Tag Archives: memory

Ten Years On: The Story I Couldn’t Write

Many years ago, I visited the World Trade Center for the first time. It was in February, but I don’t remember if it was very cold. I had always dreamed of visiting on one of my many trips into Manhattan from Queens, where I’ve lived my whole life. I walked around in awe, amazed at what I saw. I badly regretted that this was my first trip.

Because by the time I got to the corner of Vesey and Church for the first time, it was 2002, and the towers were only a memory. I never stood beneath them in their glory. I only stood among them in their remnants. Scattered around lower Manhattan, those remnants coated the flowers and tattered photos of victims whose faces, looking like Wanted posters in a western ghost town, stared at me from the fences to which they were affixed. They seemed to be urging me to comprehend the magnitude of where I was and what had happened to my beloved New York City.

But I couldn’t. I walked the streets with my dad, endlessly repeating a derivative of a certain phrase: “I can’t imagine what it was like here that day. I can’t imagine how it must have been.” In my mind’s eye, I saw the endless CNN loop of people running away from the crumbling towers, their actions showing desperation for survival, shock and confusion at the hell surrounding them. Standing in lower Manhattan for the first time since the attacks, I could almost hear those people fleeing, screaming in a primal response to the unthinkable happening right in front of them. I could almost hear the rumbling of the towers collapsing.

And yet, I still couldn’t fathom what happened on September 11, 2001.

The day started off as any other for me. I was a senior in high school, in the final months of my four year routine of riding the Q30 bus to school.

It was an absolutely gorgeous late summer Tuesday. In New York City, it was a primary election day, so the familiar blue diamond shaped “Vote Here! Vota Aqui!” signs were hanging all around my school. What I remember most, however, is the sky. It was a perfect blue: cloudless, rich, inspirational. An ideal azure.

“There’s a fire at the World Trade Center.” My principal was speaking through the public address system. “Anyone whose parents work at the World Trade Center, go to any department office and call them right now.”

Mr. Tannenbaum, my math teacher, asked if anyone needed to go. No one did, so we proceeded.

Just like that.

Meanwhile, I wondered to myself why a silly fire was impetus for such an announcement, especially at such a big building like the Twin Towers. What, was the whole damn place on fire? There’s no way it could be, I figured.

By the time we were walking to the next period, wild rumors were flying in the halls. “Did you hear? A plane hit the Twin Towers!” I wondered how that could happen. It must have lost control, or there must have been some kind of failure. I was incredulous.

I was ignorant.

Because, by the time my friend told me a plane had hit a tower, the reality was, both towers were already gone.

Mere miles away from school, an apocalyptic scene was playing out, the likes of which none of us in our infantile 17-year old minds could have ever conceived.

As a high school freshman, I had a teacher by the name of Dan Smith. He taught creative writing, a class which on the surface seemed brutal, but I actually enjoyed it. Mr. Smith was an interesting man, and he became the teacher with whom I bonded easiest that year. He appreciated the way I wrote about my heritage, built me up as a writer, and I came to trust him.

Two years later, as a junior newly aware there was an elective option for journalism, I found myself back in his class. He was assuming the title of faculty consultant for our newspaper, and I was very pleasantly surprised to see him there on the first day of school. He remembered my face, but not my name. That would change. I collaborated often with a friend to write our articles, but Mr. Smith saw something in my own writing that he wanted to cultivate. He arranged for me to attend department meetings, sit-downs with the principal, and a high school journalism workshop with the state commissioner of education. I worked the phones for funding. If he had anything to do with it, I was going to be a journalist. I loved the idea, and by my senior year of high school, I was the editor in charge of the front page and charged with writing our weekly editorials.

Leaders was the physical education service organization I belonged to from my first year in high school. I was tight with the teachers and had many friends in the class. We were excited to see each other on the morning of September 11, and since we weren’t yet dressing for activities, we all had a chance to just hang out on the bleachers.

Conversation hardly focused on the tragedy that was befalling our country. We simply didn’t know. In an era where kids with cell phones were considered oddities, the news had not yet filtered down to us about what exactly was going on. So we offhandedly asked each other, “Did you hear?” and said the usual high school kid things – “Man, that’s crazy.”

