Friday, May 25, 2018

Going Back Home

Today I visited the place where I became a teacher.

I haven't been inside that building in 9 years. But for the eight years before that, I went there nearly every day. I sat on the front steps calling people I loved on Sept. 11, 2001. I cried in the bathroom stalls and out on the back steps after hard days as a new teacher (and a not-so-new teacher, too). I had some of my most joyful teaching moments there, with first graders who grew a garden and read stories and explored pattern blocks together, and second graders who wrote poetry and discovered their neighborhoods and did yoga together. There I learned so much about good teaching, from some of the wisest educators I know, about relationships, about justice, about why we teach and how to teach and our responsibility to kids and families.

These halls I haven't walked for 9 years are so familiar to me. The metal grate in the middle of the hallway floor. The sliding closet doors, askew in their tracks. The apple tree outside, whose apples we used to press for cider in the fall. The door handles, the bulletin boards, the fraying blinds that hang over the bookshelves in the hallway so little hands won't disorganize the leveled books.

My school no longer lives there. A new school has called that building home since my school moved into a bigger building a mile down the road. I walked through the hallways as children arrived with their book bags and lunch boxes, hanging their things on the hooks I used to label carefully each September. I could feel the ghosts in those hallways, spirits who inhabit my memory so vividly. Ghosts of the teachers I laughed and cried with. Ghosts of the children who shared my days and, mentally, my nights, with whom I struggled daily as we learned and worked together. Ghosts even of teachers I didn't know well, but whose work shaped lives in ways I know are still remembered, and ghosts of the ideals we lived in that school, the ways we wanted to teach our students to live and think and be.

I am surely a bit melodramatic about the good old days we had there. So many of them were hard days, but now I know that that was probably the best place I will ever work. We were a community that was committed together to a common good -- though a common good that was not easily agreed upon, and often arrived at with great struggle.

Schools are places where adults' and children's joys and struggles are lived. Walking down the hallway, I thought about schools that are closed in the name of saving money and increasing "achievement." I thought how lucky my school had been because instead of being closed down, we had been relocated and merged with another school. Even though those moves changed our school irrevocably, the loss wasn't as great as the losses of communities whose schools are shuttered. 

Eve Ewing writes about the damage to a community that accompanies school closings. This line of Ewing's runs through my mind today: "[T]he decision to shuffle students from one building to another in the name of numbers is shameful. The decision to do so is based on the premise that children, teachers, and schools are indistinguishable widgets, to be distributed as efficiently as possible across the landscape. But the fact is that schools are ecosystems, each with its own history, culture, and intricately woven set of social relationships. Schools are community anchors. They are not interchangeable, nor are they disposable. Schools are home." 

Going back to my old school was as poignant and wistful as if I had gone back to the house where I lived for 18 years as a child. I understood vividly in that moment how true Ewing's words are, and what a loss it is for a community when a school is closed. "Schools are home."

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