May 11, 1999
My current devotional guide, A Well-Watered Garden, suggests that this week I spend some time weeding. Doing so benefits the garden by removing unwanted plants that not only are unsightly but steal space and food from the plants that do belong there. Weeding benefits the gardener as well by providing exercise and the opportunity to meditate on damaging or inelegant aspects of the spirit that should be done away with so the authentic self can bloom.
It’s good weather for weeding, and I’ve stopped each morning on my walk out to the meadow to snap off some spent flower heads. Tonight after supper I meant to tackle the spiky stuff that flourishes amidst the myrtle in the embankment between our driveway and our neighbors’. I found a trash bag and the thick gloves I need for this task. But before I began I glanced at the the end of the driveway, where the week’s trash lies waiting for tomorrow’s pickup.
And that’s when I heard the voice: The trunk of your car, Mull. That’s what needs the work. (“Mull” is the name by which God calls me. For an explanation of its origin, see “Called By Name.”)
When I retired from my public school teaching career last June, I did so under less than ideal circumstances. I was only 51, and one year shy of the thirty years’ service needed to maximize my pension benefits. I had a retired spouse and a daughter just finishing sixth grade. More important than the economic advantages of a continued career, however, was the fact that I enjoyed the work and liked the interaction with kids. A sabbatical in 1995-1996 had refreshed me and put me (I thought) at the top of my form as a writer and a teacher of American literature and composition.
The last two years, however, were more than a little difficult. There had been changes in the administration, in the way power was distributed and used, in the way ethical standards and common sense were applied in making educational decisions. Never think that cliques are a feature only of the student population in a school. They exist, in all their exclusionary and pain-inflicting glory, among faculty and staff as well. Where do you think the kids learn it?
By April last year my job had become soul-killing. My closest faculty friend, whose love and support had buoyed me that first year back, had been given an opportunity to save his own soul by moving to a different school in a different county, and I missed him terribly. I chose my battles but lost the two I thought were most worth fighting — a curriculum issue and a personnel problem. When a check of our financial status suggested that retirement was a viable option, I filed the necessary forms.
Packing up the detritus of an ordinary school year is a daunting task even under normal circumstances. Computers and AV equipment must be inventoried and sent to a central hold. Everything else must be secured in drawers or cabinets so that the floor and walls can be washed and waxed.
Over nearly three decades one collects an astonishing amount of personal stuff for classroom use — books and pictures, videotapes, posters, props. I knew I wanted to take every trace of myself out of that room, and I resolved never to set foot in it again. I packed a little each day. The morning after commencement I stuffed all that was left in the trunk of my car, turned in my keys, and drove away.
In the eleven months since that day I opened the trunk maybe three times — once to get a book I knew was in there, once to stow the garbage bag from our stay at the beach (we left three days before pickup day), and once more to put that garbage out for pickup at home.
Tonight I opened it again. The first thing I took out and down to the curb was a box full of last year’s finals. Ironically, this is about the time I’d be throwing them away if I were still teaching because it’s time to make room for this year’s batch. I threw away my lesson plans for last year, a stash of blank lesson plan and seating chart forms, and a folder of leftover “Rules for Mrs. D’s Study Hall” sheets and the sign-out logs we had to maintain.
I put an electric pencil sharpener, a desk lamp, and a small radio/tape player aside for donation to a women’s shelter. I was happy to find some books I’d forgotten I still had, and the magnetic poetry kit my daughter was looking for last week.
The last box I pulled out had a cover, and I didn’t know for a moment what was in it. When I opened it, I remembered. It was full of folders containing all the documentation of two years’ misery. There was the memo from an assistant principal reminding me that teachers are to be in their rooms at 7:25 and I had been observed entering mine one Tuesday at 7:27. (I am not making this up!!) There was the note from my department co-ordinator calling me “benighted” because I didn’t understand a reference to something that had taken place during my sabbatical. And there was the letter from the principal lambasting a lesson plan in which I used the term “creative nonfiction.” He labeled the entire genre and my work in it “semi-abstract random hogwash.”
Looking at that stuff I felt my chest tighten and my breathing turn shallow. I started down the driveway with the box, but midway I stopped. I went back into the garage and put the box beside my bulb planting stuff, tools I won’t need till fall.
The way things ended for me at school was like a divorce, more painful than the marital divorce I’ve been through. And I haven’t let it go yet. This is the first time I’ve written about it in this space, or anywhere else, for that matter. I’m still angry, I’m still grieving. I have an issue here, and it’s in the way, like a weed. But at least it’s not in the trunk of my car anymore. It’s on an open shelf. That’s something.