And that was that. Just a blip on the conversational radar. We had no clue.

Throughout fourth period P.E. that day, my thoughts led me to realize that, even though I wasn’t aware of the extent of the news, we were 1) experiencing an important news story (how often does a plane hit a building, especially one like the World Trade Center?) and 2) I wanted to be the one to write the story for our school newspaper.

But before the bell rang to signify the end of fourth period, new rumors had started to circulate. More and more people said two planes hit the towers. They said the towers had fallen. They said it was terrorism. I didn’t know what to believe. None of that seemed possible or plausible. I denied any of those possibilities and wondered, “Why would a pilot do that?” and “How could buildings like that fall?” and “What are the chances of this?”

I bolted down to the journalism office as fast as I could.

Big bad insensitive budding journalist I was, I burst into the journalism office with little to say to Mr. Smith other than, “This is my story, I’m writing it.” I sat down in front of a computer to start researching my story and went first to CNN’s web site. There, the main image was a photo shot from a helicopter of both twin towers ablaze, looking like cigars planted in the ground. This was the moment when I realized we weren’t in a movie, and that this was real life. All at once, the magnitude of the situation – my city under attack – hit me. Hard.

I put up a brief fight against the tears that were building in my eyes, and almost immediately started to wail and sob uncontrollably.

Mr. Smith came over to console me. No longer was I the gung ho journalist. Now, I was just another awkward high school senior who couldn’t understand anything. I told Mr. Smith I had to leave, that I couldn’t write the story. I walked down the hall to the physical education office, where all the teachers knew me, and where I knew I would wind up staying without returning to class that day.

Still trying to process what was happening, I can recall that at this point, there was nothing else to discuss except the attacks. I remember one teacher remarking, “This is like Pearl Harbor. We’re at war.”

As I learned the Pentagon was hit, too, and that other D.C. buildings were presumed to be targets, I was staggered by an overwhelming feeling of disbelief. This was simply something I could have never prepared myself for. My country was thrown into a war on its own soil and my city was in flames. My whole life was changing forever. There was no simple answer to the simple question, “How can this be happening?”

I sat around the phys ed office in a bit of a daze for a while, repeatedly trying to track down my mother (at the time an administrator at a high school in Brooklyn). The phones were totally out of whack – landlines and cells – so it took a while. When I reached her, she suggested I ask a trusted teacher to drive me home. She also said she hadn’t yet spoken to my father.

After that trusted teacher, Mrs. Chan, dropped me off by my house, I went inside, alone, and turned on the tv to watch the news. As a senior applying to colleges with journalism as my major, I was utterly fascinated by the magnitude of the news of the day. The first video I saw on tv looked like a horror movie: an ambulance blaring through lower Manhattan, papers and dust all over, people helping each other walk, some with hacking coughs, all looking haggard.

I was on the phone with my mother letting her know I was home, standing in front of the tv, when out of nowhere, a video from afar showed the first plane fly into the building. Here, I lost it again. I distinctly remember screaming into the phone, incredulous, angered, horrified, “THEY JUST FLEW A PLANE INTO THE BUILDING!” She couldn’t understand my screaming, and I wound up screaming it louder.

With the exception of my father, I spoke on the phone with pretty much every member of my family the rest of the afternoon: my aunt, my cousins, my sister (who was away at school), everyone of my grandparents. We were all in disbelief and found comfort in sharing this sentiment with each other.

I kept the television on, so much so that I can close my eyes now and see the videos playing over and over the way they did that afternoon.

One image remains singed in my mind as the most ironic and unjust. I mentioned the gorgeous sky we were blessed with that day. In one video of the attacks, shot from the Jersey side, the plane entered the screen from the left, shakily gliding across that sky, slammed into the tower, lodged itself and burst into flames. At the exact moment of impact, a flock of birds flew from the opposite side, crossing between the towers and the camera. I thought to myself, “How can birds still fly while this horror is happening?”

That no one had spoken to my father was unnerving for everyone. He happened to be in Albany that day, but his office is merely blocks from the World Trade Center, firmly in the war zone that was. Even though we knew he wasn’t downtown, we had no reason to believe Albany wouldn’t be subject to its own insanity. He had no cell phone.

