Early Days

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. 


First Day Blues

This month, I start my thirty-fifth year of teaching school, my thirteenth as Head at Laurel.  Over the years, I have taught English and drama, mostly, with a fair number of College Guidance classes sprinkled in.  I think back over Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Ethan Frome, Tess, The Scarlet Letter, Huck, Great Expectations, Beloved, Woman Warrior, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, a lot of Shakespeare, tons of poetry, more plays and the occasional short story and essay.  My new Juniors and my Sophomores at Northfield Mount Hermon in my earliest years as a teacher were indulgent, kind.  A few years later at Chapin, in drama, we began always in a circle spending time getting to know each other before jumping into acting exercises.  Teaching is the place I know myself best; it is like oxygen.  I love leading a school, but teaching is actually where I find myself on steadiest ground, understand my purpose and my role.  For me, teaching has always been a sort of second-skin.

Until last year.  Last year, I taught 9th grade English as I have for the past twelve years at Laurel—and my class met last period—every day.  The girls were marvelous—full of curiosity and kind with one another—mostly.  They were also fried after a long day.  And their teacher was not so marvelous.  Too often, I was cranky and fatigued, stressed after a day of managing the day-to-day life of the school.  I fell behind in my correcting too often and felt inadequate.  I loved being with them, but I didn’t feel like my best English-teacher self.  Turns out, I’m not at my best at 2:30 and I found myself more curt, a little less elastic in my dealings with my girls. I discovered that I would benefit from a schedule that tumbled as much as the girls would. In the fall, when we were tackling Oedipus Rex, I had the fleeting thought that I might gouge out my own eyes if I had to teach this particular tragedy again—though I love it.  And, in the midst of The Odyssey, I had to resist my strong impulse to yell at Odysseus, saying, “Get a compass and get the heck home to your wife and stop sleeping with everyone in a skirt on the way.”  I don’t think it’s a great sign to want to berate the Epic Hero. I have loved teaching texts I know well, but there comes a point when one needs a change. 

So, I decided to step back, take a year away from the English classroom.  I’ll still teach drama in the spring when the little girls and I make a play together.  And, a stint of maternity-subbing has come my way, so I’ll get to teach Lifeskills to some 9th graders in the winter.  But, I am already feeling sorry for myself in an unbecoming way.  No one exiled me.  I exiled myself, so I wouldn’t be sour and cross.  This year, I’ll be able to watch more classes around the building, be able to travel a bit more to raise money for this school I love so much, be able to write at night instead of making up assessments or grading essays.  But as the first day came and went and I did not meet a new crop of girls—expectant, maybe a little nervous about having the Head as their English teacher until they realized how delighted I was to be on their journey with them.  I’m hoping my self-imposed sabbatical will be good for me and for the school, but I can already tell you, I think I may have blown it.  Perhaps I could have taught a different tragedy, found a different epic, taught at another hour of the day.  But, perhaps I’ll feel all the more joyous next year when I’m setting up my grade book and meeting a new group of girls.  What a privilege it is to teach.