The Places We Don’t Expect to Find Ourselves: Steve Irwin, Me

But for the annual book inventory, the tearing down of bulletin boards and locking up computer carts, teaching year nineteen is done. At a graduation party yesterday, a mother introduced me and a colleague and said, “Oh, these two get invited to a lot of parties.” Perhaps she didn’t record my surprise. Because it does surprise me: how happy I am here, how attached I’ve become to my Ipswich students. My first year here was not exactly auspicious:

It wasn’t the first thing that made me feel like an alien, but it’s the first one with a date assigned.  September 4, 2006. The Crocodile Hunter dies. I am sitting in directed study, my second day of classes. I have just returned to teaching after a seven year hiatus, returned to the profession, but not to the school where I spent ten productive years before staying home to raise my children. That school was too far away from where my daughters attend elementary school. I couldn’t spend hours stuck in traffic if my family needed me.

So I started over three miles from home. And when I overheard yet another student I didn’t know say the Crocodile Hunter had died, I hoped he was kidding. Those long days at home with three girls a little over two years apart, the Crocodile Hunter entertained us. Outside, rain drilled pavement or humidity inspired swarming mosquitoes, or someone had a fever, day three, or someone needed a nap and wouldn’t take one. I longed, instead, to be teachingTennyson, or monitoring critique sessions with the literary magazine, or picnicking with a group of my seniors after a Hamlet performance at a local theater, but those outlets disappeared with daughter number one. So here was Steve Irwin, another person who loved his work no matter how crazy people thought he was. My girls screamed and squirmed but stayed put beside me on the sofa, gripping my arms, fighting over my lap as Austin wrassled crocs, hoisted venomous snakes and deemed the most seemingly unloveable creatures, “gorgeous.” The girls and I sat transfixed, safe in our own world of non-poisonous snakes, lakes filled with nothing more threatening than the antediluvian bulk of timid snapping turtles.

Now, I sit in another teacher’s classroom because I don’t have my own (no view of soccer fields, no scrawling in my teacher’s edition: Ms. Panciera, 207, no adorning walls with posters collected from ten years’ worth of yard sales). I labor to learn the names of students who glare at me if I get their first name (Chelsea) right, but confuse their last name with one of the other three Chelseas before me. And the Crocodile Hunter, a man as vital as if he had ushered reptiles into our living room, is dead?  Where can I turn for confirmation?

Students have their backs to me. The teacher whose room this is discusses play costumes on her desk phone –her very own desk phone and not one shared with several twenty-something colleagues with whom I divide a small office space. She hasn’t spoken to me, just calls over me where I sit at a desk trying to manage my laptop, stack of books, paperwork, and takes attendance:  Welcome back, Trista.  Justin I love the haircut – imagine being able to see your face this year. Darcy, you must tell me about Colombia.  Students ask me for tape; I refer them to the teacher behind the desk. They ask if the computers work; I shrug. They ask me a question about their schedule, a document as unrecognizable to me as the faces of my colleagues. Not my planet, not my planet, not my planet.

In this profession, there is little reward for experience if you can’t stick it out in one building. It makes no difference that I advised one of the best literary magazines in the country. Someone else produces the magazine here. I am a published in over fifty journalswriter, but someone else teaches creative writing. I’m assigned a mentor with half my experience and am expected to attend meetings whose topics range from classroom management to modifying curriculum for special education students. Forty-four years old, anonymous, I wander between five different rooms, the halls so crowded, I give up trying to push a cart and strap two bags on my back instead.

My other first year teaching, I was twenty-six, the youngest faculty member on a veteran staff.  I had novelty on my side. I knew my students’ music, I shopped for clothes where they shopped. Now, I don’t even have those things in common with my colleagues.  I don’t wear jeans. I don’t let kids say, “This sucks.” I have nothing to offer the lunch table conversation topic: how many tattoos do you have?

The directed study room is hot, the day outside buzzing with insects, flushed with sun. I didn’t get to put my kindergartener on the bus for her first day, and so far, no one has expressed horror or shock or sadness about the Crocodile Hunter. The months stretch before me. How long the year can seem!  Endless October, a March that must be sixty days long. One of the Chelseas asks to go to the library. Can I send her? Who is this lady, she says to the class who has no answers for her. I squirm in my new sandals, the skirt I bought imagining my triumphant return to a job I loved. If I had a key, I’d excuse myself and go to the bathroom.  Stay there.  See what happens, Steve Irwin, when we venture into a new element?

Class ends. Even the bell here is different, a three note tone that moves me into another stranger’s classroom, a Spanish one this time.

“It is not going to be cool to have English in a Spanish room,” one of my students says.  At least I think he’s one of my students.  “Why did they put us here?”

Beyond the teacher’s desk piled with textbooks, folders, pictures of his family, I see parking lot, not soccer fields, my own car, its interior strewn with gum wrappers, stray socks, Happy Birthday pencils. I bought the car the year our oldest daughter was home, loaded it up with boxes of files from that other school and drove off. The driveway wound through the football field on one side, a strip of wetlands on the other.  Mornings, hawks perched on streetlights; fall, we walked out with a new group of seniors for their class picture on the bleachers; spring, snapping turtles snarled traffic as they headed out to lay their eggs; June we filed out for graduation.

Overhead in the Spanish classroom, pennants that introduce students: Hola, me llamo Jorge.The tone sounds. The Spanish teacher says, “Bummer about Steve Irwin, huh?”

“Who is she?” I hear someone say.

Homesickness is a dart, unexpected, lethal.