I started school too early. In the days when the enrollment cut off was April 30, my April 19 birthday, pushed me a year ahead. While my kindergarten classmates began the year at age five; turning six, I toddled in at three and a half years old, forcing me to play social catch-up throughout my school years. I was resigned to be the final girl in middle school to wear a bra and the last to have a boyfriend. I never caught on to the logic of math or the elegance of chemistry. If it wasn’t for my consistent prowess in English/Language Arts, I would have been a drop-out by eighth grade.
Yet, I tossed away my college theater major dreams and earned my BS in Early Education. I didn’t (and still don’t) have an affinity for small children (unless they’re related by blood.) I would have much preferred a career as a high school English teacher, but, as I had done with the rest of my life, I made an impetuous decision: Choosing Early Childhood would get me out of college a year sooner. And getting out of school was my only goal.
I left my college degree in its mailing tube and spent the next sixteen years avoiding paying jobs in my chosen career. One autumn, after one of my impassioned PTA speeches at my son’s school, the district superintendent asked to see me. Terse, yet kind-hearted, he minced no words. “You’re too smart to stay a mommy. Start subbing in my district. If you’re any good, you’ll be hired.”
I was hired. My experience as a school-hater, made me a goddess with six-graders. I recognized shyness, I knew laziness was only the outward appearance of insecurity and understood that acting out was an SOS. By the time I left teaching, the number of my students who won city, state or national awards outnumbered the rest of the student body by double digits. I wasn’t showing up in a clown nose to delight my children, I just exuded happiness at my opportunity to be at school as a teacher; unafraid and unencumbered by my age or student rules.
The rules of school, don’t apply anywhere else in life. CEO’s don’t tell you to spit out your gum or sit straight. Bosses don’t ask you to lower your voice. You don’t need permission to urinate. There’s even a unique teacher-vocabulary, we all recognize when we hear, even when we haven’t heard it in years. As a middle school teacher, I often found dawdlers in the hallways (never my students-they were perfect). There’s a standard question for all children not in their seats after the bell. It’s always delivered with a warning scowl. “Where should you be?” I had heard it as a student and said it often as a teacher. Students’ replies varied, “In the gym, in French, in homeroom.” Teachers’ comebacks are universally the same, “Then get there.”
One day, a teacher I had only seen in passing, stopped in my office with a small box of pastries. I was busy with little time for him, but his winning smile, won my heart. His name is Steve Brown; skin the color of fine rich coffee, eyes that shine like July 4th sparklers and a little black braid at the nape of his neck. “What would you be, if you could be anything in the world?” He asked while sliding a glazed cruller in my direction. My immediate response surprised me. “A writer.” There they were-the truest words I had ever spoken in school. “Well, you know…teachers teach and writers write.”
That night, as if an angel whispered an eleventh commandment in my ear, I wrote about Steve. (Later, I used his name and visage as a character in Sea and Sky) Steve’s words lay heavy on my heart as my own words came to haunt me, “Where should you be? Then get there.” I left teaching that June and began my first novel. Steve and I meet once a year for lunch, but this year, he told me he and his lovely wife are moving away. I’m so thankful we shared a school room one day years ago and indebted to him for his teacher words.