Mary vs. Biology Lab

Let me preface this by saying: Science and I have never been friends.

In tenth grade biology lab, the day we all had to skin and dissect limp, dead rats, I paid a boy a hearty amount of Snickers bars to skin mine for me, because I one-hundred percent was not going to.

I barely slid through Chemistry junior year with a passing grade, but only because I am really good at faking competent answers on homework. I don’t even remember what we did that year, just that I cried for hours when I realized how much math was involved.

And I’m pretty sure third grade life science is what initially triggered my very intense obsessive-compulsive need to wash my hands whenever I see insects, dead animals, or basically anything that crawls, clicks or slimes its way through existence. That’s right. Third grade science birthed my OCD.

So, of course, I put off my college science GE’s till the last possible moment. Finally, my counselor gave me the look that said, “it’s been years and I want you out of my office, please just do this already.” So I bit the bullet.

I signed up for Biology 100 and its corresponding 101 lab.

Friends, it’s been a battle.

ROUND #1 – MARY VS. LAB PARTNERS

Now, I’ve been at community college long enough to know that if you don’t like the people you sit next to, you will fail the class. If you like them too much, you will also fail the class.

I did a quick survey of the already crowded lab before finding an open seat next to a perky woman in her thirties and a boy with braces and a baseball cap. We were joined by a guy who came into class late, swinging his motorcycle helmet in one hand and pocketing his other into a brown leather jacket. Two weeks into the semester, after the usual dropouts disappeared, we gained a chirpy girl with a big smile and an insatiable giggle and a quiet guy who we had previously dubbed “the class nomad” because he moved from lab group to lab group for weeks before settling on ours.

Perfect. I found the breakfast club.

Mary: 1
Biology Lab: 0

ROUND #2 – MARY VS. LECTURE

It should be noted that this class happens after I’ve already had a full day at work and a three hour cross country practice. Lab begins at 6:45 and runs till 9:55. The professor does not let us out early. Ever.

“The emotional stamina it takes to attend this class is more than I think I’m capable of,” I told the perky woman, who I refer to as our lab mom because she takes such good care of us when none of us feel like being adults.

She just laughed at me.

Following our weekly quiz, which I always nail because…I’m good at faking stuff…our professor does a little overview on the lab material and the science behind all the stuff we’re going to do. I usually sleep through that part.

In fact, our lab books are pretty thick and well-sized, so they double nicely as pillows and I get a quickie fifteen-minute power nap in before we have to do things that involve hazardous substances.

Mary: 2
Biology Lab: 0

ROUND #3 – MARY VS. THE MICROSCOPE

I may not be good at science, or listening to directions, or staying awake during class, or behaving like an adult in general, but I am phenomenal with a microscope.

Motorcycle Guy and Baseball Kid usually man one of our groups’ two scopes and Lab Mom and I work the other. The Nomad and Smiley Girl just watch and offer moral support.

The first microscope lab, all we had to do was identify color threads and whatever. It was like a How-To-Use-This-Equipment-That-Costs-More-Than-Your-Life type of lab. Easy.

The second lab, they had us looking at cheek cells, plant cells and weird little pond organisms.

This was a bit of a bust and we ended up drawing a lot of fake pictures of things we didn’t really see in our microscope. Eventually, Lab Mom and I found something in our pond water that was not supposed to be there. He looked like a legless naked mole rat with a pincher for a tale. We named him Humphrey and he is my best friend.

So far, so good.

Mary: 3
Biology Lab: 0

ROUND #4 – MARY VS. HUNGER

This is where things get ugly. As previously stated, I come straight from practice. Sometimes I am able to get a hearty meal in before class, and sometimes I just chug a gatorade like it ain’t no thang.

It is a thang. Gatorade is the bomb.com.

Anyway, I’m usually hungry and out of sorts when I get to lab, which Lab Mom likes to make fun of because she thinks it’s hilarious that a twenty-something still hasn’t figured out how to feed herself.

Smiley Girl has a habit of naming off foods she’d like to eat, randomly and in the middle of class.

