Once a teacher, they told me, always a teacher.
Who said that? Was it the women from my first teaching post, back when I was still in college and had no clue how to manage a classroom, even one with just eight students? Or was it my TESOL instructor shortly before I left for Prague? All the teaching lessons in the world wouldn’t have prepared me for Prague. Maybe it was those ladies from Prague…My dear, lovely Czech mothers who wrapped me up in all my mistfitted enthusiasm and showed me what real teachers look like.
Somebody said it. Somebody who knows what it’s like to be a teacher.
But this isn’t ever something a teacher wants to do — packing up the classroom, putting away the colorful whiteboard markers, taking down the preposition posters and the Spanish calendar, cleaning out the desks. Clearing out the classroom — not just for the summer, but for good — feels like packing up a piece of your heart and putting in a back closet with a neat label, and then shutting off the light, closing the door and walking away for good. It hurts.
And after welcoming students through these doors every September for forty-one years, the teachers and staff here who are now facing the school’s final closure…Well, they are feeling a hurt I know well.
I’d only taught at Covenant for one year, and it was only part-time. It wasn’t Prague. Nothing will ever be Prague, and I’m coming to terms with this. But beginning my days in this little room was good for me, I think. Stabilizing. The board’s final decision to close the school meant I would be out of a job, it meant I wouldn’t be teaching for a while and I knew I would miss that, it meant not seeing my fellow teachers and my students (who have wiggled into my affections with the most persistence I have ever seen), and it meant I was back to not knowing what the next step was. But for the teachers who’ve dedicated years to this ministry, the students who have grown up here, the staff who have watched generations of children, including their own, flourish and bloom within these walls, the process of saying goodbye was much more difficult.
June gloom had disappeared for good and were spending the our summer holiday in shorts and T-shirts, clearing out four decades of memories.
“There’s ice cream in the freezer,” said Sherry. Her voice tinkled with its usual cheeriness, despite the difficulty of the week. “Several boxes, actually, so you should take a break at some point and help us clean that out next.”
Celeste and I looked at each other. Ice cream.
But first, we had to finish the project at hand. My classroom was being turned into temporary storage and the P.E. closet had to be sorted before we could move in tables — by the end of the week, my room would be an unrecognizable library of books and bobbles, stacked floor to ceiling with historical knick knacks, geography maps, art and science equipment, and at least one version of every board game that came out of the ‘80s.
The P.E. closet was a treasure trove. Celeste and I had moved out all the boxes and laid them in the middle of the floor, sorting the contents one box at a time. She has been a teacher here for years and years and years. In fact, most of my first three months teaching the underclassmen were spent trying to live up the name she made for herself among the students. I will say now, everyone agreed she did a much better job decorating the class for Christmas. Anyway, you get the picture. Big shoes.
But Celeste and I go back to a time that is precious to me for a different reason. We met the summer I moved to Prague. For a few weeks, a few life-changing weeks, she was a very good friend to me.
And now we were both smelling old volleyball jerseys and deciding whether or not to put them in the ‘donate’ pile or the trash. I don’t think either of us thought we’d be here: her, closing up the school she loves and me, back in San Diego.
It was getting hot in the classroom. The humidity was not helped by the mountains of old jerseys and practice uniforms surrounding us. Celeste could tell which year most of them were used, who wore which number, every story behind every yellowing shirt. All I saw was a jersey that had seen it’s last game and smelled like retirement had not been kind. I suppose it’s true what they say about one man’s trash.
It felt odd, holding up pieces of the aging uniforms and asking if we should keep them or not. It was a practical decision to me. To Celeste, it was a personal one.
“I almost feel like I shouldn’t be allowed to be making these decisions,” I said, holding up a white practice jersey against the dusty sunshine from the window to see if it looked better with backlighting. Celeste just shrugged her shoulders, tears gathering in her eyes. It must have been the dust.
The school banner, weird ribbons whose purpose I never figured out, a sheet that someone wore like a cape at every game and award ceremony — memories were so deeply entrenched in the things we were clearing out, things that now served no purpose, things that had lost their value except to make us reflect on a time when the people and places close to us were just that — close to us. Throwing away the old jersey is like throwing away the memory. It’s like saying it never happened, the last living trace of yesterday removed from our today, our tomorrow.
We needed ice cream.
The freezer was loaded with bars and cones and sandwiches. Caramel drizzles, chocolate swirls, nuts and vanilla. Food for our weary souls.
We sat in the kitchen and ate our treats. Celeste had started reminiscing and once the floodgates opened, it was story after story of the most heartwarming, entertaining and hilarious moments of this school.
It made me think of Prague.
Every teacher has a closet of stories stored up for days like this. My closet is bursting at the seams and most of them I know I’ll never tell. Because I never had this — this closure. I packed my classroom up in a day and half and rushed straight from our last day of school to the airport and onto a flight that would take me away from my kids, my friends, my life. I wish I had had a week to sort through class papers and school performances, to rehash the war stories and remember the good ol’ days. I wish I had been able to share it all with someone who had been there, who understood even a little. But I was in Prague alone. I came back alone. And I have no one to share my stories with.
After ice cream, we pumped up volleyballs, moved kiddie chairs that had the weight and cumbersome nature of small tanks (when the zombie apocalypse happens, I will return to melt them down for their metal), and one of us had an infuriating run-in with a spider. It was me.
Then we got more ice cream.
Over the course of the week, the school transformed. What a sad metamorphosis to watch, to be a part of.
Not without adventures. I nearly had a mental breakdown trying to get the carcasses of dead flies and one mostly dismembered spider out of the crevice in the window sill. Rachel was not helpful. After I emotionally fortified myself, she shoved a fetal pig in my face, leftovers from biology class. Jackie excused me from having to clean out the science lab upon seeing my skin flush several shades of green. Besides, Rachel was only too happy to play with the dead animals.
I went through the library, the after-school room, the history class. Books were moved. Games were packed away. Globes and dictionaries and pictures of presidents were brought to what was once my classroom. Most of it would be given away, divided up like remnants of a conquered nation.
And I did start to feel the sadness of it. Already, I missed my students. Already, I missed those early mornings and the coffee that barely got me through fourth period English. Already, I missed what could have been: a future here at this school. Already, I was longing again for that thrill of life, that rush of joy, that slow trudge of building tiny humans into great people.
It’s not Prague, but I’ll miss this place. Once a teacher, always a teacher, I guess.
I can’t remember who said that.
Does it matter who said it? The women at my first teaching post in college, my TESOL instructors, those dear ladies from my school in Prague, the family of teachers and staff at my latest venture right here in Chula Vista — they have all lived the same basic truth, because the fundamentals of teaching are the same world-wide. You pour out your heart into the tiny hands of freshly minted humans and hope that you can equip them body, mind and soul for the journey ahead. What a responsibility. What a privilege. And what a hope and peace to know that it is God who opens each classroom to us, just as he closes the doors of others; writing our stories just as he hears us retell them.