Photo by Shahram Sharif
Reflection by Allison Jordan
July 4th. It’s during this weekend my family and I camp at Wilson State Park in Harrison, Michigan. I hate camping. The only good part is when we roast marshmallows over the fire. Other than that, it is a lot of me chasing after the boys, inhaling clouds of mosquito spray and sunscreen that drift away from them just as they do from me. My husband is not much of a camper, either. He shadows the boys if they even get close to the water, like a giant tree ready to collapse soundlessly upon the forest of children. I do detest these three days in the woods, but since they are a time my boys look forward to the most during the school year, I make sure they are a priority.
Being a teacher, I get the "you have all summer off to play" speech from other parents. I hear how lucky I am to get to spend three months off with my boys. This is rarely true. Before I get to my break, I spend 4-8 weeks in class, improving on the art of teaching, enjoying being a student again. I start school again in August, preparing for the next year and setting up my classroom. But those four weeks of July are my vacation; they are a battery charger. I live "school" from September to June. After class is out, my boys and I go to baseball games, football games, and band concerts. My husband and I chaperone Prom, Homecoming, and the senior trip. We get to every activity we can here in our small town and take great pride in it. July is time for us to get away from it all. It is sometimes like stretching taffy, warm from your pocket, though. It’s not easy to just leave it behind.
This is not a one-sided taffy pull, either. I seem to be shadowed, not only in Merrill but everywhere my family goes—by students, former students and their families. Now, part of this is my fault. I live close to the school…six whole blocks away, so I am accustomed to the beeping horn at 3 a.m., the brave ones who still trick or treat, a late paper Scotch-taped to the front door. Our neighbors are school-aged, and when they have friends over they shout over the fence, try to sneak around the flood lights in the back yard to get to the garage, or come over and share sidewalk chalk, creating masterpieces on pavement.
This even happens on vacation. On our Fourth of July visit to the campground, a student, Ashley, stopped by our sand castle to say hello, and ask how many children I have now (the number is constantly changing). Ashley was a wonderful student to have in class. One who would not make a noise all hour long, intent on her studies, but who struggled sometimes with content. She thrived when given even the smallest amount of encouragement. She was a different child when she knew you believed in her. I loved how self-assured she had finally become after three years of high school. Seeing her on the beach reminded me of all of this.
You really never know how comfortable you truly are with a student until you are standing knee-deep in water, wearing a swim suit you purchased online, talking in that teacher voice you use on Friday afternoons. I come to expect these little meetings, at all places far from home. I tend to pack accordingly.
Once we were in Sea World Orlando, after my son won a contest off a box of macaroni and cheese. We were walking through the seal exhibit when we heard the distinct "Ms. J" that turns two syllables into three, and there was another student waiting to say hello. A few years ago, at a different camp ground (in Cadillac, Michigan this time) while my sons were burying me in the sand, another group of boys threw their Frisbee over to get our attention. Sure enough, four more students were up there for the Fourth. David and I thought it would be fun to take our oldest boys to Cedar Point for the first time over Spring Break, and as we were in the line for the Raptor, we were accosted by shouts of hello. Yet another teenager out with the family.
We cannot go out to the movies, dinner, or ball games without seeing people that I get to see every day, nine months out of each year. It is not like I have been teaching for 20 years, either. For the most part I worry that not enough of my students will leave the area, with its high unemployment and limited industry, to find jobs or lives of their own. The economically disadvantaged families tend to stay here, caught in a cycle of poverty that they are unable to escape or to dream a way out of. I do not expect my students to backpack through Europe, but hope they at least they get out of the state to see how others live. When they do get a chance to leave the village, I think it is important to acknowledge their travels.
I think some teachers might get annoyed by these extra meetings. My husband sells cars locally as well, and it is pretty rare that we get stopped at restaurants and the movies to talk shop talk. At most there is a head nod. He often questions how we can be "found" so easily—that I must be posting my movements online or something. This is far from true. It just seems to happen. The more years I teach, the more kids seem to come out of the woodwork in increasingly odd places.
I could be bothered by this if I didn't appreciate the relationship I have with my students so much. I get just as much of a kick from seeing them as they do at seeing me and the family. I like to see the parents that are usually just email contacts during the year. I like to build relationships where my students realize I do care about them as individuals more than where they put a comma, or how far they are along in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Sometimes, though, being available to kids anytime and anywhere makes it harder to mourn in a private way. When Seth—one of those superstar kids—committed suicide, a neighbor jumped the fence between houses to tell me right away. This was hours before that phone chain reached me from the principal: enough time to help stop some of the rumors already beginning…enough time to decide how I was going to react.
But for every bad story of small-town collectivity, there are more good stories to go around. For example, Christopher is like a kite that drifts far from our small town, only to have his cord wound up, pulling him back to the land by a family that depends on him too much sometimes. He stops in and lets me know where he is going this time and how I can reach him if I ever need him. I think he likes to have a connection at "home" that isn't checking every card in the mail from him for cash enclosed. I think he likes receiving notes that say "Merry Christmas" instead of "send more money."
Mitch, one of my students, went to Alma College as a theatre major, moved to Chicago, and rarely visits his home town. When he does deem a trip worthy, he is always sure to stop by my classroom or my house to say hello. His visits surprise some of my students, who can’t believe anyone would come back just to say "hi" to a teacher. He always asks to see his picto-story, written his sophomore year, which is in my student work sample folder, where it has been since the week he wrote it.
Vacation? Yeah, I get one every year from my building. But I am Mrs. Jordan, teacher at Merrill High School, wherever I am and whenever I get there. That is the blessing of living in a small town.
So when I saw Ashley at the beach … excited and spilling stories about home, I smiled and asked the appropriate questions: How is your summer? Are you getting senior portraits done? Did you get to see Eclipse yet? Of course, I'd keep looking down every couple seconds to see what boy was where, all the while knowing that Ashley's replies would, in the end, make my job of questions and answers easier in September—when the scent of sharpened pencils fills the air again. My sons don't seem to mind the brief lapse in their one-on-one time. In fact, they like these interruptions. It steadies the trigger button on the Coppertone® almost long enough for them to get away.
© Allison Jordan, 2010