Yesterday, my First School closed. It was the school that took a chance on me, where an optimistic principal hired me — a green, green 21 year old — to be a fourth grade teacher.
I visited late on Monday afternoon for one final chance to walk the halls again. Every step I took had a weight to it. I am a sentimental person, anyway, so when I do a goodbye it is often long and overwrought. I’m the last person at the party.
That’s the room where Doris would holler at me to “GO. HOME.” when it was well into dinnertime on a Tuesday night.
That’s where Marcie and I found Room 18’s escape artist turtle, Houdini — before Barb mistook him for a wild turtle, and had her students bring him out to the pond behind the school.
That’s the pole where we posted a photo of Billy‘s favorite Star Wars character, General Grievous, so that he would know which classroom to go to.
This was John’s room. We disagreed on almost every single political point, but he was also one of my favorite people to have recess duty with. He let me empty out all of the student work I was never going to grade into his classroom’s recycling bin. He also smiled charitably when he heard me remind students “if you ever feel like you’re going to throw up, grab the trash bin and run straight into Mr. C’s room.”
I am so grateful that Leeanne, our literacy coach, spent all that time working with us on writing instruction. The teachers here really shaped me.
I am so grateful to the people I met there. They put up with me — the young, overzealous kid with no semblance of work-life balance. They pushed me to rethink things and modeled institutional change at our professional development sessions. Even with some skepticism, the teachers at my First School always listened, participated, and tried everything. They taught me what it means to have teaching as a career.
In Room 12, formerly John’s fifth grade, I ran into special educators Karen and Alyssa. They’ve worked in tandem for years — well before I first met them 13 years ago — and I remember both of them for their irrepressible peals of laughter, which echoed down the main hallway. Karen taught a pull out class for several of my fourth graders who performed “significantly below” grade level expectations in math. I remember how she used the general education curriculum as her base. “We don’t dumb it down, we just make it work for them. We make changes. We take more time.” Every school needs a Karen.
In Room 9, I found retiring teacher Corinna. There were boxes stacked high as she prepped for her final classroom move. Still, Corinna stopped to embrace me, and tell me about plans for spending time with her adorable toddler grandson.
Corinna had always inspired me back when I was a classroom teacher there. She was 30 years into her career — she is now over 40 — and yet she remains one of the most reflective and adaptive teachers I have ever met. She sought out opportunities for change, and to push herself — but, most importantly, she always did so with grace and optimism. Corinna radiates joy.
“Where are you working now?” She asked. I moved from our little, working class district into a high performing one next to the city. “Oh. Of course! You were always such an amazing teacher. So creative, and innovative. You did amazing things with our students. I am not surprised at all to hear that your district snapped you up!”
While I am flattered, being in a well resourced district does not mean I am better. As much as I love my current school and district, there’s things that I could only learn at my First School — the one that is now shuttered forever.
Finally, I walked into my own classroom: Room 13. I circled the room, doing nostalgic laps around the desks and chairs. I ran my fingers along the faucet of the sink. I wonder if that water fountain still tastes like paint. In my last year in the classroom, it was discovered that the water in my room contained over 10,000 ppb of lead. The EPA considers 15 ppb to be an actionable level. We were poisoning our children. Why… why was that okay? In my current district, there would have been a lawsuit filed before lunchtime.
I tapped my foot gently against the tiles, which still look prone to splintering and cracking. Whenever a large chunk of tiles broke off, men in hazmat suits would interrupt literacy to remove the piece. I always wondered who decided that these men needed to be in a bubble for protection, but the kids and I were allowed to sit on the floor in shorts.
I left each day covered in a thin layer of soot, from the floor and also from the chalk dust that floated off the ancient chalkboards to settle into my hair and clothes.
So I won’t miss that building. My current school building may be over 100 years old, but we have whiteboards and projectors and floors that I do not worry about. I still miss the people. Those teachers. Those students!
That’s the door from my classroom that led outside. The day before the first day of school, a parent greeted me there. I confirmed that her daughter would be in my class. “Is this your first job?” She asked me. I danced around the question, but she knew the deal. She turned to her daughter, and said, “see, Casey, your teacher is going to be even more nervous than you are tomorrow.”
What do I do at the end of the beginning?
I wrote about my first year teaching here: