back to school

For The First Time in Nine Years, I’m Not Going “Back to School”

Newborn-playing

As soon as I discovered I was pregnant at the end of last summer, I set the wheels in motion to take a half-year sabbatical from my job teaching music, theatre and English at Maine’s smallest K-12 public school. We’re allowed a full year at half pay every seven years, but my family wouldn’t quite be able to swing that financially. Besides, between my six-week maternity leave, summer vacation and a four-month sabbatical, I piled up eight months of time at home with my daughter Penrose. The second half of the school year might be a nice break from around-the-clock parenting.

The word “sabbatical” is derived from the word “Sabbath,” and it’s supposed to be just that–a rest. In an academic or ecclesiastic context, you’re supposed to do something wholly unrelated to your job. But a public school teacher’s sabbatical is a little bit different. I needed to come up with a plan for somehow enriching the school. Writing a book and caring for a member of the class of 2032 wasn’t quite enough, so I’m going to be working on curriculum mapping and taking clarinet lessons.

School started the Tuesday after Labor Day. Ordinarily I’d have already been in workshops for two days, agonized over a bulletin board (cutting out letters has never been my forte), and picked out a back-to-school outfit. Instead, I woke up on a pee-soaked trundle bed next to a happily kicking 4-month-old. We weren’t on a schedule and we didn’t have an agenda, so I cleaned up and moved us into my bed to get a few more hours of sleep. 

We woke up again around 8 a.m. I peeked at Facebook–my feed was full of back to school photos of my students, smiling or grimacing, but all adorable and familiar. Someone else’s students right now, I guess. Penrose and I got ready for the day. We had one errand to run, coincidentally up at the school. At 10 a.m., I packed a snoozing baby into her car seat and drove the three and a half miles to work. Or–former work. Temporarily-former work. I wasn’t sure if I needed to sign in at the office or not.

I dropped off a check to cover my insurance for the half-year (it’ll get reimbursed when I come back) and lingered in the office. I checked my mail, something that had been neglected since May. I needed to file a few things, so I ventured into my classroom. My sub had hung a beautiful watercolor painting of apples on my desk and posted an inspiring quote about literacy on the bulletin board, eschewing the cut out letters all together. Chairs were neatly aligned at the back of the room. It was my space, but it felt cleaner, scrubbed of the seven years I’d spent in there and two in our old facility.

Teaching has been my only career. When I came to it, nine years ago, I knew next to nothing. But I grew with my students. My first kindergarteners just entered high school; one of the delights of teaching K-12 is watching kids grow all the way up. Except this year, I wasn’t there to clap for them on the first day, or to welcome the new kindergarten class. I’m not going canoeing on the St. Croix with the high school or climbing Katahdin with the 7th and 8th grade. And I’m not there for beginner band, the excitement of choosing an instrument and making a first sound, no matter how shrill, squawky or squeaky.

Penrose was awake, eyeballing the telephone cord, black against the yellow wall. “Let’s go home, I guess,” I said. The world kept spinning without me going to work. And the crucial import of each of Penrose’s needs filled the rest of the day. Diaper, walk, eat, and nap again, briefly. Read, play, and cuddle.

If I thought longingly of the joyful parts of my job–those moments when music reading starts to really click for a student, the pure creativity of a kindergarten dance party, a high school student finding their voice on the page–staying at home would seem mundane and stifling. But if I let myself become immersed in the minutiae of infancy, there’s joy and learning in abundance. The first time Penrose grabbed a toy felt as triumphant as my students’ first trumpet toots, and I know that rolling over, especially back to front, requires as much effort and concentration as a college application essay. I have as much to teach Penrose as I do my students, but the curriculum is more about love, reliability and frequent re-readings of the Sandra Boynton canon than it is literary analysis, persuasive writing and how to read a treble staff. My time at home is a big change, and I’