A teacher looks back on her career
|She watched from her classroom window as the last of the yellow buses pulled from circle. The lingering smell of diesel invaded her senses through the bare screen, mixed with the aroma of cow manure that had traveled from the dairy farm a mile up the road. Just a few moments ago there had been a cacophony of rushed excitement after the last bell on the final day of the school year, but now only stragglers remained in the mostly-silent halls.
Miss Tisdale turned around, leaning against the window's ledge and surveyed the room she'd occupied for the last thirty-five years. A tinge of sadness came over her with the knowledge that she would never again give a lesson, that after the retirement ceremony she would have no reason to come back to the place she had called home for more than half of her life.
She decided she may as well begin packing as she headed to the back of the room where the custodian had stacked those empty boxes last week.
They wasted no time getting me out, she thought. Old Mr. McCoy was nice about it when he brought them in by saying how much everyone was going to miss her, that it wouldn't be the same without her and other sentiments like that. She wondered if there was truth to any of it.
Her colleagues had acted surprised when she made the announcement. 'You're too young,' they said. 'Why, you're not even sixty!' Of course, she hadn't told any of them the truth. According to the doctors (she'd been to two), she had between six months and a year before things really got bad. She'd been forgetting things - simple, everyday things - which she'd at first attributed to the absentmindedness she'd been cursed with since childhood. When the frequency of these 'incidents' increased, she'd decided to get checked out. As soon as the diagnosis had been read she knew her career was over and filed the appropriate paperwork shortly thereafter.
Miss Tisdale took a box over to one of the many bookshelves in the classroom, the one housing selections from her personal collection. These were books that she had brought in for her students. None of them assigned, she hoped that they'd borrow them to read on their own. She wondered how many had. Perhaps a few here and there, but the arrangement of the books on the shelves and the layer of dust on the wood told her that it had been quite some time since any had moved.
She browsed the titles. She'd read all of them at one time or another. Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Twain, and a host of other authors she loved. They were her friends, her true colleagues as far as she was concerned. She wondered if she would eventually forget them, too, and if their stories would disintegrate from her mind along with everything else. That thought was overwhelming, so she sat down at one of the small desks that lined the row next to the windows.
The Romantics had always been her favorites, with writers like Austen, Shelly, Wordsworth and Byron. She wondered what it would have been like to spend time with them. To sit with them, listening to their stories and hearing the wonder that came from the minds of these brilliant thinkers. She would have liked to have known them.
John Keats, though, was her favorite. Even though he'd only lived until twenty-five, he was responsible for some of the most beautiful poetry to ever have been committed to paper. She'd loved Keats from the moment her Freshman Lit professor had read his poetry aloud in class. What was his name? It didn't matter, it was so long ago. That professor was probably long gone by now. But she'd recalled a story he'd told where the young poet was out walking and noticed a group of boys across the way torturing a kitten. Keats marched over to them, gave them all a good beating and rescued the animal, taking it home with him. She didn't know how much truth there was to the tale, but she preferred to believe it because it fit her image. She smiled and hoped she would still know the story in a year's time.
She got up from the desk, the one that had belonged to Michael Murphy in her ninth period class. She doubted that Michael had heard a single word she'd said over the course of the semester, but he'd managed to pull off a passing grade on his final exam. How does that happen? A boy who sat there, every day, paying more attention to the goings on outside than to the subject matter at hand, whose homework assignments and test scores were among the poorest she'd seen, pulls a rabbit out of his hat and ends up passing a class that he well deserved to fail.
That was how it was, though. It was a rare thing that she came across a student who really cared about what she was teaching. Television and video games had become the medium of choice, and books were slowly fading into obscurity. Reading wasn't cool. Writing wasn't fun. She was the sole inhabitant of the worlds created by her beloved writers, and soon she would be torn from those pages and sent out into the void without any memory of the characters and places that meant more to her than anything else. It really wasn't fair.
She heard voices in the hallway. Third door on the left, someone said. Mr. Barfield, from the sound of it. He was the biology teacher who taught right down the hall. She'd worked with him for the last decade, but really didn't know much about him. She didn't know a lot about most of the other teachers that remained in the school. Those she had been close to had long since retired. The old English teacher who doubled as track coach, Mr. Westfield, he'd shown her the ropes when she'd come aboard all those years ago. He took her under his wing and confided to her all the tricks of the trade for surviving her first full-time year. He and a handful of others had gotten her acclimated to her knew career and shared their vocational passion with her. She wondered if any of them would come to her ceremony. She'd like to see them once more before she could no longer recognize them. Had she made an impact in the same way that those teachers had on her? She didn't know, even though that had been her reason for choosing to teach in the first place.
Her ruminations were interrupted by a knock on her door. Three doors down on the left, she recalled. She wondered who it could be. She wasn't expecting anyone.
"Come in," she called out.
The door opened and a man stepped in. He was tall and looked to be in his mid-thirties, dressed in jeans and a purple button-down shirt. He wore a brown messenger bag over his shoulder. She didn't recognize him, but that didn't surprise her.
"Miss Tisdale?" he asked, his voice hesitant.
"Hello," she said, "Can I help you?"
"It's Josh. Josh Chamberlain?"
"Chamberlain..." she said, closing her eyes and trying to recall the name, "I'm sorry."
His eyes went to his feet and she could sense the disappointment. She wished that she could convey to him that it wasn't his fault, that it was this infernal ailment that was responsible.
"I'm here to talk about Saturday. The ceremony?" He responded, as if asking permission.
"Oh, are you involved in the planning?"
Josh smiled and shook his head.
"Not really. I’m in Chicago now. The school called and told me you were retiring and asked me to say a few words of introduction."
"I'm sorry," she said again, and thought she should stop apologizing so much. "I've had so much going on."