His 9/11 story is a serendipitous one, thankfully. Had he been in his office that day, there is no telling what might have happened. At best, he would be one of the thousands who, in the absence of public transportation and because of road closures, literally walked home from Manhattan across the bridges. At worst, who knows?

When my dad finally came home that evening, I practically fell on him. “This has been the worst day of my life,” I told him. I was hurting as a New Yorker and American, but thank goodness no one in my family was harmed. He empathized and came in, strained, like the rest of us.

The television remained on CNN all night, and we watched 7 World Trade fall late that evening. No matter how many times they replayed the attacks, the buildings pancaking, the ambulance racing through the wreckage, it didn’t make it any more real. It didn’t seem like it could possibly be real. But it was. We were beginning to adjust to a new reality in our world.

New York City schools were closed on September 12. I lived at the time in a highly residential area, and it was normally quiet. But when I went out that day, it was eerily quiet. No one in the street was talking. No music played from open car windows. The cars on the road seemed to be silent.

I collected every newspaper and pored through them, horrified and fascinated by the wraparound sections that contained pictures of the impact, of people hanging from the tower windows, and of people in flames jumping or falling to their deaths.

I bought an American flag, embarrassed to have to do so, feeling like a fake patriot. The lady at the store apologized that they weren’t free.

Schools reopened on September 13. My dad’s department was thrown into disarray as the entire Manhattan office was off limits due to its location south of Canal Street (a rather significant chunk of the financial district). He was home that morning. I stepped outside, prepared to walk to the bus like I had so many times before. But as I was walking down the huge hill from our house to the bus stop, I couldn’t reconcile what was happening. The wind overnight had blown the smell from Ground Zero all the way over to eastern Queens. We described it as “acrid”. It smelled tart, pungent. I knew I was smelling the towers and the dead. I didn’t want to be outside. I didn’t want to be at school. I walked home and for the first time in my life, got no argument when I said, “I’m staying home today.”

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, came that weekend, and we planned to spend part of our worship at our cousins’ temple in New Jersey. This was a doubly difficult experience. First, this was the first time I would see the skyline in its horrible new form. Until then, I loved looking to my left as we crossed the Whitestone or Throgs Neck Bridge and seeing the skyline, progressing north from the World Trade Center to the Empire State Building to the Chrysler Building. This time, the World Trade Center was replaced by a plume of smoke.

Second, the mother of one of my cousins’ good friends, a Port Authority police officer, responded to the attacks and had not been found in the rubble. While some were holding out hope, the outlook became grimmer with each passing hour. The family was at the temple. All I can remember is my mother’s cousin turning around, seeing them, and crying.

Four days before the attacks, my sister and I had tickets for Michael Jackson’s 40th Anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden, where we sat ridiculously close to the stage, less than 30 rows behind Michael and his parents, Elizabeth Taylor, and Macaulay Culkin. When I got these tickets, I was flabbergasted. Not only was he one of my favorite artists of all time, the fact that he was even playing a concert – after his self-imposed exile from the United States – was just too much to handle. Couple this with the fact that his brothers would all appear at the show: I knew it would be a memorable night.

It was. In addition to Michael Jackson and the Jacksons performing, Whitney Houston, Usher, Destiny’s Child, Ray Charles, N*Sync, Britney Spears, Liza Minelli, and Aaron Neville were all there – just to name a few of the bigger names. When Michael’s set began, flame exploded from the stage, and I screamed in hysteria, just like all those kids you see in the concert footage (only difference being I didn’t pass out).

But the night was memorable for another reason. My sister and I somehow found ourselves in the bowels of the Garden on our way out. We walked right by Paul Shaffer and Susan Sarandon on our way to the exit. When we got outside, we were struck, only briefly, by the beauty of those gorgeous towers, gleaming silently, unaware of the fate that would meet them by the next week. I took special note of them, as they always inspired awe in me.

We rushed back underground to make our train. With a somewhat stubborn glance, I looked back over my shoulder to see the towers before we descended the stairs.

That was the last time I ever saw them.

When I visit the site of the World Trade Center now – I try not to call it “Ground Zero” – I always feel a mix of emotions. It’s impossible not to.

Most people who pass by there do so without a glance toward the progress – to them, it’s just another construction site in a metropolis that is still being built.

