An Ode to Hand Sanitizer and Friendship

The glass doors slid open with a familiar swoosh and a gust of wind pulled me into the cool room by the tails of my heartstrings.

Newspapers covered every flat surface and plaques hung so closely together on each inch of the walls that the white paint beneath was almost unnoticeable. Large windows revealed a passageway lined with offices leading around behind our newsroom “bull pit.” A great, three-panelled white board clung ceremoniously to south wall, and directly to the left of it was a small doorway leading into our archives room and connecting to the passageway of offices where they disappeared behind an award-plastered wall.

This was where I began the painful process of growing up all those years ago. This is where I learned how to write, how to rewrite, and how to pretend to write when you’re really watching Bridesmaids in the back office with someone else’s cheese puffs. This is where I first learned what it really meant to be a friend to someone – not because I was, but because they were to me.

“Thank God for air-conditioning,” said someone, sweeping past me into the newsroom.

“Is it just me or does it smell like bleach in here?” asked someone else, plopping a school bag down one of the forty chairs in the huge room. People took seats at the rounded tables or scurried to their offices in the back to grab pens or drop off bags.

“Max has been trying to keep it clean in here,” said Bianca, her ruby lips and voluptuous hair framing her face with a sheik burst of ‘chic.’ “If we get ants in here again he’s not going to be happy, so let’s try to remember the food rule.”

About eight of us had been waiting outside in the hot, August sun for Bianca to come unlock the newsroom so we could hold our pre-semester editor’s meeting. School was starting next week and we had to get our act together.

Hand Sanitizer

During the wait I had had a chance to meet some of the editorial board. One or two of them I had met briefly after I graduated in 2012 and we have been awkward facebook friends for these several years. Most of them were completely new to me. Most of them were kids. Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one.

Twenty-one. There’s a year I hope I never have to repeat.

Jaime, our intrepid editor-in-chief, began the meeting with a toss of his Biebery hair and a small smile.

“Let’s talk Issue One,” he said with an incredibly even-tone voice. I settled into my chair and tried not to say anything. In flashbacks I remembered joining the newspaper my second semester of college. I needed computer credits and this seemed like an easy way to get them.

After exactly one afternoon, I was hooked.

And for those who don’t know, journalism is one of those professions that will suck your life away before you’ve even noticed that you haven’t really been home in about four days. Several of the editors have couches or mattresses in their offices. Most of us have emergency food stores tucked away in our office cabinets, right next to the red pens, battery packs and several full seasons of The Office. If the zombie apocalypse goes down in my lifetime, this is where I plan to stake out my fortress, or whatever.

But I knew coming back wouldn’t be the same. For starters, I trained most of their mentors. While still in Prague, I had been given an introduction I’m sure was exaggerated immensely. There was pressure to prove I wasn’t just a byline from our archives. The last editor-in-chief, a go-for-the-jugular kind of gal, had asked me to be photo editor and, because I’m an idiot, I said, “Sure.”

I do not have the qualifications to be photo editor.

So I just sat and listened as each editor talked about their section and how to get the semester going. I tried to match names and faces. I’m a middle school teacher – I should definitely be able to keep track of names at this point.

About halfway through the meeting, as I did mental flashcards with people’s faces, the double doors swooshed open again and a short, ball-capped, spit-fire of a human being walked in. He swaggered over to a chair next to Jaime and slid in, widening our circle by one, incredibly large measure of sass.

Immediate uproar.

“You’re back!”

“How was it?”

“Dude, so excited you’re here.”

He accepted the rush of affection with a very chill shrug of the shoulders and the complacent grin of someone who belongs.

“Dan is one of our really good cartoonists,” Jaime explained to me. Jaime was doing a good job of keeping me in the loop. It was almost like he could see the smoke billowing out of my ears as I tried to keep up.

Everyone knew everyone. I was the new person. I’m used to this by now, of course. Switching debate categories my junior year of high school, going to college that first year, moving to Prague. Yeah, I’m super used to being the new kid on the block.

“Is there anything anyone wants to add?” Bianca was asking. They were talking newsroom maintenance.

I raised my hand.

“When I was here we used to have hand sanitizer by the computers in this room and at the front desk. Is that not a thing anymore?”

Everyone exchanged blank stares and someone smothered a chuckle. (I’m sorry, people. I have a thing for hand sanitizer. Get over it). But I guess maintaining a clean working environment and preventing the spread of contagious diseases LIKE EBOLA is not a priority anymore. I accepted this and the discussion moved along.