This usually does it for me and, after stamping my feet a little, I sneak out of lab and head to the campus cafe. After eight o’clock, all their hot food is half off.

There is a reason for this. Half-off food from the cafe has less soul than a dementor and less taste than a Kardashian.

Tears usually follow the stale bean and cheese burrito I inevitably end up purchasing. Stiff and like unto cardboard, the tortilla barely merits the name. Say nothing of the substance they claim is “bean and cheese.”

But it’s food and it’s cheap, so I eat it.

“Chocolate? Pringles? What’s your poison tonight?” my professor will ask with a smile as I slip back into the chaos of a lab that is in full gear.

“A burrito,” I say with hints of remorse in my voice.

She smiles knowingly.

“These are the burritos you’ll remember,” she assures me.

I hope not.

Mary: 3
Biology Lab: 1

ROUND #5 – MARY VS. THE PROFESSOR

I like our professor and, on some level, I’m pretty sure she’s okay with me. She’s pretty relaxed, very down-to-earth, and just weird enough to not be intimidating.

As much as I love faking answers, the journalist in me refuses to half-hash the lab questions we don’t know (unless it’s drawing something because, literally nobody cares). So I sidle up to the professor to ask her leading questions about the lab work until she gives me the answer we’re looking for. On the whole, it has been an effective practice which has harmed no one, but whenever Biology Lab wins the hunger round, I find myself getting persnickety. And the professor tends to notice.

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“I think the book is wrong,” I began after hailing over the professor to show her an inconsistency in the respiration equation written in our lab manuals. She perused the question for a moment and then we scribbled some practice answers.

“Hmm, that’s interesting,” she said. “I’m not sure why it’s written like this, but I’m sure there’s a reason.”

“The book is wrong,” I said again, not sure why this very decent explanation was not sticking.

“I’m not going to let you come to lab anymore if you’re going to troop in from practice all famished and cranky,” she told me.

Ten minutes later, we saw the lab proctor from the Biology class one room over come in and the two of them had their heads together over the question for fifteen minutes.

“The book is wrong,” I whispered to my lab group again.

I enjoy being right and pushing buttons, but now whenever the professor calls my name in roll, it’s with a sigh – “Aaaand Mary,” as if she’s already exhausted that I’m there.

Ultimately, I have to win over the professor if I plan to pass the class. And that’s slow going.

Mary: 3
Biology Lab: 2

ROUND #6 – MARY VS. LIVING THINGS

img_20161011_202906At some point this semester, and I can’t say which point because I have mostly tried to block it from my mind, we did an experiment with little mice. Cute, harmless little mice that will haunt my dreams for years to come.

I’m sorry, I just don’t do super well with animals of any kind. Like, I appreciate them in theory, and if I don’t have to touch them or anything they’ve touched, we’ll all be just fine. But this experiment required a little hands-on contact.

Our mouse was a hero for the duration of the lab. He did great. A real trooper.

Not as much can be said for my own behavior. I had several meltdowns (not as bad as the one I had over the mudworm, but definitely worse than the one over the cheeks cells).

We had successfully put our little guy back in his habitat with the other little mice when Smiley giggled and said, “Oh no! We didn’t get a selfie with him!”

Mary: 3
Biology Lab: 3

ROUND #7 – MARY VS. DEAD THINGS

Easily our chillest lab session (identifying animals) was also my most traumatizing. I mean, the bookwork was fine. Answer questions. Draw pictures. Talk about the structural difference between sponges and jellyfish (“Doesn’t one of them poop?” asked Baseball Kid. “No,” answered Motorcycle Guy, “They don’t have that thing for digestion. What’s it called? The complete gut.” Baseball Kid nodded and Smiley said under her breath, “The Complete Gut – that’s totally a band I would go see.”). It’s a grand ole time until you have to leave the table.

From one wall to the other were pictures and posters of animal intestines. Jars of tapeworms and mudfish (a boneless fish with fangs coming out of a hole on one end of it’s body) and other things you just can’t unsee were strewn over the counters. I needed blinders to get from our table to the microscope.

