A New Year, A New Me

 

plannerA new school year has begun, and week two is in the books, or grade books as it were. However, my school year began a day late, due to a back injury that sidelined me for the first day of school. Calling in sick has never been easy for me; I was even more devastated to miss the excitement of the first day back, and particularly this year. In early June, I accepted a teaching position at a new school and spent all summer working on new curriculum and moving into a new classroom. I was ready for the first day at least a month ago, but God sure does have a sense of humor. You think you are ready, LOL, I’ll show you.

First Day

My “1st” day of school this year, back pain and all!

This is my eleventh year as a teacher. Starting at a new school this year, however, really meant coming home for me, as I am teaching in my home parish school, where both my daughters were educated and where my husband and I have been parishioners for over twenty years. While I was excited and thrilled with the opportunity to make this change, leaving my former school after ten years meant leaving colleagues who have become dear friends and saying goodbye to a truly wonderful school community filled with supportive and generous families.

classroom

Control Central (LOL)

Starting over, being the new person, adapting to new policies, and making new friends can be difficult, and sometimes, we hold ourselves back from new opportunities because of being too comfortable, and perhaps because we are afraid of change. But, change can be good. Change is an opportunity to push that reset button, to abandon bad habits, to refresh and renew one’s enthusiasm for work.

class photo

My daughter’s 5th grade class photo from Belgium, Johanna far right middle row

Over the summer, as I worked my way through three new literature textbooks and a bag full of new YA novels, I learned of the untimely passing of one of the greatest educators I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Johanna Bambridge was my younger daughter’s fifth grade teacher. Within minutes of meeting her in the late summer of 2002, I knew I had encountered someone very special. Her warm smile and obvious enthusiasm for teaching was so reassuring as we began a school year in a foreign country. She knew that, even though we were moving to Belgium from Maryland, my husband and I were both Louisiana natives. She had already chosen a mentor family for us, also from Louisiana, with a daughter the same age as our 5th grader.

Early in that school year, my daughter came home and told me she had volunteered me for something at school, and that I needed to call Mrs. Bambridge, which I did. Mrs. Bambridge told me that she had asked if anyone’s mother could come in to do a cooking demonstration on the foods of ancient cuisines, and that my daughter had assured her I was the perfect person for this.

Now, let me tell you that I knew almost nothing about foods of ancient civilizations, but I do love to cook, so I sat down at my computer and began to research the foods of ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt. And, so began my adventure in the classroom. My first cooking demonstration was karkadé (iced hibiscus tea) and kosheri (lentils and rice) with sausages. For dessert, I served the 5th graders seed cake sweetened with honey and dates. It was a smashing success. As I was cleaning up, Mrs. Bambridge said to me with her usual 1,000-watt smile, “You should be a teacher!” At first, I was startled at this (what, me?), but I admit I was also intrigued, and for the rest of our time in Belgium, I volunteered extensively at the school, including substitute teaching in the middle school and working in the high school library. Five years later, after completing grad courses and the Praxis, armed with state certification in English for grades 7-12 and with Johanna Bambridge’s endorsement ringing in my ears, I began my second career as a middle school language arts teacher.

CCD Dinner

Religious Ed Dinner (2002 or 2003), Johanna Bambridge far left, me far right

I not only knew Johanna Bambridge as my daughter’s teacher, but also as a fellow parishioner and parish council member at our Catholic church parish in Belgium, Our Lady of Mercy. Meetings were on Sunday nights, which all teachers know is the time when we wind down from the weekend and prep for the school week: lesson planning, grading papers, posting grades, emailing parents. But, Johanna was there for each and every meeting, prepared and ready to discuss parish business, plan events, and prepare for liturgical feasts. She was also there to represent the religious education program for the English-speaking families of the parish. Even though she was a wife and mother of two with a very full day-job, she was the Director of Religious Education and taught one of the classes herself every Sunday. It was hard to say no to her when she asked me to teach a class myself. After all, I was technically a stay-at-home mom for our two years in Belgium. Like the platoon leader who vows not to ask his soldiers to do anything he wouldn’t do himself, Johanna not only talked the talk, she walked the walk.