Thankfully, I had a bus to catch and was able to duck out of the meeting early. I’m becoming less and less of an extrovert in my old age.

The first day of school dawned bright and early for me. My first waking thought – immediately after, “Who on earth gets up this early to do anything?” – was a fluttering wish to know how my students in Prague were doing on their first day of school.

A world away, in a corner of time that I will never be able to return to, a dozen little classes and their darling teachers are gathering in a little yellow school.

I brushed the thoughts away. I can only think about my time in Prague in 60-second clips before I get choked up. One day those precious memories won’t stir up difficult emotions, but it was not this day or any day this summer.

After skillfully and courageously surviving the trip to school and the first seventy minutes of class, I dropped by the newsroom just long enough to tidy up the photo office. Tomorrow was our first big day and I wanted my room to be presentable to our future photographers.

The multimedia and campus editors were occupying the hallway with half-cocked grins and tired eyes. I surveyed them from a distance like a cowboy sizing up a buffalo he’d really like to mount on his wall. There were only two of them, after all. I could manage that.

This is it, I thought to myself. This is my chance to make friends.

“Hey,” I said in my most nonchalant, I’m-a-totally-cool-person voice. “I’m headed to the Dollar Tree for hand sanitizer. Anybody want some?”

The pretty campus editor with the perfect eyebrows perked up.

“Yes, definitely,” she said. “Would you mind?”

“No, not at all,” I said with a cheery smile, feeling like one of those popular blond girls from the TV shows who have their lives all put together.

I was feeling like a total champ for about six minutes, right up until I rounded the corner on the end of campus and saw my bus pulling away from the curb.

Missing buses is something I’m used to. It happened all the time in Prague. But there was always another bus, or tram, or metro. I checked the schedule.

“AN HOUR?”

The pidgeons next to me fluttered away to a safer distance and someone shot me a curious glance.

An hour? Really? WHY, AMERICA, WHY?

I couldn’t go back to the newsroom, that was obvious. I couldn’t ruin that perfect impression of having it together – not with so much at stake. Maybe I could walk to the Dollar Tree? How far away was Bonita? Just down the hill, right? And I had planned to walk home from there anyway.

It was hot and I was wearing jeans (again, because I’m an idiot), but I could not be detered. I needed this hand sanitizer. I needed a cheap candy bowl to lure potential friends into my office. I needed to get to the Dollar Tree.

So I set off walking. I walked everywhere in Europe. This should have been no problemo.

About two miles later, having lost nearly a quarter of my body weight to sweat, limping from a blister building on my left heel, I began to rethink the whole process.

The green logo of my destination did eventually come into view and, after purchasing my goods, I started off for home. The total trek was about 5 ½ miles, coming in just over an hour and a half.

About a mile from my house I pulled out my phone and staged a fake conversation, just so I could vent out loud without looking like I was talking to myself to anyone who might be driving by.

“You’re an idiot, Mary,” I told myself through my phone. “You couldn’t have just waited for that stupid bus, could you? Now just look where you are. Walking home. Walking six miles home. I hope you’re happy with yourself.” I wasn’t.

I tried to put the incident behind me and when I dropped the hand sanitizer off in the campus editor’s office the next morning, she gave me a very grateful, “Aww, thank you, girl!”

No girl, thank you.

“We were a little worried about you yesterday,” she said as I turned to leave. “You totally disappeared on us!”

“Oh,” I laughed nervously. “Um, yeah, I just went home.”

Laaaame.

Jaime shared the same sentiments when I dropped off a bottle of hand sanitizer at the reception desk, currently occupied by Dan the cartoonist guy.

Little King Trash Mouth

“Everyone was like, ‘Where the heck did Mary go?’” Jaime continued as if the Case of the Missing Mary was the most interesting thing to happen in the last 24 hours. Surely not.

“I just went to the Dollar Tree in Bonita,” I said. “It’s right on my way home.”

“I thought that was you I saw,” said the cartoonist, spinning around. Without his ballcap a ruffled mohawk striped the back of his head. “I drove past you. I think you were on the phone. Why were you walking, though?”

I groaned.

“I was going to offer you a ride,” he said in an off-handed way, “But I was like, ‘Eh, I barely know her. That might be weird.’”

“You should have!” I moaned pathetically. All pretense of being chill flushed away. “I missed my bus and I had to walk all the way home!”

