Tuesday, June 5

The First Year: Reflections & Musings

Did that really just happen?

After graduating from UT Austin and moving back to Dallas last May, I remember spending hours each day checking job openings and submitting applications and resumes to every ISD and high school/middle school principal in the metroplex and surrounding areas.  After weeks of frustration, I finally received an email requesting an interview for an English/Spanish teaching position for which I only vaguely remembered applying.

The interview went well and after three especially long weeks, I finally received the phone call that started it all.

I was a ball of nerves at the end of last summer.  I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to be doing, what I was supposed to be teaching.  But with some direction and guidance from my wonderful principal and fabulous teacher mentor, I was able to create some semblance of a curriculum to get me through the first six weeks of school.

The first week of the school year was a spectacular disaster.  As the weeks went by and I became more familiar with the students and the material, things improved, but I still felt like I was making it all up as I went along.  I literally lived day to day.  Sometimes class period to class period.  During that first semester (August-November), I was so unbelievably stressed about every little thing, whether I had control over it or not.  I lost sleep, I lost weight, and I think I slightly lost my mind because of all the stress and pressure of my responsibilities.  Oh, I also discovered that I hate whales, but out of that discovery came a certification to teach Spanish in the state of Texas.

Of course, in the middle of all of this madness, Zach happened.  We started this friendship/relationship that was completely new and exciting.  I lost sleep, I lost weight, and I think I slightly lost my mind because of him.  It was also because of him that I decided to let go of a lot of my self-inflicted stress and mellow out during the second semester (November-February).  He was the voice in the back of my mind, telling me to chill out, to let it go, that it would all turn out all right in the end.  I got into a rhythm with my students, with my lessons, with my classroom management, and for probably the first time in my life I was truly happy.  I loved the person I was becoming, I loved the people around me, and I loved what I was doing.  I received many personal reassurances from above that I was doing okay, that everything would be okay, and I trusted that feeling as 2011 came to a close and I looked ahead to 2012.

And then.... my entire world turned upside down.  I've probably spent way too many blog posts trying to articulate and understand how Zach's passing has affected me, but I think what it really comes down to is that losing him broke me.  It broke my heart, it broke my happiness, it broke my smile, it broke my voice, it broke my spirit.  I honestly don't know how I made it through those days, weeks and months at school.  I honestly can't remember anything I taught from January to about April.  Just getting out of bed in the morning was victory enough, let alone making it to school and teaching coherent lessons.  Some mornings I wondered why I even bothered putting on makeup, because it was usually gone by the time first period started.  I know one of the only things that saved me from letting the sorrow and pain completely consume me was an angel friend who stayed with me at night, who sat with me while I graded papers and wrote lesson plans, who brought me lunch (even if it was only cold soup) or who just showed up to talk and distract me from the hurt.  My other saving graces were, of course, Mom and Dad; sweet and loving friends, both here in Texas and across the nation; an amazing principal, counselor and my fellow teachers, one of whom made sure to always check on me during my conference period, just to make sure I was doing okay.

And then there were my students.  I told them what happened when I returned to work after having taken two days off, and they were incredible.  They were sweet and considerate.  They offered kind words, and gave me hugs and pizza and candy.  If the pain of missing Zach was becoming too much, all I had to do was tell them I was having a rough day and they patiently suffered through boring lessons and didn't complain too much when it would take me forever to grade their assignments.  I was a wreck before and after school, but I knew that between 8:25am and 3:35pm, Monday through Friday, everything was okay because I was with my students, my children, my daily dose of happy.

Sometime in the past few months, I somehow found the energy and emotion to begin trying to function again.  It was still a daily triumph getting out of bed in the morning, but once I got started, I was able to focus on lessons and grading and senior projects and the other bajillion things that had to be done before the end of the year.  The last weeks of school were crazy and busy and stressful, but like always, everything came together in the end.

I have two very strong memories from the last day of school.  After the final bell rang, one of my favorite students came into my room and gave me a goodbye hug.  He then looked me directly in the eyes and said, "Ms. Romney, you be happy this summer.  Okay?  Be happy. Be happy, just for me."  I swallowed the knot in my throat, nodded and told him that I would try my best.

And then, another one of my favorite students wrote me a note, which in part reads: I've never lost someone close to me, but I am sure it is extremely hard to cope with.  The fact that you were able to be so strong in such a dark time makes you glow as a superb teacher.  That must take so much strength, and I admire you for that. ... The day in class when we were talking about the quote from Slaughterhouse that was about just needing someone to know, when you got emotional, I don't know how to describe it, but I just understood exactly what you were saying, and I connected with you. ... It was just a special moment for me, to see you be so open.  You're just awesome.

As I stood alone in my empty and bare classroom on that last day and thought about these two students and their powerful words, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and a whispered and sincere thank you passed through my lips, offered to heaven, to friends, to family, to students, to coworkers, to professors, to mentors, to everyone who helped me through this first year.  Being a teacher is the hardest thing I have ever done, second only to serving a mission.  I still don't feel like I know exactly what I'm doing, but if I've learned anything this year, it's that I'm pretty good at making it up as I go.

I feel that my thoughts on this first year are best summarized from words in the poem Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: "I am part of all that I have met."  Everything that happened this year - from that disastrous first week, to meeting and loving and then saying goodbye to Zach, to our graduation last night - all of that is now part of who I am.  I am all of the stress and sorrow, all of the happiness and hurt, all of the long days and lonely nights, all of the tears and fears, all of the smiles and silent screams, all of the phone calls and text messages and emails, all of the fun and frustration, all of the good days and bad days, all of the failures and successes.

I am still learning how to be happy again, still trying to figure out my new normal, but I know that as I move forward to my second year, angels both on earth and in heaven will be by my side.  I am eternally grateful for all that I have met this year, for everything and everyone that has made me who I am today.

And I am a teacher.  And I love it.

Yeah.  That just happened.

Ten months and one week (August-June) of the Classroom Calendar

November and June graduations

These Reflections & Musings are dedicated to GP, DL, JS, MF and KH - five incredible professors, mentors and friends who showed me that the best teachers don't just teach, they inspire.  Thank you and I love you all.

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