Boxing Daze

Scavenged from an old word wall I was tossing out while packing, I thought it appropriate to punctuate these final days of school…

Always remember that the future comes one day at a time.
Dean Acheson

My hope for today was to finish packing my classroom.  I wanted it done.  I wanted to be done so that I could come to school tomorrow in dress clothes for the 6th grade promotion ceremony.  Then I could pick up my rolling cart and roll it, along with my tired old self, down the walk, to my car, and be gone.  I was done.

Unfortunately, the school year was not.

Prior to this point, the school year had devolved into a frenzy of report cards being finalized, followed by scrounging up boxes and other packing materials to wrap up or put away a wall-long classroom library.  Then there were my teacher books, and other random items that needed to also get into boxes along my rear wall for the movers that would come next week to pick up my items and move them to my new school.  On top of that, I was not the only one packing my classroom for a move however.  Even as I was preparing to move on out, a number of our school’s teachers were also moving to other classrooms around our campus, including one close friend into what would be my old room in less than a day.  This amount of classroom shifting was unusual for our campus, and rumor was scuttling around that it was all predicated by the decided refusal of one teacher to move out of her classroom, even though her grade level was being changed, thus forcing my other colleagues to move out of their classrooms instead.  It was actually disappointing to see others having to pack nearly as furiously as I was packing, for that reason alone. Nevertheless, it made me even more secure that my decision to take this new opportunity on the other side of my school district, was the right one for me.  But that opportunity couldn’t begin until I closed down shop in my present location.

And I still needed boxes.  Promised boxes by the district, I realized that these boxes weren’t coming, at least not in any timely way to match my timetable.  At first however, I was the beneficiary of boxes from our school cafeteria.  As I noted, since several other teachers were also moving, I quickly began to lose out on empty boxes, forcing me to dip into our supply at home, or making Staples and Home Depot runs for specific kinds of cartons for the odd items I had to store away.

First…

So it began.  Last week, the lead office aide made it known that there was more of a concern with getting a textbook count than actually allowing teachers to finish their instructional units for the year.  As a result, I closed down my teaching, pulled the books out of the desks, and made the first (of many) announcements to my kids to take their stuff home.  I began to use my 6th graders as an ersatz moving company.  Within a day and a half, my classroom library was packed away, along with its bookshelves, and in the corner of my room, my collection of taped up boxes began to grow longer and longer at the end of each day.  Of course, the grade level’s end-of-the-year performance was another obstacle to finishing, but I managed to squeeze in packing when and where I could, having kids come in at lunch, and staying after school to try to get a bit done each day.  I even was able to have an old student come in and help me, and the end of the day today, she planned on coming back, and I would, with her help, hopefully finish.

Next…

But it was still morning at this point, and as I walked into my classroom, I still had small stuff to finalize–like printing report cards–before I could turn my attention to the morning’s tasks.  I was just ripping open my breakfast sandwich bag to try to force some food down when the phone calls came.  Immediately after I got off the cell phone with my wife about her own phone’s GPS, the office called on my classroom phone asking me to come up to the office to “hang out”.

Those who know me well, know that I never “hang out” in the office.  Was I in trouble?  (Possibly, knowing my circumstances from time to time…) No, I wasn’t.  I was skeptical by this point, however.  I was also somewhat annoyed.  I had told close friends that in blowing off today’s staff luncheon (because I wanted to pack after school instead) I wanted no acknowledgment of my departure.  I just wanted to leave.  Grumbling, I saw fit to walk to my car to grab one more long carton for my flat posters, before finally going up to the office.  There was a parent waiting outside my door, but that didn’t seem unusual to me, even when she didn’t ask to speak to me, since often parents hang out with their kids while they wait for school to start.  That should have been my first indication that something was up…

On my way up to the office, I then asked a colleague exiting it, what might be going on up there, and she told me that nothing seemed out of the ordinary.  In the meantime, the office secretary was now wandering down to my room to tell my kids to get me away from my classroom, not knowing that I was already in the office, trying to call my dad to stop by after school to help me move some of my personal furniture from my room.

Finally arriving back up front herself, the secretary had caught up to me to tell me what was up.  Even before she said anything, I had deduced that something was going on in my room, with my kids though, not with the adults on the staff.  So I let my initial annoyance turn its frustration about at least trying to get my report cards printed.  Ultimately, what I didn’t know was that all of this running around campus was about how my students weren’t about to let me leave until they let me.

