The School at Night
The earliest memory I have of it is kind of vague and spotty (like one of those abstract dreams where shapes are getting BIGGER! I had such a recurring nightmare as a kid, and that’s all the dream consisted of — things getting bigger. The biggening was accompanied by a “nananananana” like the sound effect used in The Bionic Man TV shows. Some creepy shit. But vague and spotty.). I’m surrounded by adults — my mother, my teachers, the principal — and they’re all trying to make the night into a fun experience, but it’s totally see-through. Kids know, of course, that none of the adults really want to be in the school at night, schmoozing with each other, smiling fake smiles, sitting in those too-small chairs. Kids know. Not on a conscious, intellectual level, necessarily, but they know nonetheless.
My second memory is from high school. I’d just finished up some work for the yearbook, and I was the last one to leave the yearbook office. It must have been eight or nine o’clock. (The trust they placed in me was incredible.) When I walked out of the building, down the 400 wing, past the guidance office and administrators’ offices, and then down the 800 wing and out the door, I was literally the only person in the school. Sure, there may have been a custodian around somewhere, but for all intents and purposes, I was alone. And as I began my walk down the hallways, strange in the fact that they were illuminated exclusively by the electric overhead lights, I started to run. And it turned into a sprint. And because it was dark outside, the window-lined hallways were more tunnel-like than usual, so my sprinting felt really fast. Past lockers, windows, doors, I was flying. And it was triumphant, exhilirating.
These days, being in school at night is not at all triumphant. It’s a symbol of obligation, a mark of submitting to the demands of work. Don’t get me wrong. I like teaching. The job’s more often good than it is bad. But as with any job, it’s occasionally a little oppressive. There are times when you are working long past when you want to be working. And if I’m in school at night, I am working long past when I want to be working.
At some point in the first month of school, we host “Go to school night,” which serves as an opportunity for parents to walk through their child’s daily schedule, meet the teachers, see the classrooms, and get an overall sense of the maze of hallways these kids have to navigate everyday. About a third of all parents show up. Some come as couples. Some come separately, divorcees who sit on the opposite sides of the classroom. We teachers give ten minute presentations to those who show up and then a bell rings and we shoo them all out of our rooms, which is where they belong — out of the room. It’s interesting to see their faces, the origins of their children’s faces; I can often name their kids before they introduce themselves. But who can deny that they are there in part to judge us? And isn’t it unnerving when you are standing before a small crowd of people who have come to see for themselves how cool or smart or strange you are?
My final memory is one that comforts me at these moments when I feel least triumphant. It’s from Ecuador, when I was teaching English classes at night, and I’d see my own reflection in the windows at the far end of the room. I could be writing on the whiteboard and I’d catch a glimpse of myself. Or I could be circulating around the room helping students with some exercise (conjugating verbs or forming questions, maybe). And it was always a little alarming to see myself in that dilapidated room, asking my students how many apples they have, or pointing to a desk and saying, “What is this?” My reflection was a constant declaration: “You are here. You are doing this.” But occasionally, I’d walk straight toward my reflection — when students were working in groups together, or if they were taking a quiz — something that didn’t require my direction. And as I got closer to my image in the window, it would begin to fade slowly, until, inches from the glass, I could look beyond it to the nighttime cityscape and the lights flickering on the mountainside. It was then that I’d remember what a teacher needs to remember always: “This is not about you.”