When I casually mentioned to her that I wished we would have shipped our piano to Belgium when we moved, she offered me her piano, free, “just pay to have it moved,” she said. It was an old upright with many years behind it, but after having it moved to our house and getting it tuned, it added much to making our assigned housing a real home during our time in Waterloo.

SJIS

St. John’s International School, Waterloo, Belgium (Source: Wikipedia)

Shortly after her death on July 6th, a colleague from St. John’s International School created a tribute page on Facebook for Johanna. Each day I logged on to Facebook to read the condolences and remembrances left there by friends and former students from all over the world: Japan, Belgium (when we knew her), France (where she moved after Belgium). All, without exception, carried the same themes: selfless, caring, faith-filled, devoted to education, energetic. Many, many people said that their most vivid memory of Johanna was of her with her arms wrapped around children. She embraced everyone in her path.  She enveloped them with her warm smile and blazing, bright eyes. How many lives did she touch? How many children did she inspire? How many teachers, including myself, did she mentor and motivate? How many hearts did she open to her love of the Catholic church?

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Book Nook, my classroom

And, so, now at the beginning of this, my eleventh year in education, I re-dedicate myself to the values that Johanna so effortlessly lived and shared. I will greet each child with a warm smile. I will make learning fun. I will be compassionate and caring, even when I need to be firm. I will bring my faith and love of the Catholic church to every school day, to every lesson, to every encounter. I will do more, I will pray more, I will be more.

 

Johanna Bambridge will be greatly missed by all whose lives she affected, but she will not be forgotten. I know in my heart that she was welcomed with open arms to her final reward, where she heard, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Rest in peace, Johanna. This year is for you.

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Drowning, But Don’t Save Me — Yet

back to schoolAt the annual Back to School Night last week I introduced myself to the parents of my 7th graders with my usual background information: “This is my 9th year teaching and my 9th year at this school. I came to education as a second career after twenty years in the legal field. After leaving my corporate job to move overseas with my family in 2002, I spent two years volunteering and substitute teaching in the international school my daughters attended. I loved working with students and the energy and atmosphere of a middle school so much I decided when we returned home I would become a teacher. I love teaching, and I love teaching here at this school.”

All of this is true. The two years I spent as a parent, volunteer, teacher’s aide, library assistant, and substitute teacher at the St. John’s International School in Waterloo, Belgium, were wonderful. I made so many good friends during those two years abroad, and I did rediscover within myself my creative side, a part of me that I had tamped down with business dealnever-ending conference calls, acrid negotiations, brain-numbing legal writing, terse interoffice relationships, and high-pressure business deals.

A good friend and co-worker said to me many, many times while we were working together in a large shopping center development company, “You should get out of this job. You should find something else to do. You are too creative for this work.” I didn’t really understand what she meant because I was very caught up in my work identity. I had worked extremely hard, without a law degree, to climb up the legal ladder and become successful at drafting and negotiating legal documents. It was a tough job but I loved it. I enjoyed some flexibility with my work hours and had quite a bit of autonomy within the workplace. I had five weeks of vacation leave a year, was bonus-eligible, had received stock options, and earned a very healthy salary. I loved my job and I was confident in my abilities to do it well. So, when the opportunity presented itself for us to move overseasinternational school for two years and give our daughters the experience of living, traveling, and going to school in Europe, I went to my boss and asked for a leave of absence. She said no, that it was too long a period of time, but they would welcome me back if a position were open upon my return. I was crushed.

Those last few months of work (I had given ample notice) were tough. The winding down of my responsibilities, closing out my files of signed deals, transferring my pending deals to co-workers, goodbye lunches and happy hours, packing up my personal belongings from my office, it was all very difficult. For the first few months in Belgium, I had a lot to do. First, get the girls settled in their new school, reach out and make new friends with some of their classmates, buy school uniforms and school supplies, and find our way around our new town. Then, when our sea shipment arrived, unpacking and getting our house in order filled my days. Eventually though, reality kicked in. I had nowhere to go every day. i'm boredFor the first time since a few months after my college graduation, I had nowhere to go every day. My husband would leave for work, my daughters would board the school bus, and then it was just me and the cat. Except for two C-sections and a back surgery, I had never been away from work for more than a two-week vacation. As many times as I had wished I didn’t have to get up and go to work, I didn’t like it at all.

