One rather heavy, somewhat disorganized and cumbersome-to-transport cardboard box, a box roughly the size of a mini refrigerator, has been emptied, re-organized and given a whole new life recently. Its contents are best described as treasures of zero monetary value, of little consequence to any milestones in the lives of its contributors, and of somewhat trivial and miniscule philosophy. Still, they were born of a life dedicated to cultivating knowledge in young people. My life as I’ve known it as a public school teacher is entombed inside that box.
I have Dear Teacher letters too numerous to count, Hallmark birthday greetings celebrating birthdays I didn’t want to be reminded of and enough glittery Christmas cards to stock a hundred mantles, but that box also holds more handmade notes than is really believable, with most coming for absolutely no occasion or holiday at all. I smiled the other day at the sight of the calling card of the high school girl: swirls of very feminine handwriting, painted with gel pens and colored Sharpies, pink and purple and turquoise and gold, of course, with big round letters that read “I love you SO much!” splashed across a plain old piece of notebook paper. To go to that much trouble…it still touches me. The boys, well, they were not usually so mushy. Their notes, when I could read their scribble at all, usually expressed approval of their time with me with a simple, “You’re awesome DQ and I love your class.” It was always enough, boys. It did the trick just fine.
School pictures of awkward teenagers in forced poses, with hairstyles and clothes that help me remember what they looked like back when I knew them. But I must admit to hoping I might recognize them now if I see them, too, even though I sometimes, sadly, have a hard time recalling all their names. They are frozen in my mind the way they looked when they were 16. At 26, I can’t make any promises, but I try. Sometimes their names come to me and other times they just don’t. I’m sorry. And yes, I ask myself almost every day, “When did I get so old?”
Emails. Those are tricky. They came bearing both good news and bad news. So I only kept the good ones. Man, do I have some good ones. Parents can make me cry. When they stopped during their busy day to shoot me a kind message, with something genuinely complimentary to say, it made a big difference in a life like mine. Often I read stories so touching, so embellished with gratitude and appreciation, so full of enlightenment, and I wondered if there could possibly be another job in the world more important than mine to a child’s mom and dad. I was touched anytime they saw me and what I try to do every day. I printed them all out and kept them in the box.
I had cheerleaders…real and metaphorical, and they wrote me too. A note of encouragement or congratulations from a colleague is the kind I’m talking about, and it was a next-level pat on the back, unmatched in every way when it came from someone I highly respected and admired. Long emails from a master in their field, a message telling me I’m valued and respected too, and that someone I revere thinks I’m good at my job, because they would know, and they just wanted me to know as well. Friend, I’m so glad you took the time to tell me. It meant a lot coming from you.
Oh, I have a lot of autographs. They signed the newspaper clippings I cut out of the paper the day after they got a new personal best time at their track meet or their swim meet. I saved the headlines from their play-off victories in those barn-burners I know they probably miss being a part of now. Asking them for an autograph back then made them feel as amazing as still having those autographs makes me feel now, even though none of these kids actually grew famous. To me, seeing one of my kids in the newspaper made me proud, like a mom. Isn’t that strange? And I guess some of them did get famous, if I’m honest. But to me, they’re still just that funny kid in the third row begging me to have an easy day.
I have every dog-eared, homemade program from every drama production I’ve ever attended. Steel Magnolias was my favorite of all time, and the essays I graded over the years that came from theater students always made it into my box of treasures. It is an honor to have witnessed so many young people find confidence in themselves on a stage. (They could never have gotten that from history class.) I had them autograph those programs too, and it made them and me feel like a million bucks. What is it about an autograph that can do that to a person?
There’s a glass jar in the box and its top is made of simple dress fabric, tied tight with a green ribbon, my name in green puffy paint on the side along with the year I received it. Inside, 26 little cards, no bigger than business cards, are inscribed with 26 versions of “Thank you. I was prepared.” The year was 2010, perhaps the worst year of my whole life, and yet, 26 times I was told I didn’t let them down.
Oil-painted canvasses, cross-stitched bookbags, clay pots, engraved picture frames, Japanese origami, ornaments… a teacher never knows what they might get for Christmas. I’ve got at least one of each of these, and I kept everything. They’re all in the box.
Ticket stubs from field trips I still laugh about. The broken piece of brick a student smuggled out of Mount Vernon for me, the paint chip from Fenway Park, the popsicle stick from the vendor outside of the National Archives, the autographs from our Congressmen, sand from the beach where Columbus came ashore, paper weights with Thomas Jefferson’s picture, a small bust of George Washington…this is how a student tells you, “I saw something really cool and I thought about you.” Oh my goodness, the pictures. A dozen group shots where I counted to 3 more times than necessary so I could get everyone posing in front of our nation’s Capitol, the Liberty Bell, or on the beaches of Plymouth, Massachusetts where the Pilgrims landed. I took a picture so perfectly one time that it wound up on the front of a travel company guide. Yes, I kept a copy of that guide. It’s in the box, too.
You know what I didn’t keep? Evaluations. Pay stubs. Meeting handouts. Test data files. Student performance folders. There’s nothing worth remembering in those places. That’s where I went if I wanted to feel beaten down, unworthy, or inadequate. Those things never saw the inside of my box, they were never worthy of reminiscing. And it was never about that, anyway.
I’ll tell you about one more thing I have. It’s from 2010, which was a rather horrible year for me, as I’ve mentioned already. I lost someone I loved very much that year, a loss so great that I needed a whole village to pick me back up. The love I got often came from people I barely knew, and yes, it also came from my best friends and the people I work with. Love like that comes from a community rooted in its schools. It was the strangers, though, who brought my smile back one day. A small envelope made its way to me after that loss and I counted $23.75 inside, wondering why, and from whom, and for what? Well. It came from people I’d never met, but who knew my son. Women who worked in the cafeteria at his elementary school, who knew him only from passing through their lunch lines everyday. Someone told them that my little boy had lost his daddy, and so they collected their change and sent it to me, hoping it might help a little bit. It did, and I still have every single cent of it in that same little envelope. In the box, of course. That’s The Village we all keep hearing about.
What a magical place a school is. When those doors are closed and it’s just the teachers and their kids, that’s when that magic happens. My kids. All teachers say it. Learning, laughing, bonding, sharing, comforting, encouraging, and loving each other. Above all, that has been my experience. My joy comes from being a part of what I believe is the most important calling there is on this earth.
It’s a box with no value that is absolutely priceless to me, and I have taken the time to go through every single beautiful thing inside, recalling the moment I first received it. I am thankful to be remembered in those ways for the job I’ve done for those children. All the treasures of my legacy, contained in a single box.
Wouldn’t take nothin’ for it.