once a teacher

img_20160906_085443There it was. Bright red and gleefully tucked beneath the clear folds of plastic wrap and blue ribbon, my very first “Teacher’s Apple.”

It’s an idea I have loved since I first spotted it in the soft colors of Norman Rockwell paintings kept in a book beneath our living room coffee table. Giving the teacher an apple. How classically, iconically American.

Needless to say, it wasn’t really something I experienced in the Czech Republic. Oh, I was begifted with plenty of little treasures, but apples were never a thing there as far as I could tell.

So beginning at my new little school this year, ten minutes away from where I grew up, has been…Well, it’s been a long time in coming.

My tumultuous year away from my Czech students in Prague was reaching an excruciating peak in March when I was contacted by this little school to see if I was interested in a teaching position.

I wasn’t.

Already, I was mapping out a survival plan for my remaining three years of college education here in San Diego and teaching part time at a tiny Christian school was just not in the cards. It wouldn’t be Prague, you know? And I would be too busy.

But I have trouble saying, “No” to people, so the next thing I knew, I was in the middle of a phone call with a board member and then in the middle of an interview with the entire school board and then negotiating hours.

None of it held any large office space in my mind. I was in the middle of several meltdowns in April and May, mostly involving finals and anxiety about my trip back to Prague in the summer for some final goodbyes and a little closure.

And all the while, I assumed I would turn the job down eventually. Something wouldn’t work out. Because how could it? This school wasn’t mine. It wasn’t Prague, remember?

And yet an insatiable curiosity kept pulling me along. This was no longer an inability to be an adult and say, “No, thank you, but I just can’t.”

There was a turning point, I remember.

During the full-board interview, after being sufficiently and terrifyingly grilled on my values, virtues and skill sets (most of which I may have slightly oversold), the Chairman leaned back, pointed his sharp eyes on me and said in his gruff voice, “Is there anything you’d like to ask us?”

I thought for a moment, whispers of my little Czech students still echoing in my ears all these months later, and said, “Tell me about the kids.”

All heads turned to the Chairman, who had been to this point the most intimidating figure in the room. He softened. He smiled. He said, “Let me tell you about them.”

I don’t remember what he said, but I remember how he said it. He said it with the same tenderness I have felt for my own little okurky. He said spoke about them with affection and hope, as though he could vividly see all the promises held in their futures lined out like golden stepping stones and he wanted more than anything to help them jump from one to the next.

And I knew that feeling so well.

So I took the job.

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Harvey, the fake owl that sits on my candy bowl. He is a dear friend.

I rearranged my school and work schedules. I found minutes in the day I didn’t know existed until I had all the time I needed to make everything fit. I read text books. I made lesson plans. I drafted a friend into decorating my classroom for me.

And on the first day of school, I found myself on the receiving end of an apple. The girl was quick about it. She placed it in my hand and then dashed away.

For three and a half hours, I made my way through high school level English and Spanish. Then I packed my things, locked my classroom and dashed off to campus to begin a round of back to back college lectures.

All week, I was in and out so quickly, I barely noticed the flurry of paperwork and signatures and beginners ‘how to’s’ I still needed to walk through. I did notice the other teachers graciously asking, “How’s it going? Are you doing okay?”

And I was, surprisingly.

After teaching several hundred students of all grades in a different language in the Czech Republic, a room of six high schoolers who all understand English seemed too easy. It was like training for a marathon and then running a mile.

On top of this, it was good to be back in the classroom. Indoctrinating a new generation of children on the importance of adverbs and explaining complex grammatical concepts with shoddily drawn stick figures. Having a little room with a little desk to sit behind (or on, as is more often my case). Having tiny people just bursting to ask questions, push buttons and grow into themselves.

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It wasn’t until Friday, the end of the first week, that I felt it. A realization. A revelation. A homecoming.

As my new students waltzed out of the room, practically singing, “See you on Monday!”, tripping over themselves to get to lunch, I felt a little tug on the cords of my heart. The same tug I always felt when school let out in Prague. It would be a whole weekend before I saw my students again.

My new school isn’t my old one. I knew that going in. I am very aware of it now. And I know that nothing will replace what Prague was to me.

But I think God knew I needed to be back in a classroom. I think maybe he’s been wanting me here and I was too stubborn to go on my own, so he just kind of pushed me into one.

When the Chairman bustles into my classroom with his gravelly voice and his broad smile and asks, “How are you doing?” – I tell him I’m doing well, that I like it here, that it feels like a good fit.

But the truth is, it’s more than that. It feels like home.

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the real life of fancy people

dresssy“Is it supposed to be ripping?” Aubrey asked as we struggled to get the dress over my head. Some get-ups are simply a two man project, and this dress was quite the get-up.

“No, generally that’s not a good thing,” I said as I tried unsuccessfully to shimmy into the sparkly death trap. “Mom already redid the seams on the side. Can you check to make sure the straps are still attached?”

Last year, when I was asked to cover the annual charity ball of a particularly humanitarian chamber of commerce in San Diego, I wore my only pair of fancy dress shoes (purchased for my High School Spring Formal back in 2009). Both straps snapped before dinner made it to the tables. The barman was kind enough to lend me some masking tape, but eventually I just went barefoot.

I have sturdier shoes now. It’s the dress I’m worried about. I just don’t have fancy-people clothes.

“I mean, for being Sarah’s dress, it fits you pretty well,” Aubrey said as we stood back to admire our handiwork (getting the dress on in one piece). For being a thirteen-year-old, Aubrey is a pretty good wingman.

Mom insisted on getting pictures as I hurried out the door. I protested because this was not Prom, this was work, but all she could see were the glittery earrings and the fact that I was wearing make-up for the first time in several months. We snapped some hurried photos.

