Today, I visit my daughter’s third grade class. We leave the Upper West Side in a dark, damp dawn, fueled by iced coffee, happy (finally) to find a cab and we head across town, and in through the polished wooden doors of 100 East End.
It is only the second full week of school, but the little girls clearly know what’s expected, how to come into the room, greet Ms. Orbach, deposit their “communication” folders in the blue basket in the center of the rug and read the morning message. They are switching seats today, so each girl moves her own chair to a new table. One child asks if, her tasks accomplished, she could read. Miranda gives permission, and the child she bends, bangs over her eyes, close to The Lightning Thief.
I am not in charge. In fact, I am largely invisible, which offers its own kind of pleasure. Miranda’s head teacher, Malini, is in charge, her affection for her girls and her high standards evident. I sit quietly at Miranda’s desk and enjoy watching my own daughter with twenty little girls, who have already found their way to her heart. All weekend, she shared her observations about each child, her impressions and hopes for each girl, connections she had made, worries, stories. She has fallen hard for this teaching business. In morning meeting, I am introduced, the girls’ eyes wide that Ms. Orbach has a mother. It occurs to me that her third grade and my third graders at Laurel could be penpals. “Have any of you ever been to Ohio?” I ask. Heads shake no. We have a tiny geography lesson about the Midwest. Then, Malini explains the upcoming fire drill, and I realize I should scoot out before that event, so as not to be late for a meeting down town. I leave reluctantly, trying to remember names and faces, so when Miranda calls to talk about her girls, I can bring each child to mind.
It is time-warp-ish to me to have her teaching where I taught for two decades. I went to The Chapin School when I was twenty-three one hundred years ago. I arrived on a rainy spring afternoon, mud splattering my white stockings—it was the 80’s—we wore white tights and lots of Laura Ashley dresses. Chapin gave me mentors and friends, opportunities to grow and try new things. In many ways, I came of age there before heading to Ohio to lead Laurel, a girls’ school I’ve come to love with as much devotion as I had for Chapin.
On her first day of teacher meetings, Miranda was overwhelmed to begin with—a new job in a new profession in a setting she remembered from childhood but didn’t really know. Once she arrived, she was overwhelmed at being known by so many people she could not remember—twelve years is a long time when you leave at 11—and it was not her school; it was my school, where she came often, to be sure, but still…the faces swam up, delighted to claim her, welcome her, tell her they knew her when she was a little girl, but now she is grown and her own person, not mine by association, though, of course, she is mine by association, in this school where I taught for a long time, a long time when I longed for her arrival, a long time afterwards. A long, longing time.
She has her own tidy desk in the classroom, a sure sign that her Head teacher will value her, will respect what she can bring to the third grade. She will want to be of use, will want to feel like a partner, rather than a handmaiden. She is taking in the culture, breathing it in—opening meeting in the Gordon Room—in my day, we met in the Assembly Room, but that is under construction, I understand. Once, I tell her, in 1986, we did not have lunch for a year—I think they were building the Gordon Room that year, and we had lunch in Room 26 in brown paper bags—maybe that was when they built the gym. Memory blurs. But we ate our lunches and all was well. In my school the Upper School is upside down; we are building, too, but not on such a grand scale and going both up and down in Manhattan. The cost makes me shudder, but it is different in New York. Lots is different in NY.
In these first weeks, she is tired. It is like drinking from a fire hose, I tell her, wondering how those new to my school are feeling this Monday night, their third week with the girls. Are they tired, too? I am. Every year, at the beginning, I am keyed up, happy to see the girls, weary when things are bumpy, but no longer startled—things are often bumpy at the beginning, in the middle, at the end, along the way—bumps are to be expected. I try to welcome the bumps, not fight them or pretend they’re not there. We have a girl who cannot manage her last period class—yet. I am ever optimistic. We make a plan. She needs a little more TLC just now. And we can do that; it’s within our power to do that, to accommodate, to consider what each child needs. Even Seniors are still girls, who need our help—girl-women. I think of them as young women; yet I most often call them girls. What is that? Forty-plus years in girls’ schools? Probably. Of course, some of them don’t feel like girls or women—some of them are on different journeys, hard ones—in all our schools—and they need more than a work around for math last period. I don’t always feel we have enough to offer girls whose identities feel fragile, who learn too much about families that are shattering around them, who have sick moms or dads who have lost their jobs or siblings who have other huge needs…it takes a village, really, for each one of them. Sometimes we can know what she might need; often, we can only guess.
After her first faculty meeting, Miranda wrote me. She liked what the diversity director has said. What if we were to bathe our classrooms in empathy? I Google the expression—“bathe in empathy.” I get lots of hits about empathy, but nothing with that exact phrasing. I think about the talk I gave to the Upper School ten days ago on Wednesday—about school culture in trying times with a tricky election and polarized views. I had an old talk I wrote ten years ago about my fabulous professor who had a single theme, “man’s inhumanity to man,” the opposite of empathy, I think.
This morning, watching her, I felt giddy that one of my daughters is a teacher, envious that it is all ahead of her, happy that I know the contours of the landscape she now inhabits, if not the details of her world that was once my own.