There Is No Why

© 2012 Whitney Reed

© 2012 Whitney Reed

Saturday morning, I made a quiet breakfast of scrambled eggs and grits with my own six-year-old. Just the two of us. She sang in her room just beyond the kitchen as I cried into the bowl of broken egg guts and cursed the bits of shell that fell in. I believe everybody was hit more than once, the words of the Chief Medical Examiner have been ringing in my ears. And because I can’t encounter any piece of news without taking it on myself, injecting it into my own heart, I could only imagine her little overalls, her hands, her sweet brave forehead, her perched on a bathroom sink by a teacher who barricaded her class into the bathroom while gunshots fired in the next room, across the hall, who knows where.

I’ve been so overcome, I took her to the aquarium today. Because, really, there’s nothing more peaceful than an aquarium. It’s otherworldly. Creatures floating in water all around, and people, swarms of people, sharing moments of laughter and wonder behind a sheet of glass. It was raining when we left. Who would know? On the way home, Ruthie asked me, “What’s it like to be a grown-up?” And I thought, THIS. This is what it’s like to be a grown up. It has something to do with knowledge, and loss, and love, and what to do with all of that, but I didn’t tell her this of course. I told her it meant you could eat ice cream for breakfast if you wanted to.

I remember when Ruthie was first born, our first outing. She was maybe 3 weeks old. I don’t know, maybe a month. I can’t even remember where we went, but there were other babies there with their own mothers, some of them crying. And I remember I could feel their cries in my gut. I physically reacted to them–looking to my own Ruthie’s peaceful face with panicked confusion. But you don’t LOOK like you’re crying. And this is what I feel like we are all doing about Newtown–we are owning their pain, their loss, because it feels like it is OUR loss. And it is unimaginable. That is one of the most painful, most beautiful things about us humans: It’s primal, our connection to one another.

We can talk about gun control, we can talk about how we should provide more resources to the mentally ill, how we should call our representatives, and how we should pray more. And, you know, I’m not saying those things aren’t important. But the truth is that bad things happen for no good reason. All of these articles about the shooter and his mother… and WHY. We’re all asking why. Why are we asking why? Because if we can understand it, then maybe we can control it. And, sure, there are things we could do, measures we could take, but the truth is that bad things do happen for no good reason. And this is what makes us hug our babies tighter and kiss their hairlines, breathing deep, thankful and sad at the same time.

I was a teacher for seven years and I can’t imagine what I would say to my students tomorrow morning if I had to face them. I’ve been a mother for just as long and, thankfully, I haven’t had to talk about it to my own little girl. It’s been a silent, very grown up kind of suffering these past few days. But if I had to explain it to anyone, I’d fall back on the wisdom of Mr. Rogers, which is really a good policy in any given situation, because I like his focus. He says:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

So what are we supposed to do with all of this? Holding someone’s hand is always a great place to start. Or tell the people you love that you love them. Sing the hero’s song. Cry a little. Send love. Good, human, hearty love. Pay attention to all the awesome shit that’s happening right in front of you. Maybe turn your phone off and admire the tower your six-year-old made out of 52 Jenga blocks straight up. Shore those fragments against the ruin, T.S. Eliot style. Or maybe just wash her favorite pair of overalls every night this week so she can wear them every day. I know in this house, we’ll be eating ice cream for breakfast tomorrow morning. With fruit, of course. It’ll be a few more days before I can bear another broken egg.

In Remembrance of Snow Days

© 2010 David Parker

Holding a cup of coffee in my hands, I’m standing in the hallway to greet the students as they come in. As the girl with red ribbons braided into her hair hops through the door, her blue tu-tu flouncing around her, the warmth of my coffee mug feels like it’s coming from another time and place. The girl announces to the class that she’s dressed in red, white, and blue to celebrate the addition of a new ride at Six Flags called The Dare Devil Dive in the USA section of the park. As she describes the ride, the way it pulls you to the top, stops you, and then sends you hurtling down straight into the ground, I’m thinking that this ride sounds a lot like my re-entry into the classroom after so many snow days. And I’m thinking that my coffee and its heat in my hands is a piece of those snow days lingering the way good food smells linger in the house after I’ve prepared and devoured something especially yummy like grilled cheese with basil and tomato soup.

