Tuesday, October 15, 2013

the yellow folder

One year ago today, I was preparing to walk away from a lifelong passion and continue down a path lined with uncertainty and change...and humidity.  {Lots of humidity.}  Boxes and tape and permanent black markers helped to encapsulate a decade's worth of time spent 'in the trenches'.

In between wrapping up my last few lesson plans, preparing for conferences, cherishing moments and stories and conversations with 'my kids', and meeting with parents one final time; I packed.  I slowly placed items in boxes, cautiously picked and chose what I removed from the walls and shelves so as not to draw too much attention to the void left behind.  I didn't put things into boxes while my kids were in the classroom; always opting for times before and after school, during gym or art or music, or during my lunch.  I couldn't bring myself to take things out of the space that we had spent the past two months establishing as 'ours', couldn't look at their faces as they watched me prepare for my next step.

The days that followed after I broke the news to my class that I'd be moving to Texas were the saddest, yet most humbling days I'd spent as a teacher.  I can't tell you how many boxes of tissues we went through those first few days, or how long I sat out in the hallway that Friday morning with a cluster of crying kids.  It seemed that as soon as I'd get the gaggle of kiddies calmed down, one student would burst out into tears again, thus setting forth a series of waterworks that trickled throughout the circle and even leaked into the eyes of students who were walking by and had 'heard it through the grapevine'.

Hugs and well-wishes and cards and gifts were poured upon me with love {and even more tears}, and every one of them was {and still is} wholeheartedly appreciated.  Visitors stopped by my classroom, or would wordlessly console me as I nostalgically walked through the hallways.  I wanted to remember the little things; the bulletin boards covered with student work, the pockets of kids working together on projects in the annex at the top of the stairs, the voices of kids reciting their times tables or reading aloud to volunteers.  Along with all of the 'things' that made up a decade-old classroom, I wanted to capture the sights and sounds and even the smells {well...some of the smells}.  Sharpened pencils, lunchroom food, the air fresheners I used to mask the post-recess 'glow' of a throng of preteens {that last one didn't always work...no matter what Febreeze may claim on television}.  I was trying to drink in as much as I could, store it up like a camel, for I didn't know when I would stumble upon the next oasis.

Truth be told, when I was at school, instructing my class or walking the halls or having lunch in the lounge; I didn't want to leave.  I didn't want to pack and move and start all over.  I wanted to keep things the way they had come to be over the past 8 years of our lives.  At our home, I began the process of staging each room so we could prepare it to go on the market.  In an effort to depersonalize the space, I removed dozens of photographs from the walls, and lined them up like dominoes in the now very cluttered space of the garage.  The process of our move happened relatively quickly from the perspective of a calendar, but from my viewpoint, it was a painstakingly slow process as pieces and parts of our life were wrapped, boxed, sealed, and labeled.  There were a multitude of blessings in the professional movers who took care of putting the contents of our house into the fifty foot trailer of that big rig; Randy had already relocated to Texas to begin work, which left me to wrap up things in Colorado by myself, all while maintaining as much 'normalcy' as possible in the kids' lives.  It also made the process move much more swiftly than I would have ever been able to manage flying solo.  Their three days of packing could have quite easily taken me three months, as I walked down memory lane with each item I packed.

However, the movers were not a gift I was able to receive in my classroom.

Actually, I take that back.  My dearest friend Sue, armed with tape and boxes and markers, swooped in like the angel she has always been in my life, and knocked out a larger percentage of the packing than I was able to accomplish.  My classroom library--bookshelves overflowing with well-loved books sporting dog-eared pages and crackled spines desperately held together with strips of clear tape--along with a variety of other teaching materials were meticulously packed into boxes and carefully labeled by her generous, comforting hands.

And while she packed, what was I doing?  In all honesty, the last few days were a total whirlwind.  There were so many loose ends that I felt like a kindergarten teacher with a classroom full of kids who haven't mastered the art of shoe-tying.  As soon as I'd get caught up, someone else would come to me with laces needing fastened.  In the midst of it all, my emotions were on high alert--a red flag warning had been issued-and no one, not even me, was attempting to swim in those dangerous seas.  Sure, I cried and hugged and said my farewells, but I was merely scratching the surface of the flurry of emotions that were churning up just below the surface.

I remember walking out of my classroom for that last time.  It was evening, later than I was used to staying at school.  Some colleagues had arranged to have a little send off at a Mexican restaurant up the street, and I was running late.  I was loading the last of the boxes onto the flatbed so I could roll them out to my already overstuffed SUV.  As I stopped to flip the light switch, I paused.  I gazed around at the classroom I had called 'home' for a decade.  Sure, I hadn't taught in that particular room throughout my tenure, but it wasn't the walls or the floor or even the state that made it a classroom.  It was the magic that happened within the walls, the lessons I taught, the kids I read with, the non-stop line of students at my desk, the hugs in the doorway, the tears cried whenever I read Thank You, Mr. Falker or The Junkyard Wonders.  I wasn't turning down the light in a room, I was turning down the light in me.

Once we moved, it didn't take long for emails and social media connections to begin with the questions.
"How's it going?"
"Are you guys getting settled?"

"Have you found a teaching job?"

That last question.  Like a bit of salt in a fresh, open wound.  Yes, at this point it had been several weeks, months even since I'd closed my plan book, but the feelings were still raw, the emotions finally bubbling to the surface as the busy season of our move drew to a close and life began to settle into a more regular routine.

I hated hearing {or reading} that question.

