When I started teaching in 1988 I was 27. Despite being a grown up and the veteran of an entirely different career, I was utterly unprepared for the emotional and psychological toll the first year of teaching was going to take on me. And physical, too. Within a month I had pneumonia so bad I missed two weeks of school.
I kept my head up by keeping it down. Down, as in hard at work 18 hours a day. Ask my new husband at the time who forgot what everything but the part on the top of my head looked like.
Liz had a classroom down the hall. She taught math to the same students I had for English. She was older, a veteran teacher, a mother of three middle-school-aged kids, someone who juggled 10 balls in one hand while smoking a cigarette and checking her manicure.
Somehow, Liz took me under her wing immediately without my realizing it. Somehow, I poured my heart out to her before I consciously realized I needed to do that. Somehow, she always knew what stage of disbelief/stress/excitement/anxiety/overwhelm/enthusiasm/celebration/love I was in during that first year of school. I ended up sitting at her kitchen table with some regularity, after school, sometimes even before school. Her humor and very non-cloying warmth, combined with her experience as a teacher, her unromantic appreciation of the job, and her being what I considered a “real” grown-up, all came together in one irresistible package. I was grateful to her every day.
Unsurprisingly, when I had pneumonia during those first weeks, she brought food over more than once to help me and my husband keep our shit together.
I learned a lot from Liz during the few years we were colleagues. She was a true friend. Our paths diverged at some point and yet she never really left me. I went to her funeral about fifteen years ago, truly shocked in some deep recess that anyone that feisty and full of grit could ever die. I’m sure her sassy self is ruling the roost in the afterlife. Just a few days ago, one of Liz’s daughters wrote to me (and I’m sure hundreds of others who loved Liz), asking for memories, anecdotes, snippets. I was brought back, immediately and easily, to a time when Liz was large and in charge, and very much alive.
So I got through that first teaching year, triumph outweighing the occasional sense of disaster, partly due to my stubbornness, determination, and general refusal to succumb to despair, partly due to the fact that I actually did kind of love the job, and in very large part thanks to Liz’s (oh-so-unobtrusively constant) supportive presence and love.
On graduation day, I remember waking up that morning hugely relieved that the year was over. I was looking forward to stripping wallpaper and paint in my newly purchased house and mulling over the year and all the things I’d do differently starting in September. After the ceremony and luncheon, Liz suggested I come over to her house for a while, just to hang. I gladly agreed, looking forward to celebrating a successful completion of the schoolyear. She did not seem at all surprised when, about fifteen minutes after I sat down next to her on a porch chair, I burst into tears. She put her hand on my shoulder, then stood up and gave me a one-armed hug. She whipped some tissues from somewhere, shoved them at me, and let me cry.
When I started blubbering about how much I loved the students, how much I’d miss the 8th graders-now-graduates, how hard the year was but-I-didn’t-care-it-was-amazing, and finally how surprised I was at the flood of grief that was washing over me—Liz was not fazed in the slightest. She murmured, “I know,” and “That’s normal” and other soothing words until I stopped sobbing, no doubt with a few ignominious hiccups or slurpy snorts.
We talked for a long time about each of the students, about some of the things that had happened, about our indomitable colleagues, and the backroom drama of the administrative offices. I felt so free and easy in her company. I knew she would not judge me. She was incapable of that. She cracked me up with her sarcastic side-comments, and impressed me with the comfy, competent way she parented her children as they passed through the room, despite having me and my ridiculous mess to deal with.
The rest of the afternoon was full of laughter and silliness, as I recall. I went home eventually, exhausted, purged, renewed.