I was a middle school teacher. My life was populated by kids aged ten to fourteen, humans who could not traverse a field without running, skipping, or inventing games that involved wrestling, dance steps, or some innovative form of tag and pursuit. I inhabited a world in which shoes appeared on rooftops, rain-slicked wooden decks were meant for sliding, and girls tap-danced side by side on a chessboard. Children smiled at me with multi-colored braces on their teeth and left drawings on my whiteboard. They told me secrets sometimes that I never revealed and by eighth grade they forgot that I existed. They read books in a window seat, crawled under a table to write tales of runaway horses and fantasy battles, and asked questions that I could not always answer.
How many people get to try walking on coffee can stilts in the course of their workday or have their hair elaborately braided by a seventh grade girl? I did. I saw snow angels in the mountains and sand angels at the beach. I supervised the mummification of chili peppers, helped bury and excavate bogus ancient artifacts, and assisted in the placement of the planets. I was drawn into a spontaneous conga line once after a sparkling etiquette dinner in a make-believe restaurant, and I walked in silence with sixty-six kids on September 11.
We pored over atlases with their pastel colored maps and discussed the reasons given for a war. We looked at the faces of faraway children and tried to make life better for one. We wrote thank you letters, shared stories, and interviewed our elders. We surfed the Metro of Washington, D.C. and hopped a cable car in San Francisco. We found poems in odd places and shining epiphanies. Once we had a sleepover on campus, ran through the sprinklers in the dark, and fell asleep watching Anne of Green Gables.
Not every day was an adventure, of course, and whether adult or student, each of us endures our share of tedium and routine. But it helps to have colleagues who discuss the red-plumed grass growing by the railroad tracks, seldom heard songs of Nina Simone, fourth power polynomials, the life of poetry, whether ideas can exist without language, and the moral components of religious belief. It helps to have people who tolerate your many eccentricities and simply laugh when you remind them for the third time to turn off the coffee maker and lock the door when they leave, who listen to your troubles during a quick stop in the office and help you put them all into perspective, who understand carpe diem right down to their bones.
Even my commute to work was wondrous. I loved the way the fog danced with the early sun as I crested the hill and descended into the valley. One morning, just south of the Pork Palace, I saw a rainbow in the fog; it was more silvery than a regular rainbow, its colors hushed and frosted. I didn’t have a camera but I had to tell someone. Marc was standing outside during recess that day cocking his head and watching a biplane dipping and playing in the sky toward the mountains, so I told him about the rainbow. “Fogbow,” he said, more verbose than usual. That night I found an entire website on fogbows, complete with photographs. They looked like haloes of light, white rainbows. “At the center,” the text said, “one will find a glory.”
I liked working in a place where fogbows were understood. Where kids said, “Let’s get high” and meant they wanted to swing really hard on the swings. Where someone on the staff, when asked, “What’s the policy on tree climbing?” responded, in all seriousness, “I think it’s a good idea.”
I liked getting emails from kids, and wearing costumes, and discussing books while speaking in fake accents. I liked riding my bike with the eighth grade boys, time traveling through our journals, taping cool words on the wall, making paper cranes and embroidering jeans, seeing guitars in the bathtub and kites in the sky, watching our prayer flags dissolving in threads as our beautiful hopes diffused into the universe.
I was a middle school teacher. Now summer approaches with a rumble of wheels and dust, and it is time to get used to saying that in the past tense. I was a middle school teacher. I have learned well the rhythms of the academic year and the ebb and flow of its cycle; I recognize the incongruous tugging of June remorse, the familiar sense of loss as I wave from the shore to people I have grown to love. It is so much more poignant when you know you’re not returning.
It’s a little scary, too. I am afraid of a blank fall, afraid of the quiet, afraid of becoming irrelevant. I am afraid that I’ll miss the laughter and the melodrama, the sweetness and the chaos, the precious access I have had to the boisterous tender borderland world of middle school.
But it’s time to graduate, I suppose. People ask me if I’ll write, which is like asking if I’ll sip water. Definitely. Sometimes. I’ll also sit at the seawall and look at the sky. I have had lots of practice finding wonder now, and being ten feels less remote than my middle-aged exterior suggests. The road in the canyon parts the yellow mustard flowers, and I am walking straight in with a heart filled with gratitude and love. At the center I will find a glory.
Cynthia Carbone Ward