When I went to put on my shoes this morning, I realized they were caked with mud. For a moment, I was confused. But then I remembered – the last time I wore these shoes was at Shawn’s burial on that freezing January day.
Ugh. It was the first thing to trigger my grief and it was only 6:30 in the morning. And today was going to be a big day, because it was my first day back at work since early January. I actually worked through a lot of Shawn’s hospital stay, because we thought he would eventually be okay and someone needed to make sure to maintain a steady job. I also love my work as a high school teacher, and because he knew that, he encouraged me to continue.
So maybe it was odd that I was so nervous about going back to work. It’s been over two months since I’ve been in the classroom, but I’ve been a teacher my entire adult life. Teaching is something that I can do. Lately, I’ve felt like such a failure in so many parts of my life that I really wanted to go back and be in a place were I knew I could be successful. Or at least as successful as is possible for me right now.
Right before I left for work, I checked my phone. I had about 20 text messages from friends and family. They wanted to wish me luck and send me love. You know what many of them said? “You got this.” I loved that.
There was one particular text from the night before that I read over and over again as I got ready for the day. In it, a fellow teacher wrote, “All you gotta do is show up tomorrow, give it what you’ve got for that particular day and then take care of yourself with the help of people who love you. This is not a referendum on the teacher you’ll be or the way you’ll feel forever. It’s just about one day.”
I just kept repeating that over and over in my head. Today is not a referendum.
Referendum or not, by 7:30 it was time to go to work. My dear friends Michelle and Becky decided last night that they would come over this morning and walk me to work. It wasn’t my idea, but I was so grateful to say “yes, please come.” And so they did. I told them that I wasn’t sure I was prepared to go back, but the day was now here, and the only way through it was through it.
We walked to school like we might walk anywhere, and talked about things that don’t matter at all but were hilariously funny, like what it’s like to watch a movie with a graphic sex scene when you’re sitting with your parents. Somehow, though they’ve never walked me to my job before, it felt totally normal. Maybe even carefree.
“You only have to do this once,” Michelle said as we parted. She meant that I only have to do the “first time back” thing one time. Thank God.
Of course, everyone wanted to say hi when I got in the building, and that was kind and wonderful of them to do so. But within a few minutes of getting to my desk, I knew I needed to get to work, as there was so much to do.
I opened up my schedule. The first thing I saw? “CHEMO” written across every other Thursday until the end of the school year. Jesus, who knew I was such a planner? I’d forgotten I’d done that. This was trigger number two and it felt like a brick hitting me. Ugh. I sat there for a long time looking at those words.
Eventually, the bell rang and I managed to make it to my first class. When I arrived, all of the students started saying, “we missed you! You’re back!” It was genuine and it was wonderful.
As I set up for my first class, I opened my computer. I have it set to display a series of a hundred pictures that it cycles through from a photo folder. But of course, the one that opened today was a shot of Shawn and me, looking at each other. That made trigger number three. In front of students, no less. I was supposed to teach about the Mexican political system, but all of the sudden I just couldn’t.
So, I started to talk to them. I didn’t have a plan about what I was going to say, but this was a room full of high school seniors who would go out into the world really soon. “Sometimes,” I started, “bad things happen.”
The room was so silent I could hear a pin drop. I continued, “sometimes really bad things happen.”
Every head was turned towards me. They knew I was telling them something that teachers usually don’t share.
“I hope such a tragic thing won’t ever happen to you,” I said, “or if it does, I hope it’s not for a really, really, really long time. But you will likely face something terrible someday. It’s part of living in this world. And so I am here, still living with my grief but showing you one way you might greet this kind of adversity when it comes.”
I paused here, not knowing exactly what I was trying to say. I wanted them to know that I would be okay, even if I wasn’t okay right now. What could I tell them to make them understand that?
“Here is what I know,” I said, “the best way through my grief is through it. For me, this means facing what I am feeling and talking about it when the time comes. It frequently means being imperfect, especially in the classroom.”
I told them that right now I am sad, but I am also happy to be surrounded by them. I told them how I had missed the funny inside jokes that we had and how I couldn’t wait to hear about their lives. I also told them, briefly, what it was like to spend that day in November teaching about the three branches of government, and then go home that night and find out my husband had terminal cancer.
I told them that I wished they could give out lessons to many adults about how to spread love to someone who is grieving. Because what I really wanted to hear today was just what they said: that they missed me and that they were so happy I was in their presence. Even if I was much less than perfect.
Today was not a referendum on who I am as a teacher. It was messy and imperfect, as teaching always is. But if it had been a referendum, I’d feel okay about it. That first class might not have had a tidy lesson on the Mexican political system, but they saw me put one foot in front of the other. If they remember only one thing from me as a teacher, I hope that’s it.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.