It’s getting better all the time / I used to get mad at my school…/ You’re holding me down
Filling me up with your rules / I’ve got to admit it’s getting better / A little better all the time
— The Beatles, “Getting Better”
“Daddy, you’re getting us lost!”
“Katelyn, STOP IT! I don’t like it when you act like Mommy…”
But she had a point. I was driving through the town’s main drag, looking for a recommended local charity to drop off some of Katelyn’s old clothes that she’d outgrown over the summer. Along with those toddler togs was a bag filled with my old school shirts–blue and red bulldog wear now a personal anachronism at a new school amid a sea of green instead. Like a snake, I was having to shed a skin in order to grow. I was pressed for room in my closet as it was, and this obsolete spirit wear were a proper candidate to move away.
Nevertheless, Friday morning saw me face a moment of truth that I had dreaded even more than unpacking my room: the terror in realizing that I might backslide into some of the same cranky hermit habits that had characterized my interactions at my old site once I determined that lying low was a better survival tactic than trying to make my general presence known. As my time there dwindled, I chose to simply avoid interacting with as many people as I could, choosing to spend time with either my kids, or in my classroom. Truthfully though, I realized at that time that it was hasn’t a healthy type of behavior, even for an introvert such as myself. While I still had dear friends on that staff, they were in primary grades, and my little petty complaints to them could never be met with any sort of useful steps to ameliorate my situation.
I was ready for a change, both in work site and in my personal attitude. As I often told my students at the beginning of every year, past was not prologue. What happened before did not have to happen again in terms of self-defeating behavior. The summer work spent at the credit union was huge in moving me out of my comfort zone. My team members welcomed me from Day 1 there, making it easy to actually focus upon the work and less upon worries about interpersonal relationships. The instant acceptance at face value was a huge factor in moving me from someone who tended to shy away from engagement towards someone who felt he was now in a place to try to present a different side of myself at a new school site to get the fresh start that I desperately needed to have.
So, there was a moment on Friday morning, when I could feel old feelings creeping back. I was already struggling adapting to life at school starting at 8:10 am when 15 years of habit had internalized 8:15 am start times. It was the occasion of the school year’s first school assembly. As the bell sounded to go get the kids, I saw other classes streaming out to the playground’s black top in an organized way, each carrying small carpet square on which they would sit. I was dumbfounded. I was not told that this was protocol. I had seen the carpets in my closet, and had assumed they were for situations where the students sat on the floor in the room itself; I had no clue that they were for outdoor assemblies (especially since the regime at my old school had done away with outdoor assemblies and moved them into our school’s multi-purpose room).
I felt resentful at not knowing, to be perfectly honest. Whether justified or not, I had already felt isolated, and not knowing simple protocol like assembly habits made me begin to feel if I would be frozen out, when my intent all along was to not isolate myself from my teaching partners and try to integrate myself into the staff’s normal interactions. For instance, I had already brought lunch to eat in the staff lounge at lunch time–something I almost never did at my old school site. I did it as a promise to my fellow refugee, but I also know that the credit union experience made me feel more comfortable with the idea that I had a better chance of gaining acceptance by simply “being there” not choosing not to be. If I was going to do this, I needed to go all in.
Still, I stood up behind my grade level at the assembly, questioning everything about how the school year might develop. I was already questioning one of my partners, fairly or not, about how this morning had gone down. “Talk to me”, I pleaded. And, given that old habits die hard, I could see myself convincing myself of various paranoid conspiracy theories–totally unjustified, of course, at a new school site where I hadn’t been around long enough in the first place. “Relax, and then ask what happened, when you get the chance”, I told myself. But I also began to wonder if I, like two older teachers at my old school site, was about to be seen as the designated “cranky old person” within the teachers in my building. I sighed at this thought. I had never felt my age before, but I sure as heck did now.
Finally, as if she could sense my self-imposed isolation on the edge of the grade level grouping my other partner came over and immediately launched into an unsolicited apology. My partners were just as frustrated as I obviously was. While they knew the assembly protocol, they had no idea about how this particular assembly would take place, such that they had little time to tell their own students what they needed to do, much less tell me. If communication had broken down, it wasn’t anyone’s fault at the teaching staff level. To my relief, my confusion was par for the course for everyone. In circumstances begging for an ice breaker, on a warm humid September morning, the ice had broken in terms of my dealings with my grade level team. I immediately felt better. More importantly, my presumption of isolation was not only unfair, but reconfirmed what the credit union experience had taught me. “Face Value” meant that actions did not necessarily carry an ulterior motive.
By the afternoon, when we met to sketch out the coming week, I felt better about being forthcoming about my role within this new grouping for me. While I still don’t know how my warped view of the world would play with my two teaching partners going forward, at least I now felt a more open line of communication than I had before. I returned to my classroom to grab materials to finish my week’s lesson planning and instantly saw that yes, the light I felt at the end of my tunnel transition was the other end out, not the front of an oncoming train.
When I got home Friday night, I gathered up my old school spirit wear to take to my car for the thrift store donation bin for Saturday morning. The next day, Kate and I finally located the store after some morning errands, and after she stopped play acting as my wife with respect to my geographic literacy, we finally located the thrift store we had driven up and down the block trying to find. To my disappointment though, I discovered we were 15 minutes late for the store’s hours. I had thought it would have been 4 pm, when I realized that the store’s hours were cut back on Saturdays until 1 pm, not 4 pm. My donation would have to wait for another day.
Nevertheless, I had gone a ways towards shedding some other skin I didn’t need any longer at my new school site. That I couldn’t literally dispose of it the way I was trying to do with my old school shirts, didn’t mean that I couldn’t mentally toss it away. Like so many other things during this first week of school, I was taking another step forward.