Don’t Smile Before Christmas

[This is the second in a series of posts about my first year of teaching. If you would like to read more, please click on “Becoming Ms. Reed” under Categories. Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the people in this story.]

Don’t smile before Christmas. Don’t make too much eye contact. Rules. You need rules. Make them think you’re crazy: Slap a stack of papers off of your desk and then yell at one of the students to pick them up. If there’s a fight, take a step back and say Stop. You are the one in charge. YOU are. Not them. Lock up your purse.

In the week before school started, I received lots of unsolicited advice from my colleagues who, ever since I threw up in the tip jar at Subway, loved to reference my “delicate condition.” As in, “Oh, you can’t ask Miss Reed to do that! Not in her delicate condition.” I was a 22-year-old white girl who had never worked a day in her life. I had just graduated from college. I drove a fancy new car. My whole life had been handed to me. If I had to work with my 22-year-old self, I would hate her. Thankfully, my colleagues were more gracious than I would have been.

On the first day of school, the first student to shamble through my door was Trevonte Harris. He smiled when he saw me, and I, being a human (and a Southern one at that) broke the first piece of advice I’d been given and smiled back. Then he asked me the first question I would be asked as a teacher. “So! MISS Reed, huh? You married? Kids say you pregnant. You married?” Before I could answer, Demarcus had come up behind him. “Yo, you Miss Reed?” And then three young women joined us: LaShonda, Janecia, and Star. All looking at me. We were crowding the door. Everyone was looking at me. They were waving over their friends. I slipped out of the group, mumbling something about homeroom, and into the hallway so packed with students that I couldn’t see any teachers. Panic.

The shrill sound of the bell was met with the heavy closing of doors. Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! All the way down the hall. Then quiet, save for the rustling of a dozen or so students shuffling to their respective classes. A boy and girl kissed on the mouth before separating to join their homerooms across the hall from one another. I turned to walk into my own class. No one acknowledged me. I managed to take roll. The announcements came on. When our principal started speaking, I heard Bitch! emitted from a young man who was too large to sit in a desk. He was sitting in a chair at the front of the class with his head rested on his chest in a way that made him look like a fat bird sitting on her nest. I said, “Excuse me?” He stood up, reeking of smoke, and looked down at me. “I SAID Bitch!” He said the word like he was spitting, but his face registered no anger or resentment. He said it like it was a fact. I snapped back that he was headed for a referral. “Well let me just go then.” And off he went, sauntering down the hallway before I could even remember where I’d put my referrals. I scampered down the hallway to my friend’s class. I could hear the class falling out behind me as I slipped through the door. Peels of laughter and the echo of stomping feet followed me down the hall to Tanesha’s room. I asked her what to do. “Write his butt up!”

By the time I made it back to my room, the bell was ringing. First period. I was very proud of my writing prompt on the board. Write about your summer vacation. Students came in talking, sat down with their friends. I can’t remember if anyone spoke to me. What I do remember is that no one had any paper and no one had anything to write with. My mouth was hanging open. “How did you not bring something to write with on the first day of school?!” They weren’t expecting to do work the first day. Once everyone got something to write on, most of them wrote one word: sleep. Going over classroom procedures was about as successful as the writing prompt. I talked for most of the rest of class since no one had anything to share from the “writing exercise,” so by the end of the day, I had watched nearly 70 kids sleep with their eyes open and I was forced to confront a hard truth: I didn’t know these kids. I got their jokes only well enough to understand that they were mostly about me. “Hey, Ms. Reed. Is your daddy a window?” I had never heard students talk to teachers like this. I had never seen kids come to school without backpacks, without paper or pencil. By the end of the day, the trash can was filled with all of my brightly colored handouts balled up or ripped in half.

The Calling

[This is the first in a series of posts about my first year of teaching. If you would like to read more, please click on “Becoming Ms. Reed” under Categories.]

