Before the Last Bell

Friday, seventh period, fifteen minutes before the last bell:

“The reason we are reading all these picture books is because we’re going to walk over to an elementary school next week, interview kindergarteners, and create books for them. I did this in middle and high school and it was one of my most memorable classroom experiences. And a couple years ago I met a new DPS teacher who had gone to that elementary school. He not only still had his handmade book, but also said it was one of his most memorable school experiences and one of the reasons he became a teacher.”

“I’m going to ditch that day. Who’s with me?”

No one will ever tell you this when you’re in college. They’ll pump teaching up, make you think it’s your dream job, make you think you can change the world. That you can be there for one student or two or a thousand, and that you’re going to make a difference.

You’ll believe them. You’ll have small glimpses of hope and happiness every day. Kids who come in an hour early to clean out all your poor-urban-handout, made-for-elementary desks that have shelves underneath that high schoolers can barely fit their legs under and spend the entire school year filling with trash from vending machines that are open all day, and hiding and losing phones and tablets in, and leaving grant-requested precious books inside.

Or the kid who brings you spicy Eritrean food with his mom’s homemade injera bread to dip your tongue into another continent after all the hours you’ve spent helping him write essays for three years running, before dawn and after dark and every lunch in between. It all melts away with saffron and perfectly spongey texture soaking up the lost moments of planning, grading… Of other parts of your life.

Or the Nepali girls who play their fairy-like music after school, pushing all the desks to the side to practice their modern mashup dance of a culture you couldn’t begin to understand for the CultureFest that brings the quilt of your students together in an unforgettable annual celebration.

But.

It takes SO. MANY. Of those bright moments to erase the daily apathy, rudeness, and downright disregard that SO. MANY. Students have.

So I send him out. “You don’t want to develop a relationship with our community, participate with a kid, make a difference, and fulfill a promise to the kindergarten teachers who I told I would bring twenty-one students to interview? You want me to disappoint a five-year-old child?”

“You do whatever you want, Miss,” he says, packing up his backpack and walking out, fifteen minutes before the last bell on a Friday afternoon.

“Whatever I want” is to enjoy this weekend I have promised my just-turned-thirteen-year-old for six months. To get the hell out of this city, drive like a maniac into blue skies and snow, and participate in life with the children I hold closest to my heart.

But first there was a rock slide. I-70 closed ten miles before our destination. Then I arrive at the elementary school and my middle child is pouting like she’s two, refusing to tell me why. I leave her and her sister at piano to fulfill my carpool duties and get stuck at a string of red lights. Bruce comes coughing home after working in a knee-deep-in-mud manhole all day, takes a shower, and water leaks through the second-floor ceiling onto our beautiful wood floors, leaving a crack in the drywall and a repair-bill question yet to be answered. When he comes downstairs, he is shivering like a wet chihuahua, goes straight to bed, and informs me he has the flu. My middle child still pouts, has picked up the cold the other three of us have had all week, and has a canker sore the size of Idaho.

The two remaining children complete the two-hour ordeal of grocery shopping with me, picking out swimsuits for all. We return home to frantically make eight sandwiches, do two loads of laundry, pack up five people’s crap to fill the topper, and I lay my head down close to midnight only to be disturbed by the buzzing dryer, the curious kitten, and the Dowling need to clean the entire house before I leave.

But wait, since Bruce is sick, I now have to sacrifice two hours of this pressed-for-time morning to sit with Isabella in her Dumb Friends League volunteering orientation. I rush to Walgreens, the only close store, to get ice before our looming six-hour drive, and the goddamn store is out of ice.

Izzy’s friend finally arrives after Bruce officially declares he isn’t up for it, and I don’t even take the time to call my mother to ask her to come in his place. I hit the road like a woman on fire and blast my way through half the state, circumventing the rock slide by 140 miles, blue sky and snow, blue sky and snow.

We stop only two times. To get gas and load up on caffeine. And to avoid a mule deer who jumps in front of our two-lane trek. The girls minimally whine about how much longer and are we halfway there yet, but not enough to even raise the hairs on my neck. I’ve got a great playlist blasting U2, Bruce Springsteen, Usher, Adele, and Lennon, views worth a million bucks, and an open road.

I’ve got a thirteen-year-old whose aunt calls later to wish her a happy birthday and ask her if she was miserable about the double-time drive: “No way. I got to come to Glenwood for my birthday.”

I’ve got a middle child who is chipper today and takes blurry pictures for me and learns how to program the GPS to five different destinations as we navigate the back way.

I’ve got a baby girl who spends the entire six-hour drive happily drawing on and erasing her whiteboard to start all over again.

I’ve got a glimpse of that hope again. When we finally reach the exit from the circled-back, eastbound side of I-70, after passing twenty signs, taking three side routes, and talking about the rockslide all week, a Colorado State Trooper parks in front of two rows of orange cones that guide every car off at this exit.

“Look, this is where the highway is shut down,” I announce, taking a glance around the bright young faces that surround me as we have made a “record” time of five hours forty minutes when Google said 6.5.

“I wonder why,” Mythili ponders.

“Oh, Mythili,” but I can’t finish because I am laughing so hard, I am so deliriously happy that tears are streaming down my cheeks as I try to hold in spurts of laughter and joy that have been bottled up inside me since fifteen minutes before the last bell on Friday afternoon.

But I don’t need a bell to set me free. I just need a glimpse. A glimpse of blue sky over snow, of students who love me for how hard I work for them, of children who are grateful and humorous and quirky in these small moments that make a life, whether they are the fifteen minutes before the last bell or the fifteen tears that just need to fall.

Just a glimpse, a glimpse.

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