"It's okay," he said, "I didn't want to have to wait until the ceremony to see you. I have something for you."
She took a seat behind her desk, in the wooden chair that had been there since day one. She'd never bothered to ask for a replacement, even when it had started to get old and creaky. Josh sat across from her in a much newer, and probably more comfortable, seat.
"This is yours," he told her, taking a book from his bag and placing it on her desk.
"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," she said, picking it up. "Yes, I love this book. I think I have a copy on my shelf there in the back, though."
"You did," said Josh, "This is it. I borrowed it back when I was a student and I guess I forgot to return it. Better late than never, right?"
"How long ago was that?" she asked.
"Um, nineteen ninety-eight, maybe?" He let out a slight, guilty laugh.
"Did you enjoy the book?" she asked.
"I've probably read this copy once a year since I took it."
"Then the book belongs to you," she said, sliding it back across the desk, "Or more than likely, you belong to this book. That's how it works, you know."
"It's definitely been a life changer for me," he said, "Not only the book, but the notes you wrote in it. You're very insightful. But I knew that when I was in your class."
"That's very kind of you," Miss Tisdale said, feeling increasingly worse about not remembering him.
"You were a great teacher," he told her, looking down again, "You wouldn't remember, but I was kind of a shy kid. I didn't have a lot of friends. I read a lot."
She smiled, "There's nothing wrong with that. I've always been a bit of an introvert, myself. I had a bit of difficulty with shyness when I first started teaching. It took me awhile to get over it."
"You'd gotten past that by the time I had you. I loved your class. Here, there's something else I'd like to show you," he said, reaching back into his bag. He pulled out a blue glossy folder, worn with time and use and withdrew from it a pair of typed sheets of paper that looked as though they'd been in that folder for years, creased and crumbled and marked up with red.
"This is the first draft of a short story I wrote for your class. It was just a thing about my grandfather who died when I was nine. 'Another Day,' I called it.
"Oh, that sounds wonderful," said Miss Tisdale, taking the papers from him. It was marked up with her handwriting - notes, corrections, all the typical things that a teacher would write on a student paper.
"You gave me direction with this, and it turned out to be a pretty good story. I let some people read it and they liked it. I have you to thank for that."
"Because of these notes?" she asked, "The story was yours, not mine. They liked what you wrote."
"No, if it weren't for you I wouldn't have showed it to anyone. I wouldn't have written anything else again. I didn't think I was good enough, and you gave me confidence."
"How did I do that?" she wondered aloud.
"You really don't remember, do you? You've probably inspired a lot of kids over the years, so I guess I wouldn't stand out."
How she wished that were true, that she could believe his assertion that she had been any sort of inspiration.
"That's very kind of you to say," she told him.
"You sat with me after school one day and we talked about writing. We went through this story line by line. You pointed out everything good that I'd written. My ideas, the emotions I was trying to convey. You made me believe that I could really do this."
"I'm glad," said Miss Tisdale, "I hope that you've kept writing."
"I have," Josh told her, "Which is why I wanted to give you this as well."
He again reached into that brown satchel, making her wonder how much he could fit into a bag that looked so small. What he produced this time was another book, hardbound and new. He handed it to her.
"One More Day," she read, "by Josh... this is you. You wrote this!"
"I did. Open it. Please."
"This was published recently?"
"Last year. It's sold a few copies. Probably mostly to my friends."
Miss Tisdale flipped a few pages until she found what he'd intended for her to see.
"For Miss Tis..." she stopped, her heart suddenly in her throat.
"This is that story," said Josh, "I turned it into a novel. With a better title, I think."
Miss Tisdale didn't know how to respond. She felt emotion creeping up on her, and she had to stifle it, lest her feelings be suddenly on display.
She read to herself. `For Miss Tisdale. Thank you for helping me find these words and giving me the confidence to share them with the world'.
"So, you became a writer," she said, her voice wavering.
"Not exactly," said Josh, "Believe it or not, I actually went into medicine. I'm a doctor. One that likes to write."
"Even better. A career where you can make a nice living and a good hobby to go along with it."
"Yeah," he said, "I run a facility in Chicago."
He paused before going on, "If I'm to be honest, Miss Tisdale, that's why the school called me."
"I don't think I understand."
"I run a memory care facility. I specialize in diseases of the mind, for lack of a better term."
"That's... wonderful," Miss Tisdale said, wondering where this was going. He couldn't know, could he?
"I know the reason you’re retiring and I want to help. I get what you must be going through right now. I work with people in your situation every day. They're scared. I realize you haven't seen me in years, and for me to come barging in here to talk about this might seem odd, but I want to help."
He did know. But how?
"I never said anything," she said.
"Miss Tisdale, you've lived and taught in this town for over three decades. Did you really think there were any secrets here?"
He made an excellent point but she'd gone out of her way to keep this a secret. Nobody knew, she had thought, other than her doctor, his staff, her sister, and - well, she had to concede that was quite a few people. All it took was one slip of the tongue. If people knew, why hadn't anyone said anything?
"I'd like to offer you a place in my facility. It's not a nursing home or anything. You'd have an apartment, your own space, all of that. You'd just be close by so I could work with you on a regular basis."
She said, "It sounds expensive."
"Oh, there would be no charge. I run the facility, so my family is covered if they need care."
"But I'm not…"
"I was an only child and my parents are gone. I have no family of my own, so I was able to convince them to extend the offer to you."
Miss Tisdale couldn't think of anything to say. She was overwhelmed by the knowledge that the school had arranged for this.
"Would I like Chicago?" she asked.
"You'll feel right at home there," said Josh, "Now, come on. Let me buy you lunch and we can talk more."
"Okay," said Miss Tisdale, "I'll allow it."
Perhaps there was a chance she'd get to spend more time with Mr. Keats after all.