As it turns out, the kids had drafted a couple of their parents with them to help decorate my room to say “goodbye”.  I had planned to buy them pizza later on in the day, after our 6th grade promotion practice, but I honestly had no idea that they would go to this length to “party up”.  With streamers hanging, several balloons, and a literal nacho bar and sweet tray set up in the corner, my wish to not have the staff do anything was being granted, but that wasn’t enough for these kids.  Sure enough, amid all of the best wishes on my classroom whiteboard, there was this:

We all we got, we all need 🙂

True that.  Out in our misbegotten trailer, our group of (school mascot) Bulldogs often felt like shelter pups.  But this wasn’t about the school, or even about me.  These kids wanted to say something to me, even with my mind scattered across a mismatched bunch of packed boxes, with still more detritus scattered on the floor, waiting to be packed or jettisoned.  My students wanted neither.  I couldn’t pack them nor could I jettison them.  All I could do now was to hang on to their company for this pentultimate day today, and the three hours in my classroom tomorrow where they’d be waiting for their promotion ceremony.

A few hours later, J., my former student, and I finished packing the last of my boxes.  I took my 4 mascot bulldogs and placed them out to greet my friends and colleagues who would, in time, move in to this classroom.  Among the staff who would be left after my departure, I knew they’d at least carry just a little bit with them of what once was the school that all of us knew.

Then, and finally…

So it went that J. and I dragged off things that would go into my garage at home and packed the back of my car.  Her mom then dropped by to pick her up, and, along with their 5th grade son, the four of us reflected about all that couldn’t be left behind for the movers to take, for me to take to my garage for the summer, or even given away.  But we all agreed on one final point, because it no longer felt like my school anymore, when my 6th graders walked out the door to our multipurpose room tomorrow, I would be, literally, walking right out with them.

After today though, I got the needed reminder that promotion day is all about the kids, even while they wanted to make today about me.  Today was a nice reminder about the proper way to end it all tomorrow.

What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. — T. S. Eliot

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Packing Up Every Stitch…

I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you
That I almost believe that the pictures are all I can feel

The Cure

The biggest obstacle to finally packing for my move to a new school rested in a group of boxes that I had stuck off in a corner of my “Katrina” portable classroom.  In them lay nearly two thousand photos of my early years as a teacher at my school, stacked, boxed, and in some cases (thanks to my dad) placed into albums.  Some of these photos reflected my earliest years as my school’s yearbook adviser for our student staff members.  As yearbook adviser was now a capacity now deemed anachronistic by the powers that be, I nevertheless saw myself as a caretaker of those photographs and of those memories.  These were photos of my classroom, but also of the school, and while I was in a few of the photos, the majority of the photographs represented a significant slice of daily life not just in my classroom, but in the school at large.

“As the present now / Will later be past…” — Bob Dylan

Once upon a time, it had been a idea to scan these photos to create a digital archive from the time before so much of our technology went digital and we stopped snapping pictures with film.  What was amazing was that while inside the three plastic tubs filled with photos represented the first 6 years of my time at my current school site, in my backpack, I still carried around the small portable hard drive we began to employ in my final 2 years as yearbook adviser–on which could found the other 6 years of photographs I had had my yearbook staff compile, before that duty was abolished and the idea of a student-published yearbook came to its abrupt end.  Given the portability of the drive, an old colleague and I came up with the idea a couple of years ago to scan all the old photos in my tubs, along with the old boxes of class photos and old yearbooks kept under our school stage by a school librarian, who had been at our school site going on 40 years.  Sadly, when the student yearbook was kiboshed, even the idea of digitizing our photo archive was also quashed, deemed unnecessary by those in charge for reasons left unsaid to us, leaving us to conclude only that a school in Program Improvement with the state of California apparently no longer had time for historical enrichment.

In a week which saw Ray Bradbury pass away, I felt not unlike one of the exiles immortalized in Fahrenheit 451, in that those pictures represented something about this school’s past that was much bigger than I was, but I at least wanted to maintain that legacy in case anyone wanted to ever search for them at a later point.  While I could take them with me to my new school site, I knew they belonged in a place where these photos had been taken.  They really needed to stay here.  After talking to one of my close colleagues, she suggested that I should and needed to go to our school librarian and ask her if she’d take them.  We knew that there was no other place that they belonged.

Finally, last Thursday morning, I wandered into the school library.  Along one of the walls was the large 6th grade class photos taken over the past 20 or so years.  I had kept a similar wall of my individual classes on my own wall.  Given the size of the tubs I had, I was worried that she might not have the room, or, worse, might not even want them.  Fortunately, she immediately welcomed the idea of taking the photos.  Still, she asked why I was coming to her instead of going to the office first  After explaining what I felt would be the prevailing attitude should I bother to ask, I also told her that I knew that she would likely outlast whoever was in charge anyway, and that since she, the librarian, was really the one who kept the school’s legacy alive, these photos would inevitably add some more fuel to the flame she was keeping.

In many ways, I felt like those photos in those tubs.  For a long time I had been charged with documenting the school’s activities and then, first with myself and a colleague, and then teaching a new yearbook staff of students each year how to do it themselves.  While the photos in the tub had been taken by me, a nearly equal number had been shot by students as young as 3rd grade.  I believed then, and still do now, that no one is too young to start becoming a historian.  Despite what others on the campus might have thought, this was never about me claiming something that wasn’t mine.  I was an accidental keeper of this flame, that had been maintained by the several dozen kids who, over the years, had fanned out over the school grounds to just see what was up.  But the photos had been left unseen for a long time now, collecting dust first in my parent’s garage, and then in my classroom closet, and now in a seldom-used corner of my current classroom.  When our librarian told me she’d take them, I knew now that we were going to be tripping down memory lane.

Part of the problem was that in packing these photos, they had been mixed together with some personal memories of my own.  Nothing embarrassing, save for some old photographs of my ex-girlfriend at various social events.  (My dad apparently thought it would be funny to pack them away for me.)  And there were just random personal photographs, some dating back to the mid-1980s, when I used them for our Circle K Club newsletter when I had been at Cal State Long Beach, some from various Dodger Camera Days, vacations to Bodie’s ghost town, or, finally, trips to the Rose Bowl to watch Cal-ucla football games.  More often than not, they had been mixed together and needed to be removed before I donated the majority of the photographs to the library.  (Or, in the case of my ex, just thrown out…)

Returning to my room, I found H. and J.  Had I been the yearbook adviser, these two girls would likely be have been staff members, if not editors.  In fact, J.’s older sister had been one of my assistant editors during my yearbook’s final edition in 2009, and would have become my editor-in-chief had our efforts been continued for another year.  Both girls were extremely efficient and responsible.  I gave my two charges their marching orders to clean up and minimize the contents of 3 boxes, and then sent them forward, drafting several of their classmates to help them.

For a day and a half, my classroom became a time machine as the kids worked through the boxes of photos.  Here they could see their brothers and sisters, or cousins, or their old teachers, or just odd stuff from over the years.  Because I had to have them work quickly to get these boxes clear, my main focus for the kids was to simply look for personal photos of mine and consolidate all of the rest.  As I began to get other kids to begin to pack the rest of the classroom, they would periodically come to me with a question about a photo–obviously they were intrigued by what was going on…

Was this our school’s old Spirit Squad uniforms?

Why was this principal “mad” at our school’s mascot?

Why was that principal driving a bulldozer? 

Is that my cousin?  My sister?  My neighbor?

What field trip was that?

Who were these kids in several group photos?

Surprisingly, the answer to that final question above was actually answered in person a few hours later.  As events played out, last Friday was our school’s annual Community Read Aloud on campus.  Individuals from the community are invited to come read to our students.  This year, having the opportunity to work on the program myself, I took the liberty of inviting several of my former students back to their old elementary school to read, ostensibly because all of them (with one exception, a former student who was now in Grad school) were now freshman in college, both locally and back east.

These students were from a time in my teaching career when I was still feeling my way as an educator (and with the oldest of the group, a young woman in graduate school program in Psychology, as well as a graduate of one of the top high school’s in California, I shake my head that, despite me, she turned out well…).  But every single one of these kids were those who represented what passed for “royalty” amongst the staff who were here when these young people were still at our elementary school.  They are still talked about highly, and even my wife once referred to a group of them, while they were kids of mine, as those whom my wife would allow our own daughter to play with.

And now they were back.  When my soon-to-be ex-principal entered the room to greet the readers, with my group of former students amongst the group, they, (along with my fellow event co-chair and our school’s librarian, as well as myself), had spent more time at my school than she had.  This group knew how this school used to be, they knew what had been in those boxes currently being sorted by my students–because they had helped either take the photos or were in them.  This was a legacy.  This was a walking part of my school’s history, my own personal stitch in the school’s ongoing fabric.

So when the group of former students entered my classroom to say “hello” once last time before they left, the air leaving the room among my current group of students made a palpable sound.  Just like that, those photos that had been lying on the floor of my classroom as they had been sorted out, literally stood up, took on life, and walked right back in my door.  And almost immediately, upon my prompting, these now grown children flocked around my photo wall to take another look at their former selves amongst the 14 other class photos that were up there.  The day ended, the students dismissed, and they were all still there.  We talked for an hour after school, as packing suddenly didn’t seem like a priority at that moment.

