Lately I haven’t been able to focus. I get up in the morning, and instead of sitting down to write, or going for a bike ride, or working on lesson plans, I’m picking up a book and putting it down, pulling Nick Hornby off my shelves only to set him aside for Jane Smiley, sitting down at the piano for ten minutes, picking up my mandolin, sorting laundry. I’m like the birds in the backyard before rain, flitting from branch to branch, not staying anywhere long enough to sing.
School is starting soon. I can feel it gathering around me, that sense that I’ll be sitting at a lit desk in the evening as the dark comes early and the crickets start to hum. The end of summer, the doors opening to new things, the gentling of shorter days—that whole soup of nostalgia and anticipation and nervous energy that I remember feeling almost every September since 1968—it’s starting to simmer again.
Yesterday I bought a nine-pack of fine-tipped Sharpies in black, blue, green, red, purple, and orange, and a fourteen-pack of Pilot G2 blue click gel pens. There are many reasons why I’m a teacher. Not the least important of them is that it gives me an excuse to shop for loose-leaf paper and new pens when summer starts to grow shabby around the edges.
School is starting soon. A few nights ago I was watching a Glee re-run (go ahead, judge me and get it over with!) when the cast spontaneously broke into a fully orchestrated rendition of Shout in the hallway by their lockers. Suddenly I am standing under orange and black crepe paper streamers in the cafeteria at Bethel Park Senior High circa 1980 at an all-night dance-a-thon. My friends and I are getting a little bit softer now, and a little bit louder now, and I’m learning how very much I enjoy being the one holding the microphone.
From the very first episode, I tried not to watch Glee. Something about it reminded me of eating deep-fried twinkies or bacon sandwiches on glazed doughnuts: it seemed like something that people who take themselves seriously as adults just shouldn’t do. But even as the scripts deteriorated last season and most of the teenagers I know stopped watching, I kept on.
I couldn’t help it. I like seeing those fake kids figure out their lives in Show Choir. I like watching their angsty teacher and quirky counselor wince and love them through a series of ridiculous mistakes. I even usually like the big, corny song and dance numbers when pianists, drummers, dancers, and bass players magically appear in the middle of chemistry class. And I might as well admit this, too: on more than one occasion my husband has looked at me in amazement in the middle of the show and asked, “Are you really crying?”
School is starting soon. I have a new backpack, and new intentions to ride my bike at least twice a week, and a new software program for writing lesson plans, and class lists full of names of eager students, some of whom have probably spent the past few weeks as I have, losing their purchase on summer, scrabbling to catch hold of a new year’s routine.
I once raised my hand to answer a question and told my teacher confidently that fall symbolizes new beginnings. She corrected me, explaining that fall is the symbol of ripening and harvest, the time when summer’s growth comes to fruition, the period before the open-armed earth rests after gifting its bounty. Spring, not fall, she explained, is the season of new beginnings.
But of course, it wasn’t. Spring was when fifth grade ended and you knew you would never sit in that same classroom in the middle of the upstairs hall again. Spring was when you erased all the pencil marks in your books and said goodbye and signed your friends’ autograph books. Fall, on the other hand, was when you got new shoes and new folders and cut brown paper book covers out of grocery bags to cover your new books. Fall was when you were one grade older and moved to a new teacher one classroom closer to the end of the hall.
Maybe I like Glee because I can watch students grapple with mistakes without having to try to think of anything wise to say. Or maybe it’s like the space shuttle simulator I rode at Kennedy Space Center this summer: I could pretend to be brave enough to be exploded into outer space without putting myself in any danger at all.
That last thought probably explains the surprising depth of my sadness when Cory Monteith, the 31-year-old who played Finn on Glee, died in real life on July 13. Last spring I met a teacher who said, “I’ve lost twenty-six kids in twenty-five years” and went on with the conversation. I wanted to get to know him. I wanted to learn what faith or fury feeds him and lets him keep loving these fragile miracles.
What I’m saying is that you have to be a little bit brave to be a teacher. You have to love your students as though you can protect them from themselves and the world, even after they teach you that you can’t.
School is starting soon and I’m growing restless. The real life death of a man who played a student on Glee reminds me that even in make-believe school, there’s no simulator. Loving kids is dangerous work. It’s also hilarious and joyous and infuriating and enriching and draining. It makes you feel wise and mature and solid and grown up. It makes you feel unworthy and immature and too flimsy to support the weight of so much earnest becoming. It’s beautiful and terrifying and real.
It’s almost fall. Everything is beginning again. I can’t wait to get started.