Sunday, October 25, 2009


I am in mourning.

Over the past two weeks, this awareness has slowly arrived, the way the clouds steal across the sun until you look up and realize you are standing in a fog. I began this process of moving and expanding our school with a determination to make it work, to accept the additional strains and stresses, to take on additional leadership responsibilities, and to stay optimistic and cheerful in the name of The Work. (The Work, in this case, being our call to educate urban students not just with core academic skills, but also so they could grow up to fight for justice for themselves and others who have been left behind.)

I am not giving up on this work, or on my school and our students, of course. But I am allowing myself to mourn. In the process of realizing what I – what we – have lost, I am trying to remind myself of the things I have learned about teaching over the years, the things that have made my job at least somewhat sustainable and livable, and that I seem to have forgotten this year in this transition.

Here are the losses, the things I am missing so much that I can feel it in my stomach, the way you feel when you have lost what you thought was the love of your life.

We have left the small, sunny, colorful building where I learned to teach and worked for 8 years, longer than I have stayed in any one institution in my life. I miss the wood floors, the apple tree outside my classroom window, the crowded main office that was often too noisy, but where we all congregated to chat, laugh, and commiserate. I miss the open door to the principal’s office, where the Queen Mother would sit and we would hold meetings, trying to fit too many people around the table, or where I would lounge in the doorway, leaning against the door frame, telling her my favorite stories of the week or my worries about my students. I miss the creaky stairs, the musty closets, the storage rooms we turned into tiny offices.

Without a doubt, missing a space is mostly emblematic of other losses. We traded in our too-tiny, too-crowded building for a place as big as a city. It has wide, endless hallways, open, renovated classrooms, and an enormous gymnasium and auditorium and cafeteria. It takes about 15 minutes to walk from one side of the school to the other, and longer to find your way around it on the outside. The sun does not shine into my classroom. It is not (yet?) a building with a heart, a personality, a sense of who we are and how we fit together in this place.

Of course, it is beautiful in there. I have a bright new rug, instead of the dirt- and urine-stained one my students used to sit on; I have new furniture painted in blue, green, and purple; I have magnetic white boards, rainbow-colored hooks, and brand-new display boards for student work. When we first arrived, we were delighted with all of this. But now, all someone has to do is mention the front hallway of our old building, and I get a raw ache in my chest. Our old school was a home, a family, a place where it seemed that we all knew each other. Here, it is more like we work in an office building, or a hospital, with hundreds of people passing in the hallways, acknowledging each other perhaps with a nod.

It is not just that we are divided by space, that we don’t know many of the new staff members and students, or that the 4th grade is twelve minutes away from my classroom. It is also that our schedule is different. Our school day is longer now – instead of teaching from 9:30 to 4, with students in the building until 4:30, head teachers work from 8:30 until 3:15, and the students are still there until 4:30. It is a longer day of work for administration, it is a longer day of learning for kids, and it is an earlier start for teachers. I used to have 2 hours every morning, from 7:15 until 9:15, to get ready for the day. I loved those quiet mornings in my classroom, alone with a cup of tea. If someone stopped by, or we met at the copier, we might stand and chat for 10 minutes. I had time to think about my day, to reflect on yesterday, to enjoy the silence.

Now, if I arrive at 7:15, I have at most one hour to be ready for the day. I need to move more quickly through my morning routines at home in order to be there by then – no more leisurely mornings at the breakfast table with the paper. At school, teachers walk by each other on our way to the copiers, but we don’t stop to chat. I can’t possibly do all my work in that hour, so I stay at 3:15 to get ready for the next day, but my kids are still there. It is not a quiet or reflective time.

On Fridays, we used to have an hour and a half between early dismissal and staff meetings, when we would eat lunch and possibly have a meeting, but a relaxed, chatty meeting. Now, we have half an hour between when the last students leave and our meetings start, so we run around heating up lunches and making copies, then sit down to rush through the order of business so we can leave at 3 for the weekend we are all desperately needing.

The sense of kinship is, plainly, what I have mostly lost. I grew up as a teacher, suffered hardships, learned important lessons, and experienced great successes, in a small community of professionals, families, and students. It was far from a perfect place. But I don’t think any of us knew what it would mean to go from 350 students to 575, to go from 35 staff members to nearly 100. We are lonely. We are isolated. We miss each other, a lot.

The feeling of our school is vastly different. We may grow into this new space and schedule and size, we may make our way back into a feeling of common purpose and community, but it will take us awhile, I think. And meanwhile, those of us who made the move are sad, missing so many things, and wondering if this is where we want to be.

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