In the end, they could see that their former teachers, what was left of the group who had been at the school at that time, were still there, albeit older.  They could marvel at how much our school’s custodian had not aged.  (Hint:  Think Dorian Gray…)  And they could also ask the pained questions about so many of the things that once marked their time at this school now gone, or dismantled, or little resembling those things that they would have remembered from their time here.

Surrounded by the group of them, I almost wished we could have toasted something, as what they knew as this school during their time was effectively over.  Here I was ready to walk out the door as well.  Soon, like them, I’ll only have the memories to keep with me, particularly since, the following Monday morning, the photos were gone from my classroom too.

Ev’ry time I see your face,
It reminds me of the places we used to go.
But all I got is a photograph
And I realise you’re not coming back anymore…

Ringo Starr

The Long Goodbye Begins

The final countdown began Thursday evening, in an overcrowded multipurpose room, sticky and sultry from a lack of air conditioning.

Now I am cynical enough to believe that it was deliberately planned that I would be the last staff member left on the benches as my school staff was introduced to the parents right before Open House officially began.

But there I was.  Cynical though I am, I could at least appreciate being left with my thoughts, trying to process what this night, my final Open House, represented.  This moment was actually starting to get to me.  I hated it.  Thusly, a moment later, I had no immediate answer when my principal finally introduced me to come up and actually turned to me to talk.

Placing her hands over the microphone, she turned to me and whispered, “Do you want me to announce it?”

I honestly hadn’t thought about it.  My leaving was no longer news, nor should the question had come as a shock, but given how the decision to transfer schools had given me a feeling of “apartness” once I had made it, for whatever reason, my principal’s question left me immediately speechless.  I had to process it.

Finally, as if hit with smelling salts, “Sure, oh yes, of course!”

This is how I am ending fifteen years.

“Middle age is Janus-faced. As we look back on our accomplishments and our failures to achieve the things we wanted, we look ahead to the time we have left to us.”

Stanley H. Cath

Janus is the ancient Roman god of beginnings and endings,  usually portrayed as a two-faced god since he looks to the future and the past. The Romans dedicated the month of January to Janus.  For school teachers however, the transition month is not January, but June.  And on this Open House night, as I stood to acknowledge the polite clapping from the parents and students waiting for the classroom visitations to begin, my head was full of beginnings and endings.  June would be my transition month.

For lack of better way to articulate it, I had spent a couple of hours earlier in the afternoon meeting with the principal at my new school.  I was getting a walk-through, impressed with what I had seen, and admitting to him how absolutely excited and terrified about the transition ahead.  Even though we were barely into June, my head was already jumping into September, while also processing what the classroom move would entail, in addition to determining what the move back down from 6th grade to 5th grade would mean in terms of what old stuff was worth bringing back out, and what should stay packed away.

Back at my old school later on that night, walking to our classrooms, passing students and parents, the reality of what this move meant truly began to sink in.  15 years in one spot meant I had become a part of this local community, and that link was about to summarily end.  Even more of an impact was made when I began to see several of my former students, now in high school, stopping by to visit, incredulously trying to confirm what they thought they’d heard my principal saying.  Was I leaving?

I was, but it would not be on this night.  As much as it began with my mind 3 months ahead, seeing my former students dragged me back over 15 years.  In as much as I had current parents poking me for information about how their kids were doing, even more time was spent talking to my older kids, a task made easy this year by the large number of siblings of former students.  I knew their parents well, and their children really did mean something to me, for what they’ve done, but mostly now for who they are and are becoming.  Long before Katelyn arrived in my life, *these*  were my kids.

So the conversation drifted backwards and forwards along the memory trail, to their old classmates, to their current schools, to our time together and what we accomplished, for these students who had come by that night, and those whose presence in my room were marked merely by the 15 class portraits along one of my walls.

“Why are you leaving?”

“Where is this school?”

“What grade level?”

“Are you planning on taking journalism next year?”

“How is your brother?”

“Can we get a picture?”

Despite being trapped in a portable classroom which lacked air conditioning, sweating profusely, no one looked to leave, and as soon as I visited with one former student, another would walk in, and back down memory lane we tripped.

But along with these parents whose children were once *mine*, they still had siblings in the pipeline towards the upper grades.  And I wouldn’t have these kids.  As much as I didn’t want to admit it, an overwhelming sense of melancholy started to settle in.

Finally, the evening came to its end, and the parents of one former student walked me out of my classroom, and down the steps.  We talked about what this change meant for me, how much my time with their middle daughter meant for them, and how much they had wanted me to be the teacher for their youngest daughter.

“She was very unhappy when she heard you were leaving…”

“No, I wasn’t!” the little girl insisted.

Her eyes betrayed her.  When she looked up at me, they were red and filled with tears.

I think that is going to happen to me at some point in this process too…