I raced to Downtown, nerves flaring. I may have gently nudged a parked vehicle with my car this week and it was a scarring experience, especially considering that the other driver was sitting in the front seat while it happened. I haven’t cried so hard in front of a stranger since that bus driver in Prague shouted at me two years ago.

These happy thoughts in mind, I made my way gingerly into the crowded, chaotic streets of the Gaslamp and circled disorientedly for a place to pull up.

“Where have you been?” my editor asked cheerfully through the phone as I locked my car and began a conspicuous trek through downtown in all my second-hand pomp and circumstance. He knows I’ve been lost.

“Almost there,” I said, navigating the muck on the sidewalks with my unnecessarily long, swishy dress, camera bag slung unceremoniously over my shoulder.

“How are your shoes?” he asked.

“Sturdy,” I promised.

San Diego’s Horton Grand Hotel rose before me, lit brightly from the inside. Glamorous figures paraded around the entryway and lounged in the dimmer parlor bars on either side of the lobby, some already well into the evening’s supply of alcohol. A pair of finely dressed greeters stood near the door to sign people in and accept donations for the charity gala’s cause.

Golden shoes and glittery dresses flashed and sparkled and men in bowties and waistcoats pranced about in black masks. Everywhere was a different face – here an elephant man, there a phantom or a butterfly or horned lion.

Romance is dead, my friends. Social media has killed it.

I had brought a mask with me but I bought it at a 99c store and, frankly, it was just a little too yellow for my taste. Besides, I was working. One cannot take pictures while wearing a mask. That’s what I’ll tell him. I had a whole line of excuses ready for my editor for not wearing one.

By the time I found him, he was lining up on the red carpet near the entrance to the patio and could have cared less about my mask. Granted, the massive, live boa constrictor was a bit of a distraction.

Individually and in groups, guests stood on the carpet to get their photos taken by the professionals waiting behind flashing cameras while a snake handler draped the large reptile over their shoulders.

My boss was nigh on gleeful when we finally made our way across the room and into the patio, lit with thousands of white bulbs and washed in the warmth of a perfect summer night. Tables with treats waited for VIPs and a DJ and acrobatic dancers kept the air full of energy and movement.

I took a water bottle from our table and stowed my camera bag beneath one of the chairs. Time to get to work.

For the next 45 minutes, I moved around the hotel from lounge to lobby to back hallway bathrooms and back again in the search of a perfect photo for the story. Mostly, I found a lot of delightful, inebriated people dressed very, very nicely. The Horton had all types, really. The cool kids of wealthy community members who were trying to not enjoy the silver spoon they were dining on, the loners dreaming in corners on dark bar stools, the loud and lively divas with outfits as sparkly as their personalities, the nicely dressed men who think that hitting on a woman these days means asking if she has facebook.

Wait, let’s stop there.

Gone are the days when a man approached a woman with mystery and finesse. Smooth talking, swashbuckling roustabouts that our mamas warned us about no longer exist. They have been replaced by guys who totter over to say you look pretty and then ask if you can be friends on facebook and then make you type your own name into their phones.

Romance is dead, my friends. Social media has killed it.

But back to the soiree.

I sometimes pay for gas in quarters. Like this morning.

At some point, I found myself climbing a water fountain erupting from the side of the west-facing patio wall. For someone scared of heights, I felt this was going above and beyond the call of duty, but a winning trait of a good photographer is relentlessness and I’m trying to improve. With the sound of water trickling behind me and a devastating fall waiting in front of me, I looked out over the masked faces of several hundred people and thought, so this is how the fancy people live.

Crowning the evening was the main event, a fashion show and hair styling contest. I crouched down on the ground in front of a row of other photographers (I have also learned how to be pushy in this occupation), and clicked away as model after model sauntered through the crowd, heads tossed back elegantly as if to say, beautiful people don’t pay for their gas money in quarters.

I sometimes pay for gas in quarters. Like this morning.

The hair models were even more magnificent, sacheing from one corner of the fairy-like patio decor to another, holding up massive hair displays on slender necks.

By the end of the show, my sparkly black gown seemed rather commonplace.

Eventually, the DJ returned to his throne behind the speakers. A pageant queen was sitting on a chair, enormous crown pinned to her head and sash wound around her tiny waist, trying to rest her heeled feet. The line at the bar reappeared out of nowhere.

Too noisy to interview the designers and too chaotic to talk with the organizers, the party seemed to be losing its potential for productivity. I found my editor outside by the valets.

“I think my job here is done,” I told him, collapsing onto a bench. “I can call my sources tomorrow when they’re a little more available.”

“How did your shoes hold up?” he asked.

I looked down to double check that they were still attached to my feet, only to notice that a seem on my dress had begun to split.

“They’re doing okay,” I told him, “But if I don’t get home by midnight, I may turn back into a pumpkin.”

“Did you have fun?” he asked me as I packed my camera back into its bulky black bag.

“It was a nice evening,” I said. He waited.

“Honestly,” I finally said with a small sigh, “I think I’d rather be covering a game right now.”

He smiled.

Promising to get him copy on time (always a challenge for me), I swooshed into the night with my sturdy shoes and an old black dress that wasn’t even mine. I hadn’t had to put my mask on all evening and as I mentally reviewed my pictures, I was positive I had at least a few workable shots.

Downtown glittered in the midnight air and laughter and music spilled from the labyrinth of streets that led me back to my car.

Homeless people picked through trash and Uber drivers and taxis let out well-dressed men and women into streets full of regular people just having a good time.

And I was happy to be one of them.