Now that I have this in my possession you’ll be hearing more from me. My brain is practically exploding. Make yourselves comfortable.
In 11 years as a classroom teacher, I have asked the following journal reflection question close to 70 times: “If your house was on fire and you had the chance to go back in and retrieve one item, what would you take and why?” The answers are often the same: photo albums, scrapbooks, televisions, x-boxes (remember, I teach 9th grade). But now, having watched–literally–the place where I have “lived” professionally for the last decade go up, and then down, in flames, I see the futility of attempting to answer this question.
Quickly, right now, close your eyes. Do you know what’s in your desk? On it? What’s hanging on your walls, resting on your book shelves, stored in your file cabinets and closets? What have you been carrying around in your purse or bag? Where are your keys? Your wallet? Your cell phone? Think about it. I’ll wait.
The truth is, unless you exit the building while it is actively engulfed in flames, you really have no grasp on the possibility that you might never go back inside. You hear the fire alarm and assume you are going out for a drill, or that someone activated the alarm by mistake, and that in minutes you will be back to your daily routine. That’s what you tell yourself until you actually smell and see the smoke. Then the internal monologue begins to shift. You are certain they will douse it (it looks small and contained, doesn’t it?). You tell the person next to you, “The rest of the day is probably shot.” When the smoke turns black and begins to billow, when threads of smoke begin pouring from the roof vents 20 feet from the actual fire, when the glass between you and the fire appears to melt like candle wax, you say aloud, “We might not be working tomorrow.” When the evacuation begins and students and staff alike are being herded onto activity buses, you are silent, but inside you are trying to convince yourself that you will eventually be allowed back into the building when this is all over. You tell yourself you will start keeping your cell phone in your pocket. You try not to shake visibly.
Hours later at a friend’s house, you watch on television with the rest of the general public as flames engulf the center of the building. You have given up hope of ever seeing your stuff again, and you try to block out the image of eleven years of work burning to black ash. Your car is still in the parking lot, and friends have gone back for it on your behalf. Later you’ll learn that they lied their way into the parking lot and were unlocking your car doors just as the roof of the building collapsed and flames shot 100 feet into the air. You watch this happen on TV, and you are scared for them, cursing yourself for insisting that you have your car tonight.
It occurs to you that you can still check your voicemail, and you have 15 new messages. Four are from district relations, left at various times throughout the afternoon, informing you that your workplace is on fire; the rest are from worried friends and relatives telling you to call them. You want to call someone, but you can’t remember any telephone numbers–they are all stored in your cell phone. You are relieved when your friends and your car return safely, and the relief you feel when you sit down behind the wheel of your own vehicle is immense. It is only then that you begin to remember certain details, like the nine-page paper that’s due next week saved on the school laptop, which is sitting on your desk (that’ll teach you to do things weeks ahead of time), or the jump drive containing three years of graduate work, not to mention countless digital pictures you never bothered to print. You tell yourself to focus on the task at hand–driving to Veriz0n for a new phone, since your cell is the only phone you have. Maybe they will not make you pay for a new phone. Maybe you printed a copy of that paper. Maybe your classroom is not burning after all.
In fact, it didn’t. It is in one of the only parts of the building left intact, not damaged at all by the fire, maybe some water on the floor and of course, smoke, but everything inside is safe. Except for one small problem: the second floor has started to collapse and no one will be allowed in, ever again. You will be torn between relief and anger over this, and you will not sleep well for the next several nights. You will be haunted by what could have been, and you will be haunted by what is. You will not be able to stop picturing your desk, your posters and pictures, your books. You will sit glued to the television, flipping between all the local channels, watching images of your colleagues and students in front of the ubiquitous cameras. You will see your classroom window on a news broadcast, the giant Lilo and Stitch window cling you got from the movie theater still affixed to the glass. You will cry a lot, and you will feel lost, and you will, for the first time in a long time, look forward to a Monday staff meeting, the first gathering of your colleagues since the fire alarm sounded days ago.
You will not know it then, but the trouble has only just begun.