The day began like every other that summer: I woke up wrestling with nausea and lost. Twice. However, unlike every other day, this one was marked by a job interview with a school board in very rural Alabama. After heaving what was left of my first-trimester stomach lining into the kitchen sink, I wriggled into a butter-yellow pencil skirt and a freshly-starched white button down, grabbed an apple and ran down the three flights of stairs adjoined to our pitiful excise of an apartment building, careful not to look through the spaces between the stairs where the ground so far below made my jaw tingle. Ten minutes later, whizzing down a country road I’d never known, captivated by the landscape of vivid Alabama green blurring by my window, I was already pining for the commute through foggy fall mornings to a school where I would really make a difference.

Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was nerves, maybe it was the hormones, but about halfway into the drive, something about the texture of the apple I’d been eating caused me to pull over and retch on the side of the road beneath a romantic canopy of trees. There was nothing cool to lean against and there was no one I could call. I had no choice but to shamble back into the car, my fresh butter-yellow skirt smeared with red clay, and attempt to collect myself for the interview. Any illusions I’d had of myself exhibiting grace and mental composure I left there, mixed with spit on the side of the road. From this point on, my memory of this day is marked by extreme heat and profuse sweating.

And so it was that I found myself sweating on the front steps of the Chambers County Board of Education. Despite my lack of experience in education beyond my years as a student, I was confident–it was the kind of confident only a young person can feel as it’s the kind of confidence that comes from never having failed at anything significant before and never having endured much of anything challenging (that is of course, if you don’t count breaking the news to my parents that their unwed daughter was going to have a baby). This kind of confidence might also come from having very little to lose.

First impression: This place is a dump. The city of Lafayette reminded me of Miss Havisham’s wedding gown. Its old, lacy Victorian homes were depressing—they were falling in on themselves, old furniture stacked to the porch ceilings and prickly signs nailed to their trees. NO TRESPASSING. The Board of Education was nestled among those houses like Miss Havisham’s rotted wedding cake on her banquet table. To the right of the Board there was a grassy hill that led up to the high school. As I began to climb the steps, I was very aware of people sitting on their porches across the street. Watching me. I became aware of how bright and clean and pressed my outfit was in comparison with my surroundings. What was I doing here?

The front door felt greasy and, as I pulled it open, seemed to stick the way the soles of my feet do when I’ve just stepped in gum. The air inside felt thick and humid, like walking into an open mouth. The large black woman seated behind the desk to my left directed me to wait in a plastic chair along the wall. More sweating. By this time I’m sure the shirt under my arms was completely transparent. A man with a preacher’s face and a politician’s smile led me to a room where I wrote an essay about what, I can’t remember, but I accomplished it and placed it back in his outstretched hand with the same kind of knowing satisfaction that I’ve always had upon turning in work to my teachers. We went into his office where he conducted an interview alongside the principal from the high school at the top of the hill. Throughout the interview, most of my attention was directed towards the amount of perspiration that was accumulating on my upper lip and how long it had been since I last licked it off. Since I’ve always been able to talk my way into or out of anything, answering questions came naturally.

There were two concepts that have stuck in my mind since that interview: “The Age of Accountability” and “Highly Qualified.” The first came from a question that the principal asked me. She was asking what kinds of things I would do in my classroom since we are now living in the Age of Accountability. I assumed that this had to do with holding students accountable for their work. In the past six years, I’ve discovered that this has more to do with teachers covering their asses than with teaching or learning. THe other term, “Highly Qualified,” turned out to be what I was. Me. The girl with NO background in education and no prior work experience in anything. Apparently, a certain number of courses in English (Literature) made me achieve “Highly Qualified” status as an educator.

So I got the job. And the signing bonus. Signing bonus? Signing bonus. $3,000. Or something like that. Because it was July and their 9th and 10th grade English students (99% of whom were receiving free or reduced government lunch, 99% of whom were minority) desperately needed a teacher. And the job came with benefits. Benefits! Health insurance! My feet were singing and dancing their way out of that office, down the cracked front steps, and I was practically waltzing in the streets across from those people sitting on their front porches looking deflated and indifferent. Hopped up on adrenalin, I called everyone I knew and practically vibrated home. I was going to be a teacher! I was going to make a difference.