Then, just when I thought I was safe next to the taxidermy table, waiting to have my lab book checked so I could leave, I noticed a jar of blood orange liquid behind a cute grey squirrel. Inside this sickly jar of death juice was a tiny white weasel.

Obviously, I screamed.

I tripped backwards a little bit and fluttered around until someone directed me away from the monstrosity. Unfortunately, he directed me right into a wall display of arachnids the size of my palm.

Obviously, I screamed again, much louder and with a little sob at the end.

“Will someone please just get her out of here?” said the professor with a sigh, not even bother to check my work.

Mary: 3
Biology Lab: 4

ROUND #7 – MARY VS. THE DRUDGERY

Drudgery is a real thing and it becomes harder to deal with the later the hour. To keep myself as engaged as possible during bio lab, I have resorted to christening everything that ends up on our lab table with a proper name, doodling in the margins of my lab book, and writing correct answers in the most unreasonable way possible. “Turnt up,” “Super duper effective,” and “Chillin’” have all made it into my written answers more than once. I also used Tinder as an analogy to explain hydrogen bonds. By the end of the semester, the whole lab group had taken to my particular style of “street responses.” That, if nothing else, was a victory.

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The naming of plants, animals and bacteria has been low key, except for the time our experimental plants did super well and the professor used them as an example in front of the whole class.

“Whose are these, anyway?” she asked, trying to read the names printed alongside the two test tubes. “Who are Ben and Jerry?”

On the whole, the class didn’t appreciate the humor, but I thought it was hilarious.

Mary: 4
Biology Lab: 4

ROUND #8 – MARY VS. NEIGHBORING LAB GROUPS

One horrifying evening this semester, someone removed a chair from our side of the lab table so the Nomad moved down to the end to work with the other lab group.

I felt furious. Heartbroken. Betrayed.

After all the work we did to convince him to join our group, after he had been wandering grouplessly for weeks, he was just going to abandon us for the two mad professors at the end of the table?? I couldn’t believe it. And all over a missing chair.

Harsh words were exchanged. Mostly from me. I’m pretty sure nobody else cared.

He did rejoin our group the next week (“I’m glad you’re back but I’ll never be able to trust you again,” I told him. All he did was laugh. Nobody takes me seriously…). But he was a changed man after that. He sped through the assignments, even taking out a third microscope from the shelf because we weren’t going fast enough. He doesn’t joke around with us anymore. He just sits there and gets work down. Sometimes, I even find myself copying his answers, which just goes to show how far we can fall when we leave our true friends.

I don’t know what the other lab group did to him, but it breaks my heart to see him so studious.

Mary: 4
Biology Lab: 5

ROUND #9 – MARY VS. THE FINAL

I am completely unconcerned about the final, mostly because this has been one of the easiest classes I have ever taken, but also because we won’t have to interact with anything but a pen and paper. What could possibly go wrong? Also, I have 102 percent, which, if you’re struggling with the math there, is somewhere around an A.

What I am kind of bummed about is saying goodbye to my little group of people. Not just the lab group, but the neighboring mad professors who stole Nomad for a night (and who give us their answers when we lose track of where the class is because we’re all too busy talking about how to find a DJ who will provide a smoke machine pro bono for Smiley’s party), and the semi-cute guy who we tried to set up with Smiley (mistake), and the water polo girl at the other table who also complains about being hungry and tired all the time. And our dear, dear professor, bless her patient soul.

Biology lab has been fun because of them and I’m not looking forward to going back to classes where no one gets to know each other.

I guess that’s another point for bio lab.

Mary: 4
Biology Lab: 6

I suppose there are worse things I could be doing with my Tuesday nights. Why not spend them in a drafty room where they tear apart the ligaments of dead cats, which smells constantly of pine oil, and is probably haunted by the ghosts of a thousand lab experiments gone horribly, horribly wrong?

