Marjorie Brimley walking as a single parent with daughter Claire

First Day Back

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.


  • Paula Donnelly

    Pardon the sh*tty cliche, but what a spectacular teachable moment that will stay with your students for a lifetime. I literally just read an article about the impact of a relatable teacher on students. Your lessons to them are the kind that no amount of teacher prep or ‘professional development’ can teach you to teach. So powerful.

    And congrats on getting through the first day back. See, you did have it! And you’ll have it today and every other day too.

  • Sarah-Jane Greenway

    Those students are so lucky to have you as their teacher. The Mexican political system can wait – the lesson you taught yesterday was invaluable and I am sure had a tremendous impact on every one of those students.

  • Erin

    You are such an unbelievable teacher – what a gift you are to your students Marjorie! You have made such an incredible impact on their lives that they will always carry with them. You’re amazing.

  • Kate

    I agree. The Mexican Political System is one thing, but you taught them something they can learn ONLY FROM YOU and only on this day. And I bet in 10 years those kids won’t remember the Mexican Political System, but they will remember how you made them feel something important on that one hard day.

  • Gabe

    Oh Marjorie, they will remember this lesson forever. So brave if you to talk about your grief rather than try to hide it. Love you and you’ve definitely got this! ❤️❤️❤️

    • Marjorie

      Badassery – love that. I’m going to put that in a new blog post somehow. I think it’s my new goal for life – more badassery!

  • Bronwyn Roy

    That was beautiful. Nobody knows how to deal with death- whether they experience it intimately or indirectly. So many times we are awkward or we pretend nothing happened. You showed these kids how to be honest, vulnerable and strong. Giving ourselves the chance to embrace our humanity through tragedy is a tremendous gift.

    • Marjorie

      Thanks so much for this heart-felt comment. I love the phrase “embrace our humanity through tragedy”

  • Ellen

    I am so sorry for your loss!
    Beautifully spot on!
    I have walked this journey!
    One hour/one day at a time!
    Let your loving memories be a blanket of comfort! Take loving care of yourself and your children.

    Ellen Wally

  • Julie

    Your students are so lucky to have such a brave, honest, and caring teacher. They will remember that lesson far longer than anything you might have told them on the Mexican political system.

  • Alecia Brinkerhoff

    I can only imagine all the ways you are feeling imperfect as you wade through a sea of grief each day. But not only is perfect never realistic, the truth is that in your good days and also your impossibly difficult days, you are a shining example to your kids and your community of what it means to walk with grace and love, to face grief head on and lean into all the feelings that brings, to love and cry, and to keep moving forward even when it seems impossible to do. You are truly a remarkable person and tour three beautiful children and all your students are incredibly fortunate to have you as an example in their lives.

  • Kamaya Thompson

    Beautiful piece, Marjorie! Thinking of you guys and sending hugs and all the love we have all the way from Cleveland. Our students always need to hear our truth and our reality. Keep giving it!

    • Marjorie

      Oh, thank you so much for leaving this comment. I miss you. And I really do feel the love all the way from Cleveland. xo

  • Heather Conroy

    So glad to hear this story. I was wanting to ask how it was, going back, but I didn’t want to “bother” you. I wish I was your colleague. XO

  • Jenny

    Hello, thank you for this blog. I found it as I searched for answers for myself. I am a high school teacher, my son is 2 years old, and I am 4 months pregnant with baby number 2. We just found out this past week that my husband has stage 4 lung cancer and I am terrified. I don’t know how I will do this if he’s not here.

    • M Brimley

      I’m so sorry. I don’t have any real answers, as everyone makes it through difficult life events in different ways. But I’ll say this – I know people who’ve lost spouses to cancer really quickly (I’m in that category) and many others who have lived with cancer for years. All you can do is take it one day at a time – which feels IMPOSSIBLE right now, but it’s honestly the only way you can do it. Know that I’m pulling for you, and for your family.