I lead a school in a beautiful Cleveland suburb. Tonight, the first of December, a full moon glows over our school building. I search the circular front driveway for my car but realize my husband took it earlier to go to pick up our son. He is a boy, so he cannot attend my school.
Cars line the driveway, engines thrumming, coils of exhaust snaking up, red tail lights firing the darkness, as if the eyes of prehistoric metallic creatures. I will walk home; though chilly, there is no cutting wind. As I pass the cars, their silhouetted inhabitants anonymous to me, I think, as I used to passing illuminated Manhattan apartments, that there are lives and stories behind each of these windows.
When the girls—athletes, members of the robotics team, musicians--emerge from school, they will fling their backpacks into trunks or back seats, hurtle themselves into the car, fasten their seat belts, chatter about their plans or days or refrain from saying much at all; then, their parents, the chauffeurs, will spring back to life, leave their phones or the news radio to which they have been listening, rejoin their daughters, talk about the day.
Linnea and Cassie roll down their windows, holler, “Hi, Ms. Klotz!”
“I can’t see you,” I shout back. They identify themselves, one long arm waving out the passenger window. I feel happy; I love those two. Then, Izzy, about to get into the car her dad is waiting inside, calls me back to ask about her sonnet, due on Monday. We talk briefly about figurative language—alliteration, metaphor, puns and possibilities. I will be sad when my drama class ends next week; I have loved being a drama teacher again. I start to walk away from school towards home, where an array of seasonal inflatables have bloomed on our front lawn—my husband’s handiwork. Their lights beckon me.
Earlier this afternoon, three basketball players arrived in my office to talk about how re-entry will be for two ninth graders whose dad died suddenly over the Thanksgiving holiday. The teammates are afraid the twins will be mobbed when they rejoin us, that it will all be too much. I agree. This dad's unexpected death has shocked our school, has stirred up feelings in many of us who have suffered losses--some I know about; many are like the shadows of relatives who wait in the dark cars--not quite able to be known. I have felt, over the course of the week, my heart throbbing with loss and helplessness.
“It will be hard,” I tell the girls in my office, honoring their worries. “People mean well, but sometimes when someone is trying to hold it together, having people say too much can make her fall apart. I’ll talk to everybody Monday and suggest the girls not come in until after assembly.”
They nod, solemn, and suddenly I am telling them a story I thought I had forgotten. My brother died the August after my 9th grade year. When I returned to school after Labor Day, I felt like an egg—at any moment, I might fall to the floor, shell shattering and insides oozing out. I felt hyper-visible, as if people were staring at me, pitying me, maybe whispering. I hated that. A new English teacher said something about death or grief on the very first day of class. English had always been my safe haven, but suddenly, I found I had risen from my desk, flung myself out of the room to avoid bursting into tears. Once I'd fled the room, I stood with my back against the wall, breathing hard, as if I had just run a distance even though all I had done was make a hasty exit, almost without being aware that I had done so. Impulse won over reason. I had gotten out of the room on instinct, but once out, I had no idea what to do. Eventually, I think a teacher who knew me came along, huddled me into an office, offered reassurance, spoke to the new teacher, who, probably had no idea how fragile I felt. I returned to class, read Evelina and other novels. I fell in love with theatre that year, a place where it was safe to express big feelings. In time, I figured out how to keep moving through my days. The rawness of Rod’s death healed over until I missed it, missed him, forgot the sound of his voice, his laugh. Now, mostly I see him in the images I have in frames throughout our house. It has been a long time since I dreamed him.
But walking through the dark tonight, I think about all we don’t know about other families’ experiences, all the judgments we are inclined to make. We fill in the gaps left in narratives. We assume. We take for granted.
Some weeks are hard at school. What lifted my spirits was being on stage today with our Primary girls during their winter concert. I watched them find their parents in the crowd, watched the corners of their eyes lift in smiles, watched families watching their girls, watched fake snow fall on upturned rapturous faces. Earlier this week, I watched the Juniors receive their class rings, watched the younger girls looking up to the older girls. These rituals and traditions anchor me, remind me that the work we do in schools is grounded in hope, in the belief that the young will do better than we have.
By now, the driveway is empty, the cars are moving through the dark streets, ferrying our girls back to their homes, back to the parts of their lives that we, in school, may not know as much as we imagine. Each girl in each car has her own story, her own circumstances, her own gifts and worries, her own spin on Tolstoy’s adage about families.
Humility, grace, courage, an open heart. Easier to find, somehow, this evening, in the mild December dark. I inhale, admire the tiny lights dancing across the front of our house. I take a moment to appreciate the fact that it is Friday night. I note, too, how privileged I am to be a teacher, to be a headmistress, to spend my life among children.