Last Friday, after a two-hour, two-prosecco lunch, followed by a round of goodbye visits and emails, I signed off the computer in my brightly lit, well-equipped office in a shiny law firm building, across the hall from one of many conference rooms continually restocked with logo-emblazoned legal pads and crisply sharpened pencils, and took the final elevator trip to the parking garage. As I handed my parking card and hang tag to a now-former colleague and reminded him again how much I’d enjoyed working with him, he smiled and said, “Don’t worry ’bout that, you’ll be back.” I smiled back and apologized for “yelling” at him for running in the building the day before, in a premature flash back to that hall-monitor mentality to which I was preparing to return. We shared a last laugh and wave goodbye and then I pulled out into the K Street traffic for my last long commute home.
This Friday I was back in the classroom, reminding seventh graders to turn in their homework and reminding myself about reverse operations in algebraic equations, with a 10-minute lunch break of turkey and swiss from an everyday Ziploc bag, accompanied by a full-bodied raspberry seltzer water.
My day was filled with the same directives: “Turn in your homework. . . .pick up the warm-up sheet. . . sit in your assigned seat . . .no gum. . . no bathroom passes in the first 10 minutes of class. . ..” Repeatedly I suggested that those who were out of notebook paper or didn’t have a pencil might borrow from a classmate, as the teacher’s classroom supply bin, no doubt stocked at her own expense, was empty.
Circulating the classroom, navigating my way through backpacks and binders, I counted the fluorescent ceiling lights, probably the originals in this building erected forty years ago, recently passed over (yet again) for renovation or new building because of prohibitive expense. Of 20 lights, only 12 were lit. I asked if students could see well enough to work through their problem sets. They said they were used to it; the lights have been out for as long as they can remember.
Yesterday I stayed behind with the kids who weren’t going on the field trip and we watched videos as part of the science teacher’s assignment. They strained to hear the only available audio, through the computer’s built-in speaker. The external speaker connection “hasn’t worked in a long time,” and the satisfaction I gained during lunch when I found that it was plugged into the wrong port and corrected it was short-lived when we tried again and the speaker wire proved fickle. Unless I was sitting next to the speaker holding the wire, audio was intermittent.
Earlier in the week, I walked into a high school where every “Good morning” I offered was returned by an equally enthusiastic “Good morning!”
Dozens of times.
By teachers, staff, the school policeman, and much to my happy surprise, by students.
Teenagers. Saying, “Good morning!”
I spent that morning operating the laminating machine, the secret envy of any teacher who’s ever been told that only the media specialist is allowed to operate the laminating machine. I felt a kinship with every one of them who altered their path to draw in a big sniff of the hot plastic. I know that whiff. It ranks up there with freshly baked bread or perfectly brewed coffee.
Later in that same morning, the Internet went down and stayed that way for the rest of the day, throwing off lesson plans and research projects and any number of important activities in support of the educational process. Everyone adjusted. No heads rolled. No jobs lost. I ate lunch in a faculty lounge furnished with old overstuffed couches and motivational posters from the 1970s, with teachers who were tired but still smiling and chugging along, offering me any help I might need, despite the fact that they didn’t know me and might or might not ever see me again. Because that’s who teachers are. Ok, maybe they were angling for a surreptitious spin at the controls of the laminator. Still.
This contrast has struck me so many times in this past week, the first in this interim period where I’m figuring out what I want to be now that I’ve decided being a grown up wasn’t for me. In “big law,” especially on K Street, burned out lighting is replaced within minutes. If the Internet is down for more than 10 minutes, heads roll and careers are on the line. (After all, we have to know what’s going on at Above the Law.) There has never been a time that paper and pencils, not to mention herbal tea and specialty coffees, aren’t within immediate reach — at no one’s personal expense — and restocked almost as quickly as they’re borrowed. The bathrooms are spotless — cleaned every hour on the hour. The buildings are new or newly renovated. Clients don’t want to visit dingy offices. And when you say “Good morning” to someone, they assess your standing in the food chain to decide whether or not to acknowledge your existence.
As this week has passed, with the Internet outage and the audio difficulties and a half-dark classroom, I’ve thought a lot about how students could benefit from the wealth that goes into just the infrastructure alone of a major law firm. A major new high school could be paid for by less than a year’s revenue of a mid-sized firm.
Then today I noticed some posters near the American flag, where students take them in, if only subliminally, in the daily ritual of the Pledge of Allegiance: a bullying-awareness poster and a “fast cash/crime doesn’t pay” poster, meant to discourage an unethical mindset. If I ever do go back to the clean, well-lighted world of big law, I’d like to take those posters with me.
While I’ll miss the occasional fancy lunch and the clean bathrooms and the endless supply of sharp pencils, nothing can compare to hearing a teenager say, “Good morning!”
“Teenagers Kick Our Butts,” Dar Williams