Besides, every semester needs one good adventure.

what I have learned as a college athlete

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“Hold still, Mary,” Ernesto said as he adjusted the lens of his very spiffy camera. “This is the last time I bring you a pumpkin spice latte before the photoshoot.”

I was jittery.

Cold sunlight was just beginning to break over the concrete tips of the football stadium and where we stood on the red and gold turfed endzone it was still chilly. My cross country uniform wasn’t doing much for warmth and the PSL hadn’t settled my nerves the way we had both hoped it would.

“I just feels weird,” I said as Ernesto finished setting up the lighting tripod. “The whole team is wearing this uniform right now because they’re at an actual race, and here I am with the uniform on getting my photo taken like a fake, wanna-be athlete.”

“The school thanks you,” said Ernesto crisply. He works for the PR department and was doing a favor for his latest project. We’ll see in a few months how much I’m going to regret it.

“What’s it like anyway?” he asked me, adjusting some knobs on his camera and then directing me to stand closer to the lighting pod.

He must think it’s odd, watching me make the transition from fully-fledged nerdling to almost-athlete. Those are two different worlds and we’ve both spent a long time in one, giving quizzical looks at the other.

“I mean,” I paused. “It’s different. I’ve been injured for most of it so it’s hard to say.”

“What have you been learning?” he asked as he directed me into position. “Tilt your head. Besides running, of course. Hand on your hip. Or do they even teach you that? What do they do? What do you do at practice? Okay, too much hip, Mary. Calm down.

I let him push me around from this angle to that and thought about his question. What have I been doing? What have I been learning?

It’s a question that has followed me into every practice, every ice bath, every hot shower, every evening class I sit through with nothing but food and sleep on my mind. And, eight short weeks later, as I sat on a sunny slope in Irvine, the bib number from my very last race still pinned to my jersey, it was there still.

For weeks since then, I have tried to write everything down. I’ve tried to explain what this season has meant to me. And I can’t. There just aren’t words for it.

So instead, for the sake of just finally getting this off my chest, I’m going to answer Ernesto’s question as best I can in just a few highlights.

As a nerd, trying to be an athlete, this is what I’ve learned from one semester of college cross country.

Firstly, ice is amazing.

Ice is the great healer. Pulled a muscle? Ice it. Feeling sore? Ice it. Shin splints? Ice it. Break a leg? WHY DO YOU KEEP GETTING INJURED? GET YOURSELF TOGETHER, KID!

I have been injured so much this semester, so I would know. It’s painful, strapping an ice pack to your leg for twenty minutes or immersing your body in a frigid whirlpool till your skin is all red and numb. But I guess sometimes the healing process requires a little pain before the gain. And there is so much to gain.

Secondly, the “Dumb Jock” stereotype is a lie.

My grades have really taken a hit this semester. ‘A’s used to come so easily to me. This semester I’m relieved if I pull out a ‘B’. I used to think that athletes who were allowed to slide by with ‘C’s were just “dumb jocks” – probably just laziness or poor priorities or too many hits to the helmet region. I was wrong. It’s hard to be a student athlete! It’s not just that you’re losing three to four hours every day for practice that you could be using to do homework or study, it’s that after practice, all you want to do is eat and sleep! I don’t think I’ve been awake for a full biology lecture all semester and I spend half of Spanish class distracted by how hungry I am. I eat all the time and I feel like I should be sleeping a lot more than I have time to.

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Exhausted after a race.

Last week, I heard some of the football guys talking about how stupid they all were. I turned immediately and reminded them that anyone who balances athletics and academics is superhuman and they should all be super proud of themselves. Someone had to say it.

Thirdly, every second counts.

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Sprinting the finish of the Pacific Coast Conference Championship.

After every race this season, I have spent the next several days reliving each moment, trying to scrape out the missing seconds. Where could I have gone faster? Where could I have pushed harder? The obvious truth is that every step of the race matters. This becomes painfully clear when you look at winning times separated by fractions of seconds. You think, why didn’t he just push a little harder during mile two? Why didn’t she concentrate on her technique a little more – over the course of a 5K, that would have made a winnable difference!

Learning this lesson on the course has been brutal, but applying it to life has become a joy for me this semester. Details mean a lot in the real world too. If every day is a long run that you have to get through, technique becomes important and it is produced by force of habit and continual concentration. Things like being nice to people. Assuming the best. Trying your hardest. If remembering to pace your breathing gives you an extra edge on your race, appreciating the pina-colada scented shampoo in the girls’ locker rooms is the extra edge your day needs. So are fresh towels and packed lunches and Sergio, the rubber ducky who floats in the ice baths in the trainer’s room. Little things make a winnable difference.

Fourthly, the human body is literally just so cool.

I eat a lot these days. I have portioned out a part of my budget for protein bars and gatorade and calcium supplements. I fastidiously pack lunches every night. I stretch. I do yoga. I sleep literally whenever life doesn’t insist on my being conscious. The harder I run, the more I realize where and how my body needs to be strengthened. And I think that’s pretty cool. Despite the injuries, despite the exhaustion and the extra work of trying to care for this body that I’m running into the ground, the decrepitation has been delightful. God gave me this amazing body that functions like a machine – the better the materials I put in, the better the product that comes out. I don’t take it for granted anymore when all my muscles and joints work, when nothing hurts. I don’t take it for granted that I can run right now. What a precious gift, to have a body that allows me to do that.

Fifthly, ego is not your friend.

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You may have picked up on the fact that I’ve been injured most of the season. I don’t know, maybe I’ve mentioned it a few times.

I’m super competitive and I joined Cross Country to compete. And I compete to win. It’s not like I’m expecting first place (though that is always what I aim for, and I’ve had visions of crossing the finish line for a first place medal since June), but my “reasonable target” was to make the top twenty in a race. I need about a seven-minute mile for that. With hard work and blood and sweat and tons of tears (because it’s me, and I cry over everything), I thought a seven-minute mile was doable.

Well guess what. It’s not actually super doable if you spent the whole season sitting on ice packs in the trainer’s room.

This season has not lived up to my hopes for what it could be. Mostly because when I am able to run with the team, I’m not fit enough to keep up with them, and I’m always nursing an injury so I haven’t been able to chase after their times.

This has been one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned this season. My ego – my desire to be running with the front of the pack – will not help me win a race and it will not help me heal my legs. Why? Because ego is what stands between you and the critique you need from a coach to improve. Ego is what stands between you and the rest you need to power up. Ego is what stands between you and the people who could be your friends, friends you will need when the race gets tough and the season gets long.

Let passion be your fuel, and wisdom your coach, and leave your ego off the field. There is no place for it here.

Sixthly, everyone has a voice inside their head.

The few times this season I have been functioning well enough to join in team practices have been the few times we have been doing the most ridiculous workouts. Sprinting up the football stadium’s sixteen stairwells for forty-five minutes (that’s how I got my second injury this season. Goodbye soleus!), 500 meter sprints, Indian runs, etc. I think that’s when I began to appreciate how hard Cross Country really is. It’s not just running. It’s not just endurance. It’s not just toning and speed and technique. Cross country is a mind game, and you can be prepared for the distance, the heat, the waves of competition, but you cannot begin to understand the battle that will happen in your mind until you’ve been in it. This incredibly loud, convincingly desperate voice will tell you to hold back, to take it easy, to give it your all next time, to stop, to quit, to give up. It will tell you that you cannot do it. You must prove it wrong.

Seventh-ly? They’re not kidding about team bonding.

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Picture day! Trying out our new uniforms for the first time.

It’s hard to explain the dynamic of team spirit. It sounds like such a cliche. I never would have thought that genuine friendship could actually infuse strength and energy into a team, but it does. As soon as we all started making an effort to get to know each other, to spend time together outside of practice, to invest in each other, our times started improving. Our energy picked up. Our drive improved. It was like, suddenly, instead of being alone on the course, there were these forces of goodwill pulling me along, insisting that I believe in myself, because they do.

