“Do I dare
Disturb the universe?”
~from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by T.S. Eliot
With the start of a new school year so close that I can taste the yellow chalk dust, I think back through all those first days of school since I became a teacher. I go back, for example, to the eve of the first school day in 2005, my fifth year of teaching. I tried to go to bed at 9 p.m., but after tossing around, fluffing my pillow and checking the alarm clock, I decided to take a drive to school, about 20 miles away. I tucked the covers around my daughters, kissed my husband goodbye and headed out into a starless night….
Monday, September 5, 2005. I unlock the front door of Gwinn High School and inhale the fresh smell of waxed floors. Turning on hall lights, I look down two rows of speckled teal lockers, my eyes following a long perspective of doors and combinations. The halls will remain empty for ten more hours. Then they’ll witness 180 days of learning, swirled with smiles, tears, break-ups, hormones, angst, and love. High school is a love song, after all.
I unlock my classroom door and walk into Room 115, the largest classroom in the building. Thirty-two empty desks, plus mine. In the back of the room, 20 computers each paired with a blue-and-white hand-painted chair, donated after a Finnish festival. A sink. A full-length mirror where girls stop between classes to fix their lipstick and hair. Bookshelves stocked with dictionaries, poetry handbooks, Writers Inc. manuals, old Prentice Hall textbooks, and novels, lots of novels.
I open the window to relieve the stale air. My computer hums while I check e-mails and review class rosters. I organize handouts, dust the TV, and write September 6, 2005, on the blackboard, with a quote by Shakespeare: And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
A whisper outside the window. White blinding light.
“Forsyth Police. Is everything okay in here?”
“Yes, I’m a teacher.”
“Maybe you should head home soon. We thought there was a break-in. It’s almost midnight.”
“Yeah, I’ll close up. Thanks.”
There’s something unnerving about having 32 pairs of eyes dissecting me — I feel like J. Alfred Prufrock, unsure. But I always have high hopes. A summer full of conferences, professional reading and new approaches. I’ll stay on top of that grading, give feedback that encourages the students to keep writing. We’ll talk about Scout and Jem as though they are real people. Everything will be great. So why do I feel nervous?
I think back to the first day of my first year of teaching…
Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2001. I stand outside the doorway greeting sophomores. Amy, also in her first year, gives a glance from across the hall. First hour down and we’re both still smiling. A girl with hot pink, spiked hair walks toward my room.
“Good morning,” I say.
“Not really,” she responds and breezes past me.
The teacher next to me says, “I see you have Jana* this year. Good luck with her.”
“You’ll find out soon enough.”
Bell rings. I’ll give another passionate performance.
“Good morning, students. I’m Mrs. Hollands.”
A laminated poster of classroom expectations hangs on the wall behind me. Come to class prepared. Always give your best effort. Consider other viewpoints. Be positive.
As I review the expectations, Jana raises her hand from the back row.
What do you mean by “Be positive?”
“I mean come in with a good attitude. Let’s make this a place where we all feel comfortable, where we all want to be.”
“Yeah, whatever. I hate when you new teachers come in with these big plans and great ideas. In case nobody told you, you’re teaching in Gwinn.”
“Jana, that’s your name, right?”
“Jana, it doesn’t matter where we are, Gwinn or wherever. What matters is that this is our classroom. When we shut that door behind us each day, it’s just us. We can make Room115 anything we want it to be. What we do in here and how we feel each day is up to us.”
And that’s the last I heard from Jana. It took awhile before her name dropped off the roster, but her first day of tenth grade was her last day of high school.
When I became a teacher, I had this notion that I would reach every student. They all would want to be in school. My love of reading and writing would move through their cells like osmosis. But when I think back to that day and the blur of faces in each class period, I focus on second hour, back row, Jana. She taught me more than I taught her. She set the story straight.
I still make decisions and revisions up to the minute that I start teaching on the first day of school. I still wonder how should I presume?