I’m going back.
Bags of luggage and empty shoes rolled down the conveyor belt. I slipped off my Airwalks and tossed them into a container alongside my coat and computer bag. The routine was familiar. The buzz of the airport washed over me.
I’m going back.
Ten more children would become a permanent part of my classroom in a week, pushing our size to an impossible 34 kinders. Nothing new. They’d been in my classroom already. I’d survived in the hopes that a new teacher would be hired. Now the change was indefinite. No reinforcements.
When I joined Teach for America a month before graduating college, I had dreams of making a difference. Now, two days after Thanksgiving, it all seemed like a joke. A difference? Making a fool of myself more like it. I felt as if I’d been dropped in the desert with an empty canteen and three-dozen dehydrated children. My job? Turn sand into water for the next ten months. The pressure made me sick.
I walked through security in a daze. Reality beat upon my head like a giant mallet driving another fencepost into the ground of “welcome-to-the-real-world.” Months of lonely disappointment echoed in my brain to a bitter and horrifying cadence. “You can’t make any difference. You can’t make any difference. You won’t make any difference.”
I found a corner of the airport, buried my face in the knees of my jeans, and cried.
Two days later I entered the cafeteria of my school and wanted to puke. Every morning was the same. Chasing kids down, breaking up fights, and consoling tearful children who’d been cussed out by their mamas. Or left standing in the cold for an hour without a coat. Or forced to go to school covered in urine because baby brother peed all over their shirt and grandma didn’t have the time. And I had to teach them.
“I’m sick.” The words came out of my mouth Wednesday morning, and I knew they weren’t true. Not false. I did have a cold. But not true. I was fine. “I think I might need to go fill this prescription at Wal-Mart. I’ll come back if I start feeling better.” What the heck? I’d never told such a deceptive lie in my life.
An hour later I was on the road, driving away from school, away from kids, away from pain, away from everything. My destination? The farthest Wal-Mart Supercenter I could think of, located on the other side of the city, over 30 miles away, to fill a prescription that I didn’t need for a cold that gave me the sniffles. It didn’t matter that I’d stretched the truth. It didn’t matter that I’d abandoned my kids. It didn’t matter that nobody was teaching them. I was running away, and I knew it.
Walking through Wal-Mart’s automatic doors and into the pharmacy felt surreal. The quiet hum of normal people going about their normal business shocked my overwhelmed senses like a splash of ice water in the Sahara. I scanned the faces of busy mothers piling on groceries, a grandfather grabbing some extra batteries, friends joking with each other, chatting about the day. Didn’t they know there was a warzone 30 minutes north?
Feelings are hard to describe when you’re asked to do the impossible and everyone acts like it’s a simple thing. “Oh, you teach kindergarten? How cute.” I wanted to scream. The world was a fog. Panic began to asphyxiate my breath as I finished my ridiculous pharmacy trip, sat down in the driver’s seat of my car empty-handed, and started up the engine. My heart plunged into darkness. I was driving back north. There was no escape. I was going back. They were waiting for me, waiting for that sandy canteen to spout water, and I didn’t know how.
I turned up the music and blasted the speakers, anything to escape my desperation. Anything to escape. Anything. But as I sped down the expressway clutching the steering wheel in a white-knuckled grip, a voice, barely audible beneath the booming of the stereo and pounding of my heart, whispered softly, “Aren’t you tired? Aren’t you tired of running away?”
I turned off the blasting music, and silence filled the car. And in the silence I heard my voice yell out in sobbing tones barely recognizable, “GOD FORGIVE ME.” God forgive me for running away. Forgive me for trying to escape. Forgive me for hiding in the boat because I’m afraid to walk on water. Forgive me for my lack of faith. Forgive me.
Twenty minutes later, I rolled my car into the school parking lot and stared at the playground, where a set of brand new slides and shiny equipment contrasted sharply with our tattered building made in the 1950s. Government money meant we got a brand new playground and Smartboards in every classroom, while state budget cuts meant fewer and fewer teachers for a growing population of children.
Staring out the window of my car, I began to realize that something was different. I don’t know how, but something changed in that car, between the automatic entry at Wal-Mart and the 60-year-old doors of my school, something that turned the weight of 10,000 bricks into feathers. Something that turned the impossible into a simple matter.
And my classroom was never the same.
I turned off the engine, grabbed my bag, and walked through the gate onto the playground. My kids were at recess. A pre-k assistant was watching them in my absence. They noticed my arrival immediately.
“Teacher! Where’d you go?”
“I saw yo’ car!”
“You at a meeting?”
“Michael been bad!”
How could I run away? They were kids. They were mykids. But somehow that didn’t seem right anymore. Could I really call them mine? In the energy of the playground I heard a voice whisper, “They’re my kids.”
In some ways nothing changed. In some ways everything changed. The same kids greeted me in the morning with all their problems, griefs, and challenges. The same empty classroom greeted me in the evening, trashed and torn to pieces, dirty walls pasted with learning objectives never accomplished. But I wasn’t running anymore. I wasn’t escaping a prison camp where my kids were instruments of torture. They weren’t my kids in the first place. They were His. They weren’t my problems. They were my calling. How could I run away from that? I’d be running away from God.
I turned off the lights to my classroom that evening and said goodnight to the custodian before slamming closed an ancient door that never locked no matter how hard you kicked it. I kicked the door one last time, just to say I tried, then walked through an empty parking lot to my car. Would I ever make a difference? Would I ever see the change that TFA touts? Those horrifying words echoed in my head once again, “You can’t make any difference. You won’t make any difference.”
But somehow the words had lost their fright between the misery of the morning and the solitude of the night. I kicked my car into drive and headed south. Things were different now. Or perhaps I finally saw how things had always been. How could I have been so blind? A voice hummed beneath the drone of my engine, “God makes all the difference. God makes all the difference. He will make a difference.”
(Compiled from journal entries dated November 23-December 5.)
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