There has not been a single day this season when someone from the team hasn’t come up alongside me and shown me what it means to be a teammate. Sergio taught me how to spit while I’m running. Janet taught me how to breath properly. Jesse taught me to fight through the injury. Cristal taught me to keep pushing. Joe taught me how to pull my shoulders back. Agustin taught me how to open my stride. Melissa has beaten self-confidence into me with a horsewhip and then given me a good kick just to make sure it sticks. And everyone else has just been there, every day, all season.

So I make time for the outings. They want to go play laser tag on Saturday or carb up at a restaurant before a race? Count me in. Weekend runs? Let’s do it. Heck, they even talked me into getting a Snapchat, which I more or less regret. But there’s just not a lot I wouldn’t do for these guys. They’re my team. They’re the first one I’ve really ever had. And they mean a lot to me.

Lastly, disappointment and failure are not the same.

This season feels like a disappointment to me. When I first thought about joining the team in March of last year, I had visions of being competitive, of being a dark horse coming from nowhere to sweep up. All summer long, I trained nearly every day, despite travel and extensive time-commitments. And the more I ran, the clearer I could see myself crossing the chalky white finish line to take first. I’ll be honest, a lot of what I saw myself accomplishing may not have actually been physically possible, but I’ve always had my head a bit in the clouds. I may still be telling people I just wanted to be in the top 20, but I wanted first. I compete to win.

So the string of injuries, the missed races, the increasingly frustrating practices made for a long, sad season. And up until the last moment of the last race, I still had my sights set on qualifying for state. As a team, we had qualified for the Southern California Championship, and as we warmed up in the foggy morning, the other girls joked about blowing their times so we wouldn’t have to go to Fresno in two weeks. So many better things to do with a weekend.

“No don’t,” I whimpered, even though I knew they were mostly kidding. “I need you guys to qualify or I won’t be able to go!”

The girls laughed, but I could hear they were tired. They were at the end of a long season, one of many they had had. This was my one and only, and I had only been able to race half of it.

“Qualify as an individual,” they told me. “You only have to be in the top hundred.”

So from the moment the starting signal sounded to the last pounding beat of my heart as I crossed the finish, I argued with that voice in my head. I want this, I said. I want this as much as the girl in front of me. I want it more than she does. I want to go to Fresno.

I finished tenth from the bottom.

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Disoriented after finishing my last race, I was escorted from the finish line to a water table where I promptly threw up behind a nearby tree. What a way to finish.

Coach walked up to me with a smile on his face and said, “Well, did you have fun?” And that’s when I knew my season was over. And this incredible sinking feeling clamped onto my stomach and it hurt.

It hurt because I fell so far from where I had hoped to land. But it also hurt because the end of this season means the end of this time I’ve had as a college athlete, and I have so loved every minute.

Maybe thinking I could jump into college sports was a ridiculous notion. Maybe seeing myself as a state champion was laughable. And maybe the disappointment and the gut-wrenching, anxiety-inducing frustration and heartbreak of this season could have been avoided if I had been realistic from the start.

Why did I even join Cross Country? I thought to myself on that sunny hillside in Irvine, the race finished. I had walked away from the rest of the team, sat down on the edge of the course, and stared out at the big, empty hills in front of me. Ernesto’s question from early September still simmered in the back of my mind. At least this time I wasn’t just wearing the jersey for a photoshoot.

How short the season has been.

I shook my head. It’s easy to feel sorry about the outcome. Easy to fall into despair. Easy to feel like I have nothing but disappointment, foolish hopes and a couple of big “I told you so’s” coming my way. But I know better.

This season of running has challenged me. The struggles with injury have pushed my boundaries, opened me up to new possibilities, helped me forge friendships and inspired me to levels of humility I didn’t know existed. The pursuit of this unachievable goal has driven me to the peaks of self-mastery and instilled in me patience and persistence. The failures, setbacks and losses have taught me kindness and empathy, and I am stronger for it.

I may spend the rest of my life on a continuous wave of disappointments, but this season has taught me for certain that I am a better person for having chased impossible dreams.

