How it began: Aug. 22, 2014: 10 days before the school year began
A smile spread across my face, unbidden, as I entered the Lincoln Middle School office. Sharon Arcana was sitting behind a desk, answering a parent’s call in Spanish. She smiled and waved as she talked. Even though I was certified to teach kids whose native language was Spanish, I did not myself speak a word of the language beyond “hola.” I loved listening to it, though, the melody, the drama, a song-like, romantic quality. I leaned over the office counter, a school-day barrier between kids and adults, to wait for the call to end.
Life didn’t get any better than this. After my husband accepted a job transfer to Virginia from Boise, ID., where we both had lived most of our lives, I was unable to find a job in my field – journalism – that met my two standards: decent salary and commute under one hour. Many neighbors commuted to Washington, D.C., or beyond every day but they were on the road two hours or more one way. I said no. And now I had a job that met both standards – and allowed me the privilege of serving others.
I carefully weighed the pros and cons of teaching before I jumped in. I started as a substitute teacher, for something to do and for money to pay the bills. The choice was natural. Subbing was a way to work near my three children, twins age 12, and a daughter, 14, at school. Our twins especially were lonely that first year and if I subbed at their middle school, they were happy. After a year of subbing, I went through two years of post-graduate training through the Virginia Department of Education’s Career Switcher Alternative Route to Licensure Program. I earned my teaching license. I was certified to teach English Language Learners and/or middle-or high-school English.
All those late nights I spent writing essays about classroom management and lesson plans for John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” paid off.
I had a real job. The first year was part-time and served as a sort of introduction to the classroom. Then, during the 2014-15 school year, I was a first-year, full-time teacher with my own classroom.
I could not know that when the principal hinted at having a “reputation” during my hiring interview, I should have taken her seriously. I went straight home and Googled her. I found dozens of complaints about Mrs. Upton. She was rude to parents. She embarrassed parents in public by criticizing their parenting skills. She made teachers cry. She alienated her staff with unprofessional behavior and poor management. A couple of teachers referenced an incident in which she threw a chair at a teacher in a fit of rage at her previous school.
I didn’t worry about it. I don’t know why. I looked up a few other principals who had interviewed me during my job search, to see if the number of complaints about Mrs. Upton was out of line with other principals. The answer was yes. Most principals had one or two online complaints during long careers. Mrs. Upton had been a principal for four years when she hired me.
On this day, and as school got under way in earnest, I liked being in the office, but that changed. The women who worked the front desk jobs – greeting parents and answering phones, among other things – were friendly and fun to talk to, but some of the school’s administrators were neither fun nor friendly. As the year ground forward, through Thanksgiving and Christmas and into that long stretch before spring break, I came to see the office as the place where administrators unleashed the fear that floated in tangy, acrid clouds all over the building. I did my office tasks ‑ grabbing blank copies of forms, checking my mailbox – as quickly as possible, keeping half an eye on the door to Principal Annie Upton’s office, ready to turn and walk away quickly if she tried to swoop down on me.
But that was later. Now, a week before teachers returned for orientation and training for the new school year, the office smelled of toner for the printer. It was the smell of productivity, of making 100 bingo cards for an icebreaker on the first day of school. And no Mrs. Upton in sight.
“I’m a teacher.” “I’m a teacher.” “I’m a teacher.” I practiced saying it to myself. I noticed my lips moving, and I made them stop, so Sharon would not think me crazy. I smiled wider, my eyes squinting into the smile. To me, being a teacher was noble – a calling – like being a minister or a firefighter, a person with the kind of job where I could forget myself and focus on making other people’s lives better. Not like being a journalist, my job of 30 years. It usually made every Top 10 list of hated professions. Journalists preyed on the public, turned tragedy into cold cash for their employers. I thought parents, the public, politicians, all respected teachers for the work they did. I was mostly wrong about that, too.
As a journalist, I once wrote a story that shamed me so much I never looked at it in the paper, and I had to shove away thoughts of family members reading the story. One short-lived editor asked me to write about how two teenagers’ prank – jumping off a 100-foot-high bridge into a deep river on a 102-degree day – would have killed them.
Specifically, he wanted to know how it would have torn up their bodies as they hit water hard as concrete. I wrote more than 500 words, feeling queasy but oddly excited the whole time. Sad, sick stories were like that for me. They were awful, but they were also oddly compelling.
Then I went over a bridge of a different kind myself, and I saw what we all know in our hearts, even as we slow down for a closer look at a car crash. Tragedies are only compelling if they aren’t yours. I didn’t jump off a bridge on a lark. I was pushed hard in the middle of my back, by my principal.
Sharon, who would stay neutral throughout all the hard times winging their way toward me, hung up, and I jerked my brain back to the present. “Mrs. LaMay,” she said. “You’re an early bird. What brings you here this week?” “Most of the teachers are waiting until next week.”
“Am I the first teacher you’ve seen so far?” I asked. I wanted to be an eager new teacher, but not so eager as to appear ultra-nerdy. I didn’t want to be that teacher.
“I want to drop a few things off in my office, I mean, classroom,” I said. “It’s 1203, right?”
She consulted a list lying on a stack of shiny new student agendas, orange and blue with a royal blue falcon in the center – the school’s mascot. “We are the Falcons,” was written in white script across the top. “Falcon, Falcon. I was a Falcon, too.” I made up a quick little tune in my head. It was ridiculous. I was 54, not 12, but I felt a surge of pride looking at that cartoon falcon. I wondered idly if whoever picked the mascot knew much about real falcons.
Some ornithologists consider them the fastest birds in the world. Peregrine falcons kill their prey, mainly other birds, in sudden, stunning dives at speeds up to 200 miles an hour. They knock their targeted prey out of the sky and tear it to bits on the ground with hooked beaks.
“Yep,” she said, breaking up my racing thoughts. “It’s not locked. Door’s open. The janitors have been cleaning floors on that hallway. Watch out you don’t slip.”