I was in downtown Camden last week on a field trip with ten students who were taking photographs of their town for an upcoming project. They were electric with energy for the work they were doing, namely, in this moment, capturing colorful and creative artful window displays. I, too, was mesmerized by and consumed with what we were doing.
A gray-haired woman stopped me on the sidewalk in front of The Smiling Cow by touching my forearm with her fingers and leaning in for some serious eye contact. “You’re a teacher,” she stated, a southern drawl playing on her tongue. I nodded an affirmation and, with tilted head smiled a tad. Before I could speak: “Oh, I’m so glad I’m not you,” she said loudly. “I taught for thirty years, and I just said to my husband, I said, Thomas, I am just so glad I’m not her.”
“She did,” a man standing behind me said. I hadn’t noticed him. I hadn’t noticed her, for that matter, until she’d grabbed my arm. I looked from him, to her, confusion rising up in the lines of my forehead – the ones deepening every year.
“Well,” I offered without condescension, “you’re good. You’re not me.” I didn’t know what else to say.
“Yes, indeed,” she said, enunciating words. “I just said to Thomas, THOMAS THIS IS NOT MY CIRCUS AND THOSE ARE NOT MY MONKEYS.” She let go of my arm, reached around me, took Thomas’ wrist, and pulled him around me to stand with her. The bright sun shone in my face. “Were you a teacher?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“Yes, ma’am, I was,” she said. “I taught the fifth grade for thirty years. Same classroom! Same desk! And when I retired, I said to myself, I will never do this again, not for a single day!” To my silent half-smile, she continued, “And I haven’t!”
“Okay,” I said. I glanced at my students, who meandered away from this couple, still at work, paying no attention to this stranger hell bent on convincing me of the righteousness of her retirement, I guess. I wished her a good day. But she wasn’t quite finished. She took my forearm again, and on the opposite side of me from where Thomas stood, she leaned in for an intimate whisper: “I only say that for Thomas’ sake!” she breathed, “but I’ve missed teaching every day the past two years. Thomas thinks I don’t like spending all this time with him, but I do. But I miss my kids something awful!” And then, as she stood straight again, she winked at me, then nodded at my students, put her arm around Thomas’ waist, and walked the opposite direction down the sidewalk.
And every day since, I’ve been meaning to tell you how much I love fall – the start of my work with a whole new class, 79 students this year – and all their delightful teenagerness. Sigh. How lucky I am to do what I do, where I do, and for all the reasons I do. Life is good today.