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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.

What we sometimes need to hear

For reasons I cannot account for (given that this is supposed to be my good, healthy, happy, even-numbered year) the last few months have been a struggle. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m failing as an adult and a person. . . I wouldn’t say it. But I feel so far away from the person I was as a middle school teacher on the other side of the world. It’s like all the adulthood I earned in Prague through blood, sweat and tears didn’t convert over into my American life.

Anyway, I was home sick for my kids and started re-reading some old blogs. I found this one and I think I needed it more than they ever did. Maybe you will too.

***

Dear students,

On Tuesday we had to say ‘Goodbye.’ For some of you, this was easy – you were excited about the next step of your lives, your summer plans, or even just getting home for lunch. For some of you, the last day of school was tougher. You were torn between a past that you loved and a future you’re unsure about (no matter how excited you may be for it to come). And then, not all of us got to say ‘goodbye,’ did we? That happens too.

For me, the hardest part of the day was walking down the first floor hallway for the last time. You know the one – it runs along the ninth grade classrooms from the lunch hall to the big staircase at the end of the school. All those big windows let light come washing onto the smooth floors and across your lovely picture boards. I’ve been dreading that walk for a year and a half. I go that way every day after lunch to get to my office. Really, the day I realized how hard it would be to walk through this hallway on the last day of June was the day I realized how much I was falling in love with you and your school.

But the day did have to come and, even though you’ve already moved along with your summer plans, I want to say just a few things. Think of it as one last little piece of love from your teacher to help you through the next few years.

Be ready to smile.

I know Mondays are hard and it’s easy to be glum when you get bad marks or lose your phone (or someone hides your phone and doesn’t say where! . . . Honzo. . . ). But smiling is a way to fight back. Happiness is not something we find, it’s something wemake. Smiling – even when you don’t really feel like it – is the first step. And I think you’ll discover that if you smile at people, they’ll smile back. That’s called human connection and we don’t do it enough. But more importantly, your smile will have an effect on those around you. Your smiles have gotten me through some really difficult days. The person I am today is made up of tiny pieces of the people you have been for the last two years. You have shaped me by our shared experiences and you’ll continue to shape those around you for as long as you live! We humans share this planet and we will influence each other, for better or for worse. Remember that and decide: how do you want to shape people? If all you ever give the world is a smile every day, it will be a brighter place.

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Be kind.

This one is tough. Being kind isn’t easy and it isn’t glamorous. It certainly isn’t cool. But you know what? It is one of the greatest things you will ever learn. Learn to be nice to people you don’t like. Learn to keep quiet when you want to say something funny at the expense of someone else’s feelings. Learn not to laugh when a friend is down, no matter how funny it might seem to you – help them back up instead. I know this might sound boring to you. It’s not. Kindness is both a gift and an adventure, and only the bravest will ever know its fullest depths. It is the most underappreciated form of goodness and heroism that exists. There is no glory in being kind – only the reward of helping another person. And that is enough, trust me.

Don’t complain about lunch.

We can all agree that not every lunch in school is a good lunch. I particularly struggle with the fish dishes. Gag. But someone made that food. Someone paid money so that you could eat it. And someone much hungrier than you is going without lunch at all today. This isn’t meant to make you feel guilty, only to remind you to appreciate what you’ve been given. Appreciation is something you’ll struggle with your whole life. Start now. Start by thanking God for food to eat, friends to eat it with, and a school to eat it in. The best part about this is that the more you appreciate what you have, the fuller life will seem to you. Richness and joy will leak out of every mundane activity and colorless possession and you’ll discover an entire world that most people will never notice because they never learnedappreciation.

Work hard.

Duh. Turn in your homework. Study for tests. Get good marks. But hard work won’t do you any good if you’re not doing it for a purpose. And I don’t mean, “Mom is happy when I have good marks,” or “I need to get into a good high school.” Work hard because you can. What a gift it is to learn! What a privilege it is to fill our minds! God has given us the most amazing capacity to grow and expand! It can be a struggle and you won’t always win, but I want you to try. I want you to aim to grow yourself into the brightest, smartest, hardest-working person you can be – but don’t do it for me! Do it for yourself. Do it because you owe your humanity the very minimum respect of cultivating your mind, body and soul to the best of your ability.