Some people pose in front of the progressing Freedom Tower, strike poses, and smile. This angers me to no end. Yes, tourists are an absolutely vital part of New York’s economy, but there’s something sacrilegious about smiling and mugging for the camera on the spot where so many people were killed and so many lives altered irreversibly. Are these the same people who talk loudly at the Vietnam Memorial while others walk in silent weeps running their hands along the granite names?

Money-minded types hawk their wares, still trying to milk the tragedy for every last nickel. They wave their poorly written books in our faces, and shamelessly promote their cheaply made trinkets. Never in their pitch do they seem to indicate that owning one will make you a better American, New Yorker, human being. They are motivated solely by the sale.

When I visit this space, my music comes out of my ears and I see no need to speak much, even if I’m with a friend. I allow myself to be alone with my thoughts. Even ten years after visiting Ground Zero, I can still sense the screams, the horror, the insanity, the death. I take pictures because I have to, even if I look at them once and never again. I look toward the sky, where now the Freedom Tower is assuming its place in the NY skyline, and try to envision the twin towers meeting all the way up there. I sit on the brick wall that surrounds the cemetery across the street. I sit and think, reflect, remember.

In much the same way it was unfathomable to me on 9/11/01, as it was when I first visited in February, 2002, as it is every time I head over the bridge, I have a hard time believing it has been 10 years since the attacks. In so many ways, 9/11 has defined my pride as a New Yorker. (That’s not to say I didn’t think it was the greatest place in the world beforehand).

After the attacks, it seemed like the whole world went from criticizing New Yorkers for their rudeness to adoring us just for being us. On the streets of Manhattan shortly after the attacks – after my terrifying first time riding the train or subway since 9/11 – my mom dropped her watch. A man handed it to her, and I thought, “So this is what New York is like now?”

At this point, by and large, we have regained our hardened edge, and most of the stereotypes people have about us still prove to be true. However, there will always be something different about New York, even as a long awaited memorial opens and the Freedom Tower ascends to its 1,776 feet.

I think sometimes about those birds, flying through the picture as the world seemingly entered into apocalypse behind them. The sky was so stunning, and the birds were so oblivious. For them, life was going to go on. They were birds, they needed to get somewhere, and they were flying there. The towers were falling, but the world was still spinning.

And I think that’s important to remember. Our towers are gone, but New York is still here. The tragedy did not stop our world from spinning. Ten years later, we continue to fly.

Freedom Tower, August 21, 2011

Creative Commons License
Ten Years On: The Story I Couldn't Write by Matthew S. Ray is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at photomatt7.wordpress.com.

Creative Commons License
Freedom Tower, August 21, 2011 by Matthew S. Ray is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at photomatt7.files.wordpress.com.


An Early Challenge in a School Year That Hasn’t Begun

The ten year anniversary of September 11, 2001 is next Sunday, and I have every intention of spending some time on it on Friday, September 9. As Americans, and more so as New Yorkers, my students need to learn about it.

My first year, I read “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers” to my fifth graders, but I can’t remember what else we did. The past two years I did nothing. But now, with it being ten years and all the run-up we are having in New York, I feel like it’s an absolute must.

Only thing is, I’m not exactly sure how to approach it with third graders. I certainly plan to read the same book. Currently, my basic framework for developmentally appropriate discussion is to tell the students that there used to be two really tall buildings in Manhattan (I have a beautiful poster to show them) and that people who didn’t like our country got on airplanes and flew them into the buildings. The buildings fell down and many people died, which made a lot of people very sad. I will allow their questions and comments to guide the conversation after that.

I just don’t know, though. There has to be a better way to go about this. Do you have ideas? Do you have resources? What works for you? Please share. This is too important a conversation to pass up or botch. Thanks.

Dear Me (On the Eve of My First Year Teaching)

The Fascination Awards

I’ve noticed several posts recently in which people with a few years in the field are writing letters to their first-year teacher selves. I have three years of teaching experience under my belt, so I thought, with my fourth year beginning in a few weeks, I would do the same: reflect on the last three years and write the first year me a letter.

Dear Me (On the Eve of My First Year Teaching),

Well, this is it. This is truly it. Two years ago you finished college with a degree that turned out to be useless, and now, after two years of graduate school in a totally different field – elementary education – they say you’re qualified to be a teacher. And you think you’re qualified to be a teacher.