It took two days for the school board to find suitable accommodations for 1,046 students, 73 teachers, and 40 cafeteria, office, and janitorial staff. At least they seemed suitable at the time. It was decided that the 11th and 12th grade students would resume classes the following Wednesday–one week after the fire–at a branch of our local community college. One week after that, the 9th and 10th graders would start the second quarter at a state-owned former school for deaf students, a campus with multiple buildings, only a few of which are currently being used by a local university. I teach 9th grade, and I was relieved to be going to a “real” school. I was present for the first day of class for juniors and seniors, and the chaos was overwhelming. Space was limited, student schedules were completely altered, the school day had been extended until 6 p.m. (students would begin their day at noon). My half of the student body surely had the better end of the deal, with only minor schedule changes and a fairly normal school day (9:15-3:55; our original day started at 8:50 and ended at 3:50).
In the days just after the fire I harbored no ill feelings toward Principal. She handled herself well, was a pillar of strength for the community, and reassured us all, through e-mail, phone calls, and news interviews, that everything would be okay. It took four days for the shine to wear off, and the return of my absolute disgust with her failings as a leader were almost comforting, so normal were they amidst the abnormality. She insisted on doing everything herself, even when there were people standing by to help her. She blatantly refused assistance with tasks she was never good at to begin with, opting instead to stay up all night and create bigger and bigger messes. By the day the juniors and seniors returned to class, she was starting meetings by telling us how much sleep she’d gotten (or not gotten), and by then we were beyond caring, because it was clear that the loss of our building was only a temporary condition. We were stuck with her for the duration.
We were allowed to visit our classrooms the night before 9th and 10th graders were to resume classes. We assumed this would be an opportunity to actually set up our respective spaces, haul in the mass quantities of supplies we’d been given by the community, the school system, other schools, and the Parent/Teacher Association, and generally prepare ourselves for the arrival of our students. What were we thinking? The campus was still under renovation; workers were everywhere, furniture was being delivered, and the sounds of sawing and hammering echoed between the three buildings we were set to occupy in less than 24 hours. The superintendent was there, walking the sidewalks, halls and classrooms with Principal, stopping to make small talk with teachers and ask how we were doing. It was hard not to be honest with him, but we smiled to his face, and then we retreated to the parking lot and stood around our cars silently, trying to reconcile what we had just seen.
My classroom, which is part of what was once a large common area, has no doors and a shared ceiling. Four classrooms and a hallway were created by the installation of sheetrock; apparently, erecting the sheetrock all the way to the vaulted ceiling was against fire code. Thus, I am now attempting to conduct class in a cubicle that holds 25 people–uncomfortably. Three other teachers and I can talk with each other and never leave our desks, and the students in the room next to mine can see and have conversations with my students. There are no bells–Principal walks around the campus at class change with an air horn–and in my cube there are no windows or air vents. It is 76 degrees when I arrive, and by the final class of the day the temperature has exceeded 80.
On the bright side, there is a bathroom in my classroom, as well as a sink. We have been issued school laptops, and the network is almost up and running. The campus is beautiful, surrounded by trees and a large creek, and it is only 7 miles from my house, compared to the almost 17 I was driving before. Students and teachers alike want for nothing–books are delivered daily, supplies pour in from all over the state, and we receive constant offers of help. It is humbling to me, almost uncomfortably so, but I am grateful for the generosity. Most of all I am grateful for the one element of normalcy that not even Principal can disrupt: the students. I have most of my original students, and remarkably, we are actually going on with our school lives in spite of all that’s happened. They joke with me about my “pig nose” belly button and tell me how fat I’m getting. They remember things I taught them before the fire. They ask questions, and they answer questions, and most of them do their homework. Some of them behave like humans, and some of them are jackasses, and in four days I have already sent a few to the office. This is as it was before, and as it will always be.
Yeah, a lot of things suck right now, but I’ll take the frying pan over the fire any day of the week.
My “blogger convention in a box”
An update on the “stuff” in my classroom
Cali’s cool meme