Don’t give up on yourself.

I’ve seen some of you quit. I’ve seen you come to a wall that you didn’t think you could climb. Can I tell you something? Watching you give up on yourselves is the hardest part of my job – worse than grading papers (or losing students on the metro. . . Petře. . .). Thomas Edison (inventor of the light bulb) once said, “I didn’t fail – I found a thousand ways not to make a light bulb!” And after thousands of tries, he finally succeeded. And all those failures added to his character – they made him a stronger person. The key is to keep trying, because, ultimately, our greatest successes are not what we accomplish but who we become. Become someone who doesn’t quit.

Don’t give up on others.

There have been a few times in the last few years when I’ve thought, “I’m not meant to be a teacher – I can’t do this.” (One of these times may definitely have followed the ping-pong incident). Do you know why I didn’t quit? Because you wouldn’t let me. Every time I got worn down, you picked me right back up. We need people to believe in us. We need to believe in others – and not just with things like school and work! Growing up is hard and we all make mistakes. Be patient with your friends. Forgive. Forget. Work together. Don’t give up on those around you who are struggling to find themselves – and I mean everyone, not just our friends. Everyone. Our faith in humanity is much too fragile. Learn to sympathize, learn to respect the struggles of others, learn to lift people up.

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Follow your road.

Leaving school has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It breaks my heart to go. A lot of people have been asking me, “When will you come back?” And the truth is, I don’t know if I will come back. Who can know the future but God? On Tuesday, when someone asked me when I’d be coming back to Prague, a dear teacher took my face in her soft hands, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Your life is ahead of you.” I needed to hear that. I needed someone to tell me that it’s okay to say ‘goodbye.’ Love and friendship are not bound by space and time. So follow your road. Go where you need to go. The people who love you most will be waiting for your return or simply praying for your safe journey, wherever it takes you.

Keep your heart open.

I want to thank you for letting me into your school. You can’t know how I scared I was when I first came to Prague. I didn’t understand anything anyone said. I wasn’t used to the rules and customs here. And I kept getting lost on the stairwell! Most of all, I was scared of letting everyone down, of being a bad teacher. Nebyla jsem špatná učitelka, žejo? I could not have made it through the last two years without your help. You have been so kind to me. You have been so much fun to work with. And you believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself anymore. If anything, you were my teachers and I was your most adoring student – and I always will be. I want you to know that you have been my greatest adventure. I also want you to know that it’s okay to love your new teacher the way you have loved me. People come and go – that’s life. But there is no end to the amount of love we can give. Don’t let the pain of an ending keep you away from the beauty of a beginning. All things do end, eventually. Keep your heart open for whoever needs a home there. And be ready to love everyone – no matter where they come from or where they’re going.

It took me less than 90 seconds to walk from one end of that hallway to the other. The school was quiet – the way it is in the afternoon when you’re all tucked away in your last classes of the day and everyone is sleepy from a full lunch. For that 90 seconds, I thought about all my favorite moments in this school. The first snowfall, Halloween, learning our Christmas songs, the Garden Party. I thought of all your little triumphs and all your dreams, your fears and hopes and crazy ideas – pieces of yourselves that you’ve given me. What an honor to have been your teacher!

But before I knew it, the hallway ended. The view around the corner spread out before my eyes and, looking backwards, the hall lay still and silent.

Life happens quickly. It’s over before we know it. Don’t waste a moment, don’t miss a beat. Remember that you won’t always have the chance to say ‘goodbye,’ so live each moment expressing your love for those around you – let there never be a doubt in their minds how much they mean to you. I hope, I hope, I have been able to express just how much you have meant to me.

But above all, don’t be afraid. The world needs brave people who will be kind, fair and loving.

Are you ready?

Best of luck,

Your Teacher, Mary