(Christian Courier column, Oct.24th issue)
I was asked if I would be willing to put up a Thanksgiving bulletin board at church. I said, “Sure.” So I went home to check out my boxes and supplies. That’s when it hit me – I’m a hoarder. I have over 200 pieces of student artwork, 30 journals, 20 poetry projects, six or seven essays by high school students, and about 100 hundred short stories, poems and paragraphs written by elementary students. I have all my daybooks from over two decades of teaching. I have 8 binders filled with scrounged “good ideas” and dozens of file folders with articles on pedagogical topics and bulletin board ideas. Maybe I need a reality show intervention.
I’ve been retired five years now from teaching in the Christian school system. I wonder why I have such a hard time letting go of this stuff. I do not plan to return to teaching. Yet the physical process of weaning myself from the “stuff” of my career has turned out to be more emotional than I expected. I can’t do it. Somehow that stuff is me, every piece of art, every creative story written by an eager student, every exam I labored over, all those files so carefully organized.
I sort through art samples looking for Thanksgiving ideas. Time collapses. Here’s a pastel composition, lilac blossoms and tulips exquisitely rendered by a Grade 6 student. A lesson on foreground and background. Here’s a seagull, painstakingly created from construction paper confetti. A lesson on texture. It took incredible patience by a Grade 8 student, working with a toothpick and a gluestick, to layer hundreds of circles into a perfectly-proportioned bird in flight.
Each essay, story and poem reminds me of the challenges of teaching writing: that initial writer’s block, the tedium of drafts, first and second, and sometimes third, stapled together, my handwritten encouragements on the back. The stunning results that can still move me, like this perceptive haiku by a Grade 7 student:
Winter’s gentle snow
falling weightless as paper,
weighing down branches.
I’ve counted. My best estimate, given the vagaries of record-keeping and students who sometimes slip into a school and out again before you’ve even found a desk for them, is that I’ve taught over 600 students. Like their art and their stories, somehow they, too, are “me.” The one who made me cry in the staff room in my first year, the one whose compassion I counted on every day for two years to offer support to a disadvantaged peer, the one who lost his dad, the three who lost their moms, the one who was intelligent but couldn’t read, the one who was bullied and the one who bullied, the one who sang like an angel, the one who made me want to quit, the one who played Anne Frank so brilliantly in my first big drama production, the one who told me to f*** off, the one who was so gifted I felt abashed to teach him. They’ve written their names on my heart. I’ve become huge, bigger than myself, stretched, each one expanding my capacity to believe, to forgive, to endure, to love.
Now, on the other side of the career, it occurs to me that these hoarded bits and pieces of student work, cobbled together in my imagination, form my own pointillistic masterpiece, each one emblematic of a tiny dot of effort in the moment. Fleeting, random. But, stepping back from the canvas, the flecks and dabs arrange themselves into a “still life” portrait. A thankful woman. Me. The one who thought she was teaching when she was really being taught.
When I was teaching, busy, busy, busy, attending to the details of the job, raising a family, supporting church and school ventures, if I was thankful, I was thankful on the fly. Sometimes I was too depleted or too frustrated to be thankful. But retirement is a season of thankfulness. With all those names inscribed on my past, I carry a precious koinonia, a fellowship of teaching and learning, into my future, whatever it may bring.
I’ll keep those boxes in the basement. They remind me how immeasurably blessed I was to have participated in a communal and incarnational endeavor where the classroom was redeemed by the presence of Christ and the chalk dust and mud in the hallway was holy ground.
And now I recognize that my imaginary artwork is not mine at all. See there in the corner? It’s signed by God.