One Friday

I learned about Sandy Hook during morning recess; one of my paraprofessionals came to me with a worried look on her face.  My initial assumption, given that classroom, was head lice.

She showed me a text message she’d gotten from a friend of hers.  School shooting in Connecticut.  At least twenty dead.  I honestly don’t remember the specifics of the subsequent moments.  I know I filed it in the “think about at 3” box–the box marked, crap, I’ll need to process that, but the kids are in here now.

So I spent the next five hours in an ordinary day.  I worked with a fifth grader on fraction concepts, tackled regrouping with Juan Carlos.  The fourth graders were on a field trip again, which made my office blissfully Finn-free as I printed out the progress reports: Finn has an almost cat-and-can-opener sixth sense for the sudden availability of Confidential Documents.

My program specialist and I gave a tour of the school to the family of a first grader with sleep apnea and Down Syndrome who has gone two months without regular schooling because of issues with her paperwork and the family’s lack of knowledge in how to navigate the system. Ja’Neesha pointed at things, murmured a bit, and fell, without preamble, soundly asleep.  Her grown-ups took it all in–the art on the walls, the kids on the rug, the bell schedule and the forms that they need to fill out.  We were discussing a start date in the hallway outside the office when my principal arrived to introduce herself.  She spoke briefly and warmly about the school community, echoed what I’ve suggested about a half day to start out.

Grandma fixed my principal with a sharp, focused stare.  “This looks like a good school, and we’ll bring her to it.  But what I really want to know is, I mean, cuz of today…”  She didn’t finish the sentence.  Her daughter picked it up.

“What do you all DO to keep the kids SAFE?  Cuz this be my heart, right here.” She stroked Ja’Neesha’s hair as the child slept flopped over her left shoulder.  My principal gave the stock line; I chimed in the details.  We’re a tight school community.  Everyone’s looking out.  This is the policy for visitors and volunteers.  They nodded, we shook hands again.  I’ll call them next week, and Ja’Neesha will start school  in January.  Three days from our first meeting, President Obama will address the families of Newtown, Connecticut, saying, “Someone once described the joy and anxiety of parenthood as the equivalent of having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around.”

The day wrapped up as it typically does, though I noticed myself getting all the passwords wrong whenever my computer logged itself out for inactivity.  I got the progress reports to the students with five minutes till the bell rings, realizing afterwards that one kid got three copies.  Of someone else’s last goal. We were all, on the inside, just as frazzled as that.  On the outside, the students noticed absolutely nothing different.  After Saleem’s bus left, I spent some time just watching the kids from the after school program playing outside.  They were beautiful.  They were ordinary.  I wondered who would tell them.  I wondered if we could arrange it so that none of them ever knew.

I stayed on campus until the after school program ended.    Typed up meeting notes, hole-punched the progress reports.   Put most everything in binders that needs to be in binders, doing the thing I do every three months or so where I move all the work samples from the clear plastic sleeve in the front of each kid’s file to the section marked “Progress Monitoring.”  It adds up, over time, to a document of student growth–see how he started with single-digit addition, notice how the sentences increase in complexity, this is what her name looks like when I have her write it every day over a period of 2 years.  I made a new file for Ja’Neesha.

Watched the rosy-fingered sunset through the picture window of my office.  There was nothing new on the radio, just constant restatements of unspeakable grief.  Outside my closed door, the hall quieted.  Everyone had gone home.  I packed up my bag and got ready to go, too.  Later, I will wonder why, exactly, I stayed so late.  The best reason I can think of is that a part of me just wanted to say for sure that all the kids went home.

On my way out, I stopped in the front office.  The principal was in front of her computer, and it suddenly hit me, what I heard on the news.  Among the dead, Dawn Hochsprung, school principal.  I doubt she was an initial target.  I imagine she saw something, and took action, and died.  I realize that this assumption is based on what my principal would do.  We looked at each other for a beat longer than usual, as I wished her a good weekend and we said goodbye.

The street was largely dark as I walked to my car Friday evening, but there’s a light in one of the kindergarten classrooms.  I thought of Mr. F., the sweet, patient man who teaches in that room.  I’ve had two of my Inclusion students in his class, but that’s not exactly how I know him.  I know Mr. F. best because of the work we’ve done together for his most challenging students–the little boys who come to us without a diagnosis yet, angry and hurting and trying to hurt others.  Mr. F. works a thousand little miracles, every day, and every night, like me, he worries it’s not enough.  And every next day, he still does it again, because that’s who he is and it’s all that he knows how to do.

I cannot walk past Mr. F.’s classroom without remembering one ridiculous encounter that I had with him two years ago.  It involved a dumpster, a large box, and me, on the playground at 7 pm having an existential teaching crisis because the box was too heavy and it suddenly represented all the things that needed done.  When he asked me what I was doing, I laughed bitterly.  “I am Don Quixote, and I’m tilting at windmills.”

He took one look at me and picked up the box.  “Then I’ll be your Sancho Panza.” We got that box and five more. Friday night, I saw the light in Mr. F’s classroom, and I remembered that.  I remembered the dozens of images I’ve collected, over the years, of this teacher and this classroom and the children within it.  The windmills we tilt at.  The magic we work.  Mr. F’s classroom is on the far right side of a one story building that stretches through six classrooms–kindergarten four times, two rooms for first.  Similar, I realized later, to the layout of Sandy Hook.

Across the breezeway for us, the other first grade is sandwiched between second grade and the library.  Upstairs, the third through fifth grades.  Every room a little world.  Every teacher.  Every child.  I will, in the days to come, learn the details of what happened at Sandy Hook, and I will personalize them in terrifying and understandable ways.  The teacher who put her kids in the closet and told the gunman they were at the gym; the teacher’s assistant, found with her body sheltering the bodies of students she died trying to save.

The windmills we tilt at. The magic we work.  I didn’t yet, Friday night, know any of those horrible details, but they were a part of me, because they’re a part of all of the teachers I know.  Two days later, a little paragraph will show up on Facebook.

To parents who aren’t educators, this may be hard to understand. Five days a week, we teach your kids. Joke with your kids. Console your kids. Praise your kids. Question your kids. Beat our heads up against a wall about your kids. Gush over your kids. Laugh with your kids. Worry about your kids. Keep an eye on your kids. Learn about your kids. Invest in your kids. Protect your kids. Love your kids.
We would all take a bullet for your kids. It’s nowhere in our job description. It isn’t covered in the employee handbook. It isn’t cited on our contracts. But we would all do it. So, yes—please hug your kids tonight—really, really tight. But on Monday, if you see your kids’ teacher, hug them too.

“Good night, Sancho Panza”.  I said it below my breath, crossed myself as I randomly do, at times, when I find myself connecting with something that goes beyond me.  I looked again at the whole school and then got in my car.

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