Morning comes early in May. The world is an alarm clock, sending in chipper rays of sunshine through my skylight window long before my actual alarm begins to ring, only without a snooze button.
I miss the days when 5:30 in the morning was still crowned with crystal starlight, inviting me warmly back under the covers (I could literally sleep forever if it not ever got light). Now I have roosters going off at six and sunbeams on high by 6:30. Spring is the worst.
Thursday was an exciting day though. I knew it was going to be, so I eventually dragged myself from bed (very, very begrudgingly) and started to get ready for work. Thursday was the school’s Garden Party, a very grandiose affair that my colleagues have been planning for months. It is the send-off ceremony, in many ways, for our ninth graders and a chance for family and friends to see what our students of all ages are capable of (following the taped pathways backstage is not in their repertoire of talents, unfortunately).
Enter: the first mistake of the day.
Despite hearing that the weather was supposed to be rainy, I decided to put on a dress I felt appropriate for a Garden Party. I’ve been wearing jeans to school a lot lately, drifting away from my more “school teachery” clothes, so I thought a dress might be nice for a change.
Of all the bad decisions I have made, this one is probably the most pitiable.
It rained. It rained a lot.
But it wasn’t actually the rain or even the crazy-ridiculous wind that made wearing the dress a stupid decision. It was that I was in charge of the “Cake Walk” – my one contribution to the festival. They asked me if I knew of any American activities that might be fun. I distinctly remember Cake Walks from our school carnivals in San Diego. Walk around in a circle until you hear the music stop – if you’re standing on the same number that the organizer pulls out of a hat, you get a cupcake.
They loved the idea, shockingly. So I spent the next three weeks worrying about how to actually organize a Cake Walk (all of which was made harder by the fact that everyone I needed to coordinate with was not exactly fluid in English and my Czech is still a disappointment). Would we need actual cakes? How would we create the circles? What if no one came and I looked like a pathetic failure?
You don’t look like a failure, I told myself reassuringly, examining my reflection in the mirror.
Any girl will know that if you wear a nice dress, you have to do something nice with your hair. And that’s why I ended up being late to the bus stop. By the time I was finally on my way, my head was swimming in hairspray and a checklist of worries, none of which proved to matter much by the end of the day.
Because many of the teachers had been pulled off their regular teaching duties to help oversee the rehearsals of each class’s performance, I ended up subbing a math class and a Czech language class on top of my regular lessons.
“You look nice,” my office mate said when I walked in. “But are you sure you won’t be cold?”
My smile faltered momentarily.
“I’ll be fine,” I said. “I have a jacket and it’s really not that cold outside.”
She nodded in a “dig-your-own-grave” fashion and I tentatively glanced outside. It was dark, but not that chilly.
In the hallway I got more compliments on my dress (it’s like people think I’ve never worn clothes before) and more comments that it might be cold. All my students were bundled up warmly. Scarves made their first reappearance since February. I found this to be an overreaction to the weather conditions, frankly.
Cake Walk prep was gloomier than the weather forecast.
I had fifteen hula hoops in my office and had picked up a bucket full of candy from the vice principal that morning (we decided cupcakes might be too extreme for this particular activity). My flashdrive was loaded with peppy songs and I had cut out and numbered 15 cards for us to label the hula hoops with. I had even drafted four eighth grade girls to help me with the event (though, in honesty, they were pretty willing participants, so I can’t claim any tyrannical dictator points).
But despite my best efforts, I still hadn’t been told where in the school’s extensive yard I would be able to set up for the Cake Walk – important information, because if I didn’t have access to an outlet, I wouldn’t be able to plug in the stereo and the Cake Walk would become a lame-walk.
By noon it became apparent that I would not have access to an outlet. Plan B, anyone?
We were also facing a more serious problem – the rain had commenced. It brought with it a cray-cray wind that felt more like a mini-hurricane than a spring zephyr.
I watched with some amusement as my ninth graders trooped through the cafeteria soaking and shivering. I still didn’t think it was all that chilly, but it was wet and my nicely quaffed hair now looked bad enough to provoke one of my fourth graders to ask, “What happened to you? Are you sick?” A quick look into the nearest reflective surface and I felt like I might be. There is no remedy to ruined locks when hairspray is involved.
And I have to meet their parents tonight, I thought miserably to myself. First impressions are to me what icebergs are to the Titanic (and if anyone even thinks a Mary/Titanic comparison warrants a fat-joke, I will find you and sit on you).
I want to take a moment to point out that the cafeteria was serving pasta noodles with melted butter, powdered sugar and a special cheese called tvaroh. If you’re not feeling queasy at the sound of that, you are a stronger person than I am.
Between listening to me complain about the noodles and sugar and the location for the Cake Walk, my office mate stopped me and asked, “Are you sure you’ll be warm enough outside?”
“Yeah, yeah,” I assured her. “I’ll be fine. What I really need are some batteries for this stereo because we won’t be able to plug it in.”
“TESCO will definitely have batteries,” she told me.
Super. TESCO is right across the street from school. After my last lesson at 1:30, I trekked outside towards the shopping center to find TESCO and batteries.
