Throughout my thirteen years of teaching, I have often walked the silent, cavernous halls of a school, before the hoofbeats of youth clacked loudly to and fro, lockers slamming in a rhythm, the twittering of gossip creating a symphony of young voices. School mornings hum like you would imagine the inside of a beehive sounds. My arms are typically heavy with materials, shoulders yoked into my teaching bag, swiftly walking the length of the building to get to my classroom. I do not worry about the emptiness, because I know that when the clock strikes time, my desks will fill and the day can begin.
This day was different. Heavy with meaning and anticipation. The same halls that usually greeted me as familiar friends were eerie, the air laden with unspoken moments. After checking in, I donned my mask and gloves, unsure of what lay ahead. I was simply here to collect my personal effects and tidy the room in a start-of-year reset, as I was not sure when/if we would be granted additional time to do so, after the pandemic subsided.
My footsteps rang in my ears, and when the key finally met the lock, I drew one large breath, aware of a sense of trepidation. I was greeted with a pervading feeling of unfinished business. When you believe you’ll be back, nothing needs to be stowed away, so my office desk was strewn with scripts, forms to be filed, fairytale props just purchased. My mini fridge still had a lunch in it I would never eat (and a smell that took a while to eradicate). I peered through the door to my classroom, and to the unassuming eye, it simply looked like a regular day; however, I began to realize that those same desks would not house my roster of phenomenally talented and funny students for the remainder of our spring semester, and suddenly, my eyes welled up with tears. Cue: Marius’ song, “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” from Les Miserables. Tears for what was, and what could not be. I was glad that the order came to do this alone, without the help of family, friend, or student, because I needed closure, and I needed it alone.
From the moment we receive a full roster of those unique names, our hearts flutter hummingbird quick, as we imagine what adventures we will take within those four walls, and how different things will be come June (or December, for semester courses, like mine). My nights would also have been spent practicing for our main stage shows. Our classes are spent learning about our students, sharing our passion for the subject, drying their eyes when tragedy strikes, high fiving them to celebrate achievement, and laughing with them til our sides hurt. Those are happy hours working side by side, late nights of rehearsals, and early mornings tutoring.
If you do not teach, you may not fully comprehend the gamut of sentiments a teacher experiences in a school year, and why it was only natural to drop those salty tears after a month and a half of unfinished days. It will be nearly three months total after we flick the off switch on virtual learning in a few weeks and plan ahead to next year, whenever that may be.
Someone said to me once that teachers spend more hours of a student’s formative years with them than their family, and that rings true when I am able to see the progression from fledgling “sixes” to soaring “eights.” You know, puberty hits hard in middle school, and there’s even time to help with that struggle. When I’m hugging them goodbye as they exit our building and walk into their high school years, it feels like eons since they first set foot on the new 6th grade stage. Ok, we know I could wax poetic here, so let’s focus back to reality.
I allowed myself a few minutes, bucked up, and began my task. Each time I found an artifact of the “B.C” times (Before Coronavirus), I felt myself pause, reflect, and continue, until I’d gotten most of my spaces back to normal. The mammoth of the stage was all I had left, and y’all, I was not prepared for it. This was truly a time capsule of “in medias res.” That phrase simply means “in the middle of things.” I creaked open the crunchy old door to the stage, and was met with the remnants of the play that would never be. At least, not this season, or with this same cast of my kindreds.
The stage had the skeleton of our set in place, stacks of props waiting to be used, and a costume rack full to the brim with fairytale garb. My heart throbbed in my ears, and I robotically took my phone out to take a picture. I had an urge to document this frozen moment.
I’ve never had to cancel or close a show. This one stung. I suddenly pictured opening night, the seats filled with audience goers young and old, ready to see my crop of talented actors tell the story of a family who is struggling to move on (it’s a condition called “failure to launch”), their children stalled on their exit from the nest. Could it be any more appropriate for these times??
I was unable to tackle this beast alone, and after a few rehoused items, I trudged back into my office to sit at my desk. I began to look at the 8th grade signing wall, full of the names of students gone by, whose different scripts were a glimpse of their personalities. I told myself that this was not the period at the end of this year’s sentence. It was a series of dashes, the two or three hesitating footsteps between moments. A beat, in Theatre terms. I would do my best to bring my crew back for their signatures on the wall, one last show circle, and their final bow on my stage, a new tradition I began last year. They could close the last scene with a blackout, and then the lights of high school would guide them. That is the direction we must go, as it does not do to dwell on the past.
I find myself looking to the future, but, for now, as we are suspended in this pause, I just need to hit the dash button on the keyboard of my life, and stay in the present. My students are not over the threshold yet, and there are still moments to be shared.
To teachers worldwide, when this is all said and done, and we have closed out this calendar year, found ways to honor what was and build excitement for better times ahead, we will then allow ourselves to get out of “medias res,” and move onward.
~Kindred Spirit~ 5.2.2020