I know, I know, I know…

© 2010 David Parker

As I was running off copies this morning before the 7:50 bell rang for advisory (homeroom), staring out through the metal bars covering the windows in the teacher workroom, the sound of the pitifully stocked vending machines humming four feet away, it hit me: I missed a day! Damn it. Today is Ruthie’s first day of school, so last night was spent furiously packing up her school supplies, her lunch, her ballet clothes for after school, her cheerleading uniform for camp this afternoon, two changes of clothes for her new class. On top of all of this, my mind has been preoccupied with personal matters such as my fierce desire to control everything and my tendency to repeatedly frustrate the people I love with my quick temper and lengthy list of grievances. And then there’s the laundry that never ends and the dishes that have been stacked in the sink since Tuesday. I did manage to make the beds this morning–no small feat at 5:30 am.

Four is the Loneliest Number

© 2010 David Parker

It’s no surprise that today sucked. I mean, it’s August 4, the day I’ve been dreading since school got out in May. I’d like to say it was good to be back, but it wasn’t. I walked into my overturned classroom and I could feel the weight of papers to grade, after-school detention slips to hand out, seating charts to make, filing cabinets to purge. But, like everything else, the dread of the thing wasn’t as bad as the thing itself.

I spent the day emptying my room of everything that reminded me of last year. In my desk drawer, I found two pairs of shoes (heels and flats), an old lunchbox, half of a computer charger, and, near the very-very bottom, my teaching certificate. (I hate it when I find things I didn’t know were lost. I mean, unless it’s money.) During our faculty meeting I looked up quotes to hang around the room and a poem for students to read on the first day. I still can’t find a poem with the right flavor. Most teachers choose something kind of cheesy, but I like to go for more rock-your-world type stuff. Stuff that makes the kids second-guess everything they thought they knew about what school is. Like “The Toothfairy” by Dorianne Laux, which begins with the speaker’s memory of how her mother painted glittery footprints on her sheets “with a love so quiet I still can’t hear it,” and ends with the dissolution of her parent’s abusive relationship. I know. But it’s a great jumping-off place for talking about what literature is, what it does, and why we need it. Plus, the imagery is killer.

After I’d wasted away the day in my mess of a room, I took Ruthie to get her FOUR-shot checkup. What’s worse than holding your child down while someone jabs a needle into her tense little thigh muscle? I’ll tell you: nothing. Nothing’s worse than that. It’s worse than having it yourself because the whole time you’re holding her hands in her lap and her legs between yours, you’re thinking: Give me the shot. Mom-love is a strange, tortured, fierce, primitive thing. It hurts for the mother and the child. A few months ago, the doctors thought my mom might have cancer. Actually, they were pretty sure she had it.  When my mom came to visit a few weeks after all of the test results (miraculously) came back negative, she told me that when she first learned of the potential cancer, all she could think was, “Thank God it was me (and not you or your brothers).”

After Ruthie had her shots, she got to pick out a sticker. Spiderman. She was still shaky and sweaty from all the struggling and crying when we got in the car. The relief on her face when I told her she would have to have them again until she was two-whole-hands old was precious. It’s now 7:30 and she’s asleep and I’m relieved. Relieved that this day is over and that it wasn’t (quite) as bad as I thought it’d be.

These Fragments I’ve Shored Against My Ruin

© 2010 David Parker

Summer is over and I’m positively heartbroken. It’s ridiculous how devastated I am. We went for our last summertime walk and I couldn’t help tearing up. It feels like a little death. I’ve spent two months doing what I’ve always felt guilty for not being able to do: hanging out at home with Ruth. And now that I know how delicious it is to have days just wash over you, to feel so immersed in the present that nothing is of so much consequence that it can’t wait until tomorrow, I simply cannot bear to let it go. I can’t imagine my life without it. My love, my summer, is gone.

I want to scoop up all of the little pieces of summer and wear them like flair to work tomorrow: raindrops and dribble castles and butterfly wings and pebbles Ruthie picks up on our walks and strawberries and water from the sprinkler and Ruthie’s wide smile drinking water from the hose pipe and pictures of leaves with the sun shining through. I didn’t even write anything this summer to help arm myself against the rushed mornings and short evenings that begin tomorrow. This summer doesn’t pulse on the page like it should. And maybe that’s part of why I’m so sad: I’m a little afraid I’ll forget what it feels like to have things like time and fresh-picked blueberries for breakfast.