Well, maybe you are. After all, you have a unique way with children, you can relate to them, you get where they’re coming from because you haven’t lost sight of what it’s like to be a child. But you won’t be dealing with issues like you experienced growing up. Oh sure, your students will experience family and pet deaths, the maddening powerlessness of being caught up in a parental argument, the frustration of struggling in school. They’ll come to you for help, and you will be able to empathize with these things.

But how are you going to deal with the kids who have only one parent and several siblings that they care for at the age of 10? The kid who comes in late every Thursday because he is helping his mom clean until 2 am that morning? The kid with the dad who sees you as a barrier to his child’s success just because you recommend continuation of services? The kid who threatens personal bodily harm because you indicate your disappointment? The kids who wear the same clothes everyday, not because they like them, but because when you wear hand-me-downs exclusively, your choices are limited?

How are you going to deal with all that? (Or any of the other stuff I didn’t even mention?)

If you’re smart, you’ll stay true to your belief that you need to do what is best for your students. This may make you unpopular with your colleagues at times, and may draw raised eyebrows from the administration, but as long as you can rationalize that your students’ best interests are your main motivator, they’ll understand where you’re coming from. It may take some colleagues longer than others, but you can’t worry about them. Just worry about your students.

And speaking of colleagues, you will meet some wonderful people that make it a joy to come to work everyday. But do yourself a favor, try to steer conversations away from everything that’s “the problem with school/parents/kids today” and move it toward a place of acceptance and improvement of the situation. And if you find you can’t do this without insulting people, then just remove yourself from the conversation. You can and will still be friends with these people. Just don’t let the negativity of others – who are all well-meaning people frustrated with a frustrating job – bring you down.

Given the shaky economic times in which you enter the workforce, I should warn you now that you will find yourself at some point in your career without a job. It may happen more than once. Your faith in the system will be questioned, your belief in your capabilities shaken. But try to remember, it isn’t about you. In fact, your colleagues will write you letters of support, and administrators will make phone calls to friends in high places to advocate for you. They will feel the injustice you feel, and will want to help. In the end, everything will work out for the best, but you will learn a valuable life lesson about being thankful for what you have. Life’s not so fun when you don’t have health insurance or a steady paycheck, my friend. You will find yourself interviewing in places you could never see yourself working and dealing with your illnesses without the help of a doctor, but eventually, because everything always works out for the best, you will be right where you want to be.

With one exception.

You see, you’re entering the schools as a general education upper elementary teacher. I know you can’t believe it, and you can laugh at me all you want now, but in spite of your rapport with the kids, your growth in your second year, your exciting ideas that build school community, and your own belief that you will never go anywhere but where you are now, you will one day be teaching primary grades. And you’ll be teaching special education.

That frightens you now? Just wait until your first day in that position!

I assure you it’s going to feel like your first year all over, and it won’t be a pleasant feeling. You’re going to find yourself relearning your entire idea of teaching. You are going to be told to shape up, and you’re going to experience doubts like you never have in your career. But you’re going to make the necessary adjustments. You’re going to learn from people who can help you. You will be humbled, but you will be a better teacher for it. And then you will be grateful.

You will find new ways to develop a rapport with your students, you will reap the benefits of parents’ gratitude, and you will be reaffirmed by the end of your first year in your new position. You will believe more fiercely than ever in your role as champion for your students, and you will motivate them to do things that no one expected of them. You will see incredible growth in them and in yourself. And, while you will still have plenty of improvements to make, you will believe more and more that this is the position where you belong.

I’m glad I told you that, because I don’t want to give the impression that you’re entering into a career where you are constantly confronted by outside forces of negativity. You will remind yourself constantly why you are in the field to begin with: so you can make a difference in people’s lives. And you will. Students who wouldn’t speak in their previous class will be impossible to stop talking by the time they’re finished in yours. Kids who repeatedly were sent into your room to cool off will, next year, never be sent out of your room. In fact, these same children will become model citizens for their classmates. Kids will invite you to hear them play the violin at the school concert, and even though you don’t really want to shlep back to school that night, you will, and you’ll beam with pride from the moment the bow is raised.

The kids will make you laugh and the kids will make you cry. They’ll make you angry and they’ll make you proud. They’ll tire you out and they’ll energize you again.

You are making the right move entering this profession. Just remember, you don’t know everything. In fact, despite what that piece of paper from the state says, you really don’t know anything. Prepare to learn a lot. Prepare to have your whole concept of school and childhood turned on its head. Prepare to find yourself in situations where you just don’t know what to do.

And prepare to make a difference. Because that’s what you’ll be doing every single day of the rest of your career as an educator.

I wish you luck! You’ll need it!



It Doesn’t Take Much to Touch a Life

Since I began working at my school 2 1/2 years ago, I’ve made it a point to try to be friendly to most everyone, from my colleagues to my supervisors to the paraprofessionals to the school aides and custodians. No one is unworthy of my kindness, even if it’s as perfunctory as a ‘Hello.’ It doesn’t take much to touch a life.

I write this at the conclusion of an exhausting span of 36 hours that began with the news my grandmother passed away and ends with me riding home in the backseat of my parents’ car after spending the night with my mother and grandfather.

My grandparents, who enjoyed their 63rd anniversary just three days ago, moved from Florida to New York last spring so she could receive better medical care and be closer to the family. Four months ago, they took an apartment in a senior residence.

I was hopeful that they’d make a smooth transition, while also understanding that it was a concrete sign that their trademark vitality was not what it once was. Still, they moved in, settled in, and began what would ultimately be the final stage of their lives together.

The family came together at their apartment yesterday after we received news of my grandmother’s passing. While I was comforted to be with family, remembering funny stories between the tears, I was truly stunned by the reaction from the staff and other residents.

To a man or woman, everyone has told us how nice my grandmother was to them, the way she treated everyone kindly, the way she spoke to them with respect. Aides who cared for her only once or twice in her final days cried openly. The waiter for my grandparents’ table came to their apartment, asked to see my grandfather, and immediately started bawling talking about how kind they both have been to him and how unique it made them.

She was only there four months, but she made impressions on these people that touched them in a way I never realized. It doesn’t take much to touch a life.

When I return to work next week, the first person I’ll see will be the school safety officer. I’ll greet her the same way I do everyday, with some playful banter as I grab a newspaper. Then maybe I’ll see the school nurse or a secretary and I’ll send them a ‘good morning’ and a smile. I’ll continue to do this throughout the day and for my entire career.

And when I do, I’ll think to myself, if I’m doing this half as well as she did, I’ll be able to make a lot of people happy.

It doesn’t take much.


Class Dismissed

After I dismissed my fifth graders for the final time last year, the school guidance counselor found me and said, “Mr. Foteah, I’ve never seen a fifth grade class leave like yours. On the last day of school, all the other students say, ‘Bye, teacher! Bye, teacher!’ But all of yours are in tears.”

Well, what can I say? I’m a sentimental guy, and I lay it on thick for the last day of school. Although the little rugrats may test my patience and nerves as the final day approaches, I’m not the kind of person to look at the last day as liberation. Sure, I look forward to the summer, and I enjoy the break from the stress, but I believe my job is about instilling memories that my kids won’t soon forget. And so, I look at the last day as one final blowout in celebration of our accomplishments as individuals and as a family.

In my limited experience, the last day is one of subdued joy – almost somber, even. Sure, we’re all thrilled to be moving ahead – to the summer, and in our educational careers – but there’s a decided tug that tethers our hearts to the memories of the previous six months, and the realization that we are leaving the comfortable community we established can be very difficult.

One of the activities I have planned is sharing the final product that is the scrapbook the class designed with major assistance from Mama Foteah. It turned out beautifully, and there are some surprises in it for them to enjoy.

At graduation, students viewed a slideshow of all the fifth grades, separated by class, where each class had about a dozen pictures. While it was nice, and some students remarked they came close to tears reliving the memories, it lacked a personal touch. When you’ve got more than 12 classes and someone else is preparing your class’ photos, it’s understandable.

Last year, I created a two song slideshow for my class. I told myself I wouldn’t this year, not feeling quite the same emotional attachment I felt to my first class. When I saw the photos I got from Field Day, though, with their arms wrapped around each other, as carefree as I’ve ever seen, I knew I had to do it. So this year’s installment of Mr. Foteah’s slideshow features three songs and pictures of each individual from the first week of school and one of the last. There are also considerable numbers of photos from all our wonderful memories.

Last year’s slideshow left even the most hardened of my students sobbing with their heads in their arms. This year, I’ve warned some of a very emotional surprise for the last day of school. We’ll watch tomorrow as our final collective act before I dismiss them with some words of advice and wisdom for each student as s/he heads out the door.

From there, I’ll take an overview of the room I loved and must leave, and like the ending of a television series, I’ll close the light and door for the final time. As the camera fades to black, I’ll walk out of the building for the final time, prepared to embark on what should be a challenging, rewarding change in my career next September.

Class dismissed. See you in September.

Moments to Remember

We are in the waning days of the school year, and it is a particularly special time for my graduating fifth graders.

The three official rites of passage for the graduates in my school are: awards night, a dance, and the graduation ceremony itself. All are charged with emotions that run the gamut from pride to joy to sadness to curiosity. For an 11-year old, the last couple of weeks of fifth grade, knowing you’re at the end of your elementary career and ready to conquer the next phase of life, are really wonderful times.

Monday was awards night, and there was a palpable buzz in the classroom that day for the students who were invited to accept an award at night. They were anxious to get gussied up – the girls with their barettes, the boys with their too-short ties. The fact that I resolutely refused to even give them a hint what awards they would receive only made the anticipaiton greater.

Last year, I didn’t feel the need because I guess I had a greater connection with the class, but this year, I wanted to find a way to honor the individual accomplishments each student made. So, for the 19 or so students who didn’t receive an awards night invitation, I decided we could have our own awards ceremony.

So that morning, I presented an award to each student in the classroom, for accomplishments ranging from “quiet excellence” to “most eager translator” to “greatest personal improvement since fourth grade.” I talked up each child without their name before giving out their awards. Of course, the class couldn’t resist calling out their ideas of who the next recipient would be. Sometimes they were spot on. Others, they were shocked – and that delivered the greatest payoff. The recipients themselves sometimes didn’t even realize I had been talking about them. Needless to say, there were some beautiful smiles in my photographs that day – quite the opposite of the forced half-slants I usually get.

Graduation itself is early next week, with the dance following on Friday. However, today was an unexpectedly wonderful experience for the class: the school’s first Field Day.

Students participated in five different competitions. My kids don’t get recess, and in fact, are in our room every minute of the day (including lunch), so this was a rare special treat. Getting the opportunity to run and scream and dance around truly freed their inhibitions as self-conscious preteens.

They cheered each other as they competed. They supported each other when they failed. They dashed this way and that, so enthused with excitement they weren’t sure what to do with themselves, let alone their water bottles.

When we came to the end of the activities, there was still some time left, so the class started dancing to the thumping music blasting throughout the schoolyard. Soon enough, the girls decided it’d be fun to make a circle and throw their arms around each other. They were jumping, screaming, and giggling. It was so spontaneous and joyous that I was truly taken aback. The boys then joined in and pretty soon the whole class was in a circle together. There was absolutely no pretense – just sheer, unbridled joy.

I grabbed my camera and did a belly flop into the middle, where I pointed it up and told them to look into it. And they did.

No groans. No sighs. No grimaces.

This afternoon, when I looked at the pictures, I was stunned. This group of kids who so often refuse to smile or take their sweatshirts off, or allow themselves to show sensitivity, was smiling broadly, exuberantly dancing, hair flying in the wind and sparkling against a gorgeous blue sky. In some shots, bold smiles were set before the towering 5-story school building. I felt a tremendous feeling of happiness for them, having finally let themselves go and showing each other how much they care for one another.

Tomorrow, we will talk about how heartening it was to hear words of encouragement echoing around our class. We’ll discuss what the day felt like.

My guess is most will side with what Esperanza said to no one in particular as she smiled and wiped her hair out of her face after a particularly boisterous jumping session with two of her friends: “I’m never going to forget this moment.”

What a Way to Start a Day

I woke up to several unexpected inbox items this morning, and happily, I can say the urge (read: overwhelming need) to use the bathroom 15 minutes before my alarm sounded gave me a chance to enjoy them before work. (Sorry for the borderline TMI there. Don’t turn away).

First of all, I was treated to a bevy of unexpected, unsolicited, blog comments. Okay, here, “bevy” means two, but I’ll take it. Most uplifting were the complimentary thoughts left by newbie blogger Gingersalad, who wrote,

“Hi! I admire your not-so-hearty liking of the educational system, your ingenious Mosaic project, and your genuine concern for your students. I wish I have teachers like you in my school. Ah well. But thank you, thank you from across the country, thank you for being a teacher who cares.” 

And, thank you, Gingersalad, for taking the time to so thoughtfully acknowledge what I’m trying to do. (Side note: check out the burgeoning blog, linked above. Looks like Ginger is feeling out what the focus of the blog will be, but there’s some good writing already up).

This reminded me of a colleague of mine (text-to-self connection!) who spent weeks preparing an ESL lesson for a dozen administrators, and later learned it was the best one seen that day (according to our principal). The way this intrepid teacher put it was along the lines of, “One compliment and suddenly I love being a teacher again.” In a profession where there is so much negativity, we live for the dangling carrot of sincere appreciation. It’s nice to know people out there still appreciate teachers! 

Next up for my review was an email from one of last year’s students, who experienced the Mosaic Project in all its seminal glory. She wrote to say that her sister is getting married and “l keep begging her to let me be her photogropher.” Okay, maybe the spelling remains the same, but it is wonderful to hear how much photography has become a part of her being. Her sister relented, because the email concludes with, “she said ok and i got so excited,because i love taking pictures”. This was particularly wonderful to read just a couple of days after writing here about how different – and not in a good way – this year’s Mosaic was going to be. Perhaps this year’s class is not getting quite the same experience, but maybe there’s a spark being kindled for their future.

Lastly, the published versions of what students were working on for the Mosaic Project (ie. “painting” a picture with words, rather than taking one with a camera as a way to project one’s image of the neighborhood) were due today. Only 15 came back (this class does have major issues with homework), but some of them were really sincere. They carried an almost nostalgic quality to them. Very deep for fifth graders. Here’s a sample (I’m attempting a foray into pseudo-pseudonyms, so let’s see if I can keep this straight):

Nick: “(My neighborhood) smells like fresh plants on a spring day…When I (run) as fast as a cheetah, the wind (feels) good like if I were flying with my wings spread out. In winter, I always play snowball fights. And the best part in winter is hot chocolate. When it’s fall, I invite my friends to come. We gather leaves chipperly.”

Leo: “The wind is just floating and it says nothing.”

Compatible Felicia: “It is so quiet that I could hear the air blowing.”

Esperanza: “I am humble about (my neighborhood). Some people might think it is grotesque, but to me, it’s a jewel. I consider people very unfortunate that they don’t have a neighborhood like mine.” (No, you haven’t tuned into NBC, despite the plethora of properly used Olympic words).

Bradley: “I don’t know why some people walk and some people drive…But if there were no cars, this neighborhood wouldn’t be the same. It would be too quiet, and I’m not used to that…Who ever made this neighborhood probably brags a lot because it’s like a jewel, so it’s too pretty to be humble about.”

Gladys: “There is a bakery on the corner of the street. Just filled with different kinds of scents. Like fresh cookies out of the oven. And the chocolate melting. And also like cheesecake and angel food cake. It’s heaven in there.”

Mighty Mouse: “In the summer…I will only think about should I stay home, drink cold water, and eat fruit? Or go buy ice cream in the hotness.”

Pinky: “I do feel safe and comfortable. It is where I originated. I don’t feel danger in my neighborhood because I know everyone in my neighborhood. Even though they don’t know me.”

Capt. Potential: “What I like about my neighborhood is when I wake up, I hear birds singing.”

Santa Claus: “I know my neighborhood blindfolded, no one knows more about this neighborhood more than I do…My neighborhood is sometimes scary, all lights off or gangs passing by and there’s a conflict between them. I avert them.”

Many of them used their Olympic words (which are working out much better than earlier in the week), as well as similes, and very few forced them in. We’re going for organic, and we’re getting organic!

Thanks for stopping by and checking in. Enjoy the weekend!

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