The first day of school. We all go through it. I’ve had 34 of them: preschool, two kindergartens, twelve years of grade school, four from undergraduate, two from graduate, and thirteen for every year I’ve been a teacher myself. They *never* stop being nerve-wracking. Even for someone with a relatively healthy dose of self-esteem, one can’t help but get caught up – even if for just a moment – in the doubting thoughts: “Do i look all right?” “What will people think of me here?” “Did i remember to check and make sure that my skirt isn’t tucked inside my pantyhose?”
Today felt like one of those first-day-back-to-school days. I couldn’t sleep the night before. I double dosed on my sleeping medication because my brain kept racing, and even then i woke up at 3am, unable to rest. Were they going to make me sub? Would students make obnoxious, tactless comments about my bald head; would they snicker at the word when i disclose i have BREAST cancer? How was i going to respond to so many people staring at me? Was it obvious that I’ve lost a bunch of weight? Could i handle all the hugging, all the sympathetic looks, and all the “My ________ had cancer” stories without having a breakdown? What happens if i can’t even stay awake the whole day? If Dona has the audacity to approach me, will i lose my job when i absolutely refuse to duplicate her fake engaging?
I took a Zofran as soon as i got in the car to drive to work. I wasn’t even feeling nauseous yet, but i knew it was coming. I needed to be prepared. I needed to be on time. I needed to NOT throw up on my back-to-school outfit.
Forty minutes later, i drove onto the facility grounds and was given a definite wake-up call: I was going to make it through this. I knew it as soon as i saw them. A group of 8-10 people were standing in the parking lot — some purposely color-coordinated with my outfit, some holding portions of a flower bouquet, and ALL waiting to shower me with hugs and smiles. With each smile and hug, i felt it. I felt so much support and compassion and love and strength that it’s making tears stream down my face right this moment as i type this sentence onto the screen. I think those few minutes could have sustained me for the rest of the day, but they didn’t stop there. That group walked me through it. Together, we walked past the gates of Sally Port. Together, we walked to the Esperanza building, where a florescent green poster happily shouted, “Welcome back, Instructor!” Together, we walked to my classroom door, which had a picture of Wonder Womyn and a collection of words taped to the door: To the world, you may be just a teacher … but to your students, you are a hero. Inside, there were streamers and decorations, a Starbucks latte and a gift card, a pair of St. Patrick’s Day socks, and a couple of encouraging notes on my desk.
When everyone finally trailed off to go teach or assist with movement or get ready for the 8:30 admin meeting (or just give me some space to catch my breath), i looked around at my classroom. Nothing had changed. The desks were still organized in cooperative learning groups of four. The “Top Tier” students from the week I had left still had their K#’s and grades proudly displayed. The word wall still showed vocabulary from my Debate and Race & Culture classes, and the motivational quotes were still scattered all over the walls. Nothing had changed. Outside the gate, everything for me has changed. Inside my classroom, though, nothing had.
The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. It took hours to sift through the 931 emails I had accumulated in my inbox over the past three months … and it took longer because I kept getting distracted by the rotating door of coworkers who stopped by to welcome me back. I accepted the hugs with grace and a simple request that i must have made 40+ times in 8 hours: “”Left side, please.” I endured the dozen or more stories that started with, “I had a _______ who had ________ cancer….” I said thank you to the baffling remarks about my nicely shaped head, and I pretended to appreciate the compliments about how my weight loss looked good on me. I made it through the day. I never even felt a moment of exhaustion. That *could* have been attributed to the butterscotch latte my boss brought me in the morning (butterscotch is the BOMB, by the way) … or the soy white chocolate mocha a coworker brought me in the afternoon (my former go-to drink back when Starbucks had not yet busted out with the butterscotch option) … I haven’t been drinking coffee much these days, so my body was a little taken aback by the old-but-vaguely-familiar jolt from a caffeine rush. But honestly, i don’t think it was the coffee that sustained my energy. I think i was on a high all day, brought on and maintained by what my coworkers were sharing with me. So many of them each passed along a sliver of their own personal light, and that cumulative light guided me through the eight hours of my 35th “First Day Back to School” day.