I felt like the question was a giant watch, with a large and impatient finger tapping away at the face, as if to say, 'when are you going to get another job?'  I felt as though my spot on the totem pole had been replaced by someone who was more of a 'go-getter', someone who better lived up to the phrase 'teaching is my lifelong passion'.  I felt like something was wrong with me.  Why wasn't I working harder at getting back into a classroom--a place where I so obviously felt 'at home' when I wasn't with my husband or kids.

As time passed, I found myself thinking {and saying}, "I don't know if I'll get back into teaching".

Um, what the what?  The girl...the five year old girl who fell in love with the art of teaching in the caring hands of Mrs. Toney--a magical and amazing kindergarten teacher...the eight and nine and ten and twelve year old girl who would line up her stuffed animals and dolls to play school when her younger brothers protested the 'game'...the teenager would spent time in a first grade classroom to work with kids and learn from one of the most gifted teachers she has ever come to know...the college student who balanced a lifestyle of working hard with playing hard in such a way that she was able to graduate and then become a teacher at the same school where she spent a semester interning...the woman who took on student leadership, a yearbook, and directing the drama club at the expense of spending that time with her own children but with the supreme benefit of working with students.  That girl.  That person.  Not get back into teaching?

When people outside the world of education envision the life of a teacher, there are those for whom reality is heavily skewed.  From my own personal experience, the majority of these people do not have school aged children, however there are those out there that despite the fact that they do, their brains do not possess the capacity to look past the 'summers off' {HA!} component and into the reality of the field of education.

The fact of the matter is, that outside of ALLLL the paperwork, the planning, the curriculum, the standards, the standardized testing, the veritable alphabet soup of acronyms, the preparation, the reading, the grading, the politics, the lack of funding, and the laughable paychecks--the heart of a true teacher, a teacher who is in it for the 'lifelong passion' of it works harder than you could ever envision.

And when I turned off the light in my classroom, I felt like a shade had been placed over my light.  My 'teaching heart' was broken; crackled and dimmed from the uncertainty of the future and how long it would be until I set my high-heeled 'teacher' feet in a classroom again.

Even today, I still don't know when or even if I'll venture back into the role of 'Mrs. Conley, passionate lifelong classroom teacher' in the way I had always envisioned part of my obituary to read.  I don't always miss the work load {okay, I virtually never miss the work load!}.  I don't miss the endless meetings and changes and swings of the pendulum from year to year.  I don't even really miss eating lunch in the lounge.  Sure, it was nice to have the social component, but I've grown quite fond of living room picnic lunches with a chattery toddler.

What I miss more than anything, more than one single aspect of the whole beautiful, magical world of teaching, is the kids.  I miss their morning greetings as they dash down the hallway to be the first through the door.  I miss their messy desks and rumpled papers and piles of backpacks and sweatshirts.  I miss the real-life way in which I connected with them, the way I'd share my life and my stories with them in the same way they'd share theirs with me.  I miss the dance parties we'd have when we needed brain breaks, the games we'd play when I needed a few moments to gather my materials or my thoughts, and the funny cheers we'd do so they'd always remember the product of 8x8 or how skew lines exist in the real world.  I miss reading to them; watching them lounge around on the floor or the pillows or each other as I'd crack open our latest classroom novel and begin to dive into the magical world the author had created for our ears and imaginations.  I miss the hugs at the end of the day, the high fives and smiles and "Hi Mrs. Conley!" as I walked past former and even future classes.

I miss 'my kids'.

When I think about what it was that I really wanted to pack up in those boxes, the things that had helped make those walls a true classroom, it wasn't things...it was children.  The connection with the little humans in those blue plastic chairs is bigger and more meaningful than all the other 'stuff' teaching entails.

Recently, I made a discovery in both the physical world as well as my memory.  My guest room closet is chock full of crafting supplies and the odds and ends of life.  It's a large closet, and since Houston homes don't boast basements as part of their floor plans, it serves as a perfect space to house part of the boxes I have from my classroom.

I was searching for something one day when I came across a yellow folder.  The sight of it took me back to my last day, when I was packing up my classroom...

Peppered in among the professional development materials, binders filled with lesson plans, and an entire classroom library were little treasures I'd discovered in a yellow folder on a high shelf in the corner of my classroom.  The word 'overstuffed' isn't nearly adequate to describe the chaotic bundle of papers housed within those lemon-colored pockets.

Of all the things my dear friend and I boxed and taped and labeled within those walls, that folder held secrets.  Ten years worth of magical messages scratched on notebook paper, construction paper, once-sticky Post-it notes, folded heart-shaped paper.  Messages written in pencil and crayon, pen and paint, glitter and boldly-line permanent marker--a sign that the sender really meant business.

When I pulled that folder from the shelf in my craft closet, tumbling out came letter after letter, card after card, picture after picture...child-like handwriting filled the pages with wobbly letters and uneven spacing.  Stick figures and flowers danced in a sea of familiar suns; a big yellow circle encircled by bold yellow rays radiating from every direction.  Soon my tears were blurring the messages of love and care, notes of thanks and hello; some rushed while others meticulously completed over a lengthy period of time.  The pages all shared the same theme.  A connection was made.  These notes, these cards and pictures and random cut-out shapes with kid art covering their surfaces are like gold.  They're the reason I went in to teaching, the reason I miss it so desperately, and the reason I am so blessed to have spent a decade of my life making those connections.

Whether I 'go back into teaching' or not, I carry with me the things that made my career worthwhile.  They removed the shade covering the lifelong passion light in my heart and reassure me that no matter where the path may lead, I have some pretty amazing kids to thank for giving me the reason to keep going.

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