A notice in the school newsletter saved me: “Help neededhelp wanted in high school library. Volunteers welcome!” That was the open door, or the slippery slope if I’m really honest, that started it all. Shelving and cataloging books led to helping students with research, which led to becoming a teacher’s aide, which led to substitute teaching. And, upon our return to the States, that led me to my current job as a middle school language arts teacher of nine years.

And, yes, I do still love teaching. I have totally reconnected with my creative side, through my work as drama club moderator for my school, directing two school plays a year. And, for seven hours a day, I am on stage, live live performance artperformance art, acting out and reading aloud from the literature, leading lively discussions about the literature, helping students understand the literature and improve their writing. But, still, there is irony, or as we say in this Catholic school where I teach, “God sure has a sense of humor.”

What’s so ironic or funny? Well, tomorrow begins the fourth week of school and I am literally and figuratively drowning in school papersdrowning in a sea of papers. I had not even stopped long enough to realize I was drowning until a teacher friend of mine posted this picture on Facebook, but it perfectly describes my current state of affairs. I am still grading summer reading projects for my eighty students, collected on the first day of school, all the while giving out new essay assignments, covering new material, and giving tests and quizzes. I stay at school three or four hours after the final bell and still bring work home with me each night. I work on the weekends, often spending three or four hours at school on Sunday. I am exhausted, and we have only just finished our third week of school.

So, the irony is that I left the legal field to explore my own creativity, yet I am so drained each day from teaching, grading, lesson planning, and guiding students in their own creativity, I hardly have any time or energy left for my own. This “Essay a Week for One Year” project was a line drawn in the sand, so to speak, an effort to reclaim for myself some outlet for my own creative writing, some tangible sign that I could practice what I preach—read and write more.

Other than a small part in a summer stock production at my daughters’ high school several years ago, I haven’t been on stage since 1987. I miss it. I miss the theatre life, comedy and tragedy masksthe dark and perpetually chilly rooms, the instant family created by a cast in rehearsal for a play, the feel of the lights on my face, and the sound of applause when a scene is exactly as it should be. I miss memorizing lines, working on accents, hunting for props, trying on costumes. A local community theatre group is holding auditions in mid-October for a play that I am very interested in, but if I am entirely honest with myself, I simply don’t have the time to be in it while teaching full-time, especially when the rehearsal schedule overlaps with that of the play I am directing at my school. So, I will pass.

Even though this is only my 9th year of teaching, the reality is that a lot of my college friends are retired or are in the processing of retiring, especially those who have been teaching since graduation. On August 24th this year, the first day of in-service week for the faculty of my school, it's mondaymy college roommate posted this picture on her Facebook page. Hilarious, right? Sure, if you are the little guy in the striped shirt, which she is. She retired last summer so she has already had a year without dragging home the school bag full of papers to grade every night. I’m jealous.

So naturally, I think about it. I think about what it would be like to “retire”, to not teach next year or the year after that. Mostly, though, I think about what it would be like to come home from work, cook dinner, clean the kitchen, and then RELAX until time to go to bed. I think about calling in sick without first calling five different people looking for a substitute teacher and then rushing to email more detailed lesson plans to the school office. I think about what it would be like to read whatever I want whenever I want, and not just read books for school or about school. I think about what it would be like to write every day, just for myself, and not just once a week to have my essay ready to post on this website. But that is when I think about those early months in Belgium in 2002, when I had nowhere to go and nothing to do with my day, and how lost I felt. That is almost always followed by remembering a funny story about a student or a teacher at my school, or about a class period where we discussed the most amazing things from a piece of literature that everyone enjoyed, or about a note a parent sent me thanking me for teaching their son or daughter to be a better writer or a better reader. That’s when I recall telling an adult about a piece of literature that I am teaching and they say, “I wish I was in your class.” That’s when I run into a former student who is in high school, proudly telling me about HONORS ENGLISH, “Can you believe that, Mrs. Ardillo?” Yes, I can believe it. life guardYes, I am happy to have played even a small part in making that happen. Yes, I am making a difference each and every day in the lives of these students. Yes, I am drowning, but I’m not ready to be saved—yet.