Apparently, every student in the seventh grade had the same location in mind – the mall is conveniently close to school, overflowing with diversions and well-stocked with ice cream vendors. It is almost always an extremely embarrassing, yet completely enjoyable experience running into my students outside of school. On this particular occasion, the density of children per square [insert unit of measurement – I have no idea how math works] was excessive. I couldn’t walk two feet without hearing my name echo around the large walls inside. I would stop walking to let my students know I had heard them and then turn around slowly, looking in all directions as they continued calling to me, sometimes in Czech and sometimes in English. They’d be hanging on the balconies, peering through storefront glass windows or sitting on benches across the way. I’d smile and wave like an idiot because that’s the best way to endear yourself to your students. If they think you’re a dork outside the classroom, they won’t judge you for being stupid on accident inside the classroom.
I found the batteries I needed. They were huge. I may as well have bought baby elephants instead – and baby elephants would probably have been cheaper too.
At 3:30 my eighth graders walked into my office to help me bring things outside. Our designated lot was in the very corner of the festival grounds and I tried not to feel slighted. We set up our hula hoops, taped on the numbers and waited for children to come (I noted that we had not been given a sign for our activity – all the other booths had been bestowed this honor).
I sat uncomfortably on the ground next to our stereo wishing I had worn jeans or a dress that was not expensive and partly white.
For ten very awkward minutes, we had no customers. I found this especially difficult because I could feel the enthusiasm draining from my helpers, and with it much of my credibility as a cool teacher with great ideas (a façade I have been building painstakingly for a year now).
Then the words of wisdom – possibly the wisest words of wisdom ever spoken – fluttered into my subconscious like an angel.
“Build it and they will come.”
BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME.
“Turn on the music,” I told one of the girls. “You guys get to play the first round.”
For a game designed for ten year olds, it certainly entertained an older crowd. They ran around the hula hoops, jumping and shrieking and drawing quite an audience.
That was all it took.
We had full hoops for the rest of the hour, both older and younger students – and even a teacher!
At five o’clock the program on stage began so we turned off our stereo, cleaned up the hoops and I sent the girls away happy. I was happy too.
During the next three hours I walked around the yard chatting with my students and their families and friends, taking pictures of the backstage madness and visiting the other booths. The face painting was a real joy. Mostly because I was shivering so badly the woman painting my face (a beloved colleague) lent me her shawl and jacket to warm me up enough to sit still so she could finish. I spent the rest of the evening looking like an Indian elephant in full tribal paint.
Between that and the dress, I got more than a few odd stares. Everyone else was wrapped up warmly.
The Garden Party was different from anything I’ve seen in the States. It was certainly different from what I was expecting it to be.
Firstly, it was huge. According to the sausage and beer sales, more than 2,000 people were there over the course of the evening. That’s a lot of people. That’s a lot of sausages.
The stage and tents were professional quality, as were the lighting and sound. Both police and emergency responders were present in case of an accident. It was all extremely official as well as comfortingly communal.
Alumni of the school came to watch the programs and even the Mayor made an appearance.
The programs were incredible. Nearly every class performed something special with elaborate costumes and first-rate dance/song routines. Even the second and third graders put on a really good show.
When I finally glanced at my watch, it was already 8:00. The sky was still light and the atmosphere still cheery. (I was bombarded several times by seventh graders during this period, and asked if I had any helium balloons – they’d been inhaling it like addicts but someone had accidentally let their last one fly away. Ahhh, I remember the days when helium was fun).
My final stop was the school’s baked goods stand. The eighth grader working it was a great salesman, and I walked away with six pastries. Partly ashamed to be seen with so much food and partly in need of a break from the crowds, I bee-lined back towards the tree where we hid our hula hoops and the stereo.
I had a good view of the mass of people, the stage, and the ninth graders performing their ‘goodbye’ number.
Unprovoked and unsurprisingly, I choked up. Crying and eating are two of the things I do best, after all. Pathetic humans unite.
But really, I realized at that moment that all these kids who I’ve come to know and love will all leave, starting in June with the ninth graders. Some of them will stay in touch via facebook for a few months or maybe a year or two. Eventually they’ll all fade away, like the balloons that slip from our clutches and drift out of sight over the tree tops.
I realized that teachers are not parents – we don’t get to keep these kids forever. But we see them every day for a substantial part of their childhood. We know their worries and fears, their insecurities and their dreams. We know what makes them laugh and what will motivate them to turn in their homework on time. We know these kids.
I realized that there is a downside to this job. It’s letting go. It’s never being able to tell hundreds of little people individually how much they mean to you and how special they are. It’s just not our place to. I have the privilege of teaching them, and hopefully they’ll learn more from me than just English.
Funny, how so much of my life this year has been this school. Looking out at everyone, I have never wanted to be part of any group of people so much in my life. But I know that my time here is limited and my participation will always in some way be from the outside looking in.
I know how special this is and how lucky I am to know all these people.
Evening comes late in May. It’s 9:00 and I’m waiting for my bus. The sky is still glowing pale blue, but the clouds have finally begun to turn dark purple. They look like stencils slapped across the horizon. I much prefer this to the perky rose-colored rays of morning.
I think life is a sunset. It’s the continual fading of colors into an eternal evening where our souls will find their final rest. Every shade is different from the one a moment before it. It changes. It’s beautiful. It’s temporary. Life is the end of everything.
But we have the starlight to look forward to.