Jaime and Dan both let loose a chorus of laughter while I sat there and fidgeted, and then Jaime said, “But… Why did you go to the Dollar Tree in Bonita? Don’t you know there’s one right across the street?”

I lost it. I absolutely lost it. Whatever efforts I had been trying to make to seem like some cool, accomplished, put-together piece of whatever, they were all failing miserably.

“I am such an idiot,” I pouted, cradling my head in my hands.

“Yeah, that wasn’t a super smart move,” said Dan with friendly American sarcasm. “The Dollar Tree by the school is literally so close.”

No one let me forget about the hand sanitizer incident. I don’t even know how they all found out so quickly.

Dan, especially, thought it was hilarious. He proved to be a real cheeky rascal. The kind that pulls a Jim Halpert face every time someone cracks a ‘your mom’ joke (and by ‘someone’ I mean ‘me’).

“You are so aggressive, Mary,” he would say to me from whatever office chair he had turned into his throne for that day. One minute he’d be shaking his head disapprovingly, and the next he’d be instigating – with devilish glee – some act of office mischief.

Annoying Dan became one of the joys I depended on to get me through the day.

I spent that first week up to my eyeballs in equipment inventorying, story assignments, press badges and templates. I didn’t have an assistant yet so I was dropping balls right and left. I may know how to take a good picture, but managing a section is a completely different duck pond. And all my ducks were like radio-active baby rhinos that I had to teach to swim.

On top of all this, I have been using a Canon for the last three years and the school’s equipment is entirely Nikon. About twice a day I would walk into someone’s office and ask, “Does anyone know anything about cameras? How do I increase the shutter speed on this?” To which they would shrug and say, “Aren’t you the photo editor?”

Ah, yes. Yes, I am.

Bianca and the multimedia editor did mountains to help me get things sorted and the viewpoints editor helped me start my computer at least three times the first week.

And every time I would feel overwhelmed or flustered (outbreaks which the editorial board has begun calling “Marydowns”), I would think about my tiny office in a tiny school in Prague with hand-drawn pictures and students projects pinned up along the walls, reminding me that bunches of tiny people loved me. Just for a moment. Just until it started to hurt again.

The first week of school melted into the third week and I found myself an assistant. I figured out where the playback button was on our Nikon cameras. I put things up on our office walls. Slowly, the place started to feel like my own.

Accept for the fact that I still felt like everyone thought I was one, big, unjustifiable failure, I was hanging in there.

One evening, as I was blaring David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” (a college staple) from my computer and desperately trying to figure out how to crop things in photoshop, Dan opened the door to my office, dragging a cushy chair behind him.

“I stole this from multimedia,” he said, making himself comfortable. “Why are your lights off, dude?”

Relishing the opportunity to ignore my current technical difficulties, I spun around and faced him.

“I get distracted when I can see everything, so I keep the lights off when I need to work,” I said in as matter-of-fact, I’m-not-crazy-I-swear a tone as I could possibly muster under the circumstances.

“Hmm,” he said, looking around my two-bit working space. “I’ve been stalking you on Instagram a bit,” he said still examining the white boards and the sticky notes everywhere. “Your students looked really cool.”

“Wait, which picture did you see?” I asked, excited to talk about something other than how badly I was fulfilling my duties as photo queen.

“The one with the kid wearing the meme shirt,” he said. “And a couple others. What was it like teaching in Europe?”

And I was off. I told him about the Wall-of-Shame and our English Clubs. I told him about the rascals and the angels and all their crazy antics. I told him how much I loved being a teacher and how much I miss it. And it all came out so naturally, like it was any other part of my life.

We compared notes about pre-teens for a bit and then the multimedia editor came back looking for her chair.

Dan got up to go and I went back to work. It felt so normal I didn’t even realize immediately the significance of that conversation. I was able to talk about Prague, about a part of my life that I have been feeling like I lost, without the ache that comes with it.

It was just another memory. Just another time. Just another piece of me to share with a piece of someone else.

The gift of friendship

I had no idea how badly I needed people this month until they turned up. Part of what has made coming home so hard has been the gaping hole in my heart, carved out by precious children and fearlessly loving teachers who welcomed me with open arms and made me one of their own.

As difficult as it is to be the new person, it is incredibly humbling and incredibly beautiful to once again be the object of friendship from strangers. To be included. To be offered a place in a family of human beings who are loyal and kind to each other for reasons the rational mind cannot fathom. And so, to be reminded of the goodness of God as He is reflected in His extraordinary people.

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