d never slept before. Then, for the first time ever, I experienced September as fall, not as back to school. With some hesitation (and to my sister’s consternation), I mailed my horde of stickers to my young nieces. I donated cardigans, costumes, and classroom t-shirts to charity, and I threw out sad, sensible flats and the offensive little no-show socks that went with them.
Slowly, over months, I let go of stress and frustration that I didn’t know I’d held on to—until one day, like realizing halfway to work on a warm day in April that I wasn’t wearing a coat, I knew that weight was gone. My impression of my own experience had shifted and felt kinder and less obscured by those emotions. I wonder if what I remember now is more accurate—it certainly feels truer.
Now, almost two years out of the classroom, I know my memories are fading. I tried just now to make a list of things I’ve forgotten, and then I realized that there is a very good reason why I can’t do that. When I think about what I remember clearly, though, there is a common thread. Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” People often use this quote to remind teachers to treat their students with kindness, but it’s true for teachers, too. Almost all the memories of both teaching and being a student that are still clear to me are about how I felt.
When I was eight years old, I was walking by myself down a long ramp in my elementary school. There were stacked metal banister rails along the walls, hung in horizontal parallel lines. I walked, weaving my arm in and out between them—close but never touching them, like a game of Operation®—until, with a jerk, my arm got stuck. I’d put it too far through, and the metal had caught the skin on my upper arm and wrenched it tight. I pulled straight out to try to get loose, but it wouldn’t move, and it hurt. I had just begun to realize that maybe this was time to panic when a woman came by, calmly put her hands on my shoulders, and walked me back a few steps, freeing me from this unexpected trap. I looked up at her, dumbfounded. I remember how I felt in that instant: shocked at how the simple the solution to this problem was and how I hadn’t seen it.
More than 20 years later, I was headed upstairs to the administration suite at the school where I taught. A little boy, about eight years old, was walking down the stairs with his arm between the metal banister and the safety bars underneath it. He took a step down with his arm too far between the metal bars, and I saw his skin twist as it stuck to the metal. I saw the moment of confusion in his eyes as he realized he was stuck, just like I’d felt more than 20 years before. I calmly put my hands on his shoulders and backed him up a step to free him. He looked just as surprised to be suddenly free as he’d been to be suddenly caught.
“You saved me,” he exclaimed very loudly as he gave me an enthusiastic hug. We laughed, and I told him how the same thing had happened to me when I was his age. In the moment, I forgot to ask his name, and he didn’t ask mine, strangely completing this dual set of memories as I also didn’t know the woman who freed me so long ago. I like to think that there is some cosmic cycle of anonymous teachers freeing students stuck in bannisters that stretches through time.
Then there was the time a student of mine wanted to ask for help but couldn’t remember the expression “I’m in a pickle” and loudly blurted “I’m in a pickle jar” instead. I laughed until I cried, and I can still see the looks on students’ faces in that class. I brought that student a small jar of kosher dills at his middle school stepping-up ceremony. He later told me that his parents thought he’d stolen it from the refreshments table because it was such a weird thing to have in the moment. I gave them a call to clear it up. A few years later, I taught his little brother, and every time I looked at him, I smiled. The joy of that moment has made it stand out in stark relief in my mind.
This has been a hard year for so many of us. I imagine that some of you who just wrapped up your school year feel the distance that I feel now from my classroom days. Teaching remotely, under strange circumstances, or under a completely new heap of stress doesn’t feel the same as teaching did before. You might feel disconnected from your prior experience. You may have noticed some memories starting to fade.
"You might feel disconnected from your prior experience. You may have noticed some memories starting to fade."
Back in March, I went back to the school I taught in to drop off some supplies I wanted to donate and a batch of brown-sugar, brown-butter cookies. They were still fully remote, so the parking lot was nearly empty and there were only a few people inside. The building was pristine and freshly painted, with its floors waxed and most of the lights off. There were no children getting stuck. No lessons being taught. It felt like the first day of teacher workdays in August before students come back and like a toy still in the packaging, full of anticipatory newness meant to be undone. Despite how odd it was, how clearly ready the building was to welcome everyone back made me smile.
Then a former coworker saw me, and she greeted me with such palpable joy. Suddenly, it was like I’d never left.
Operation® is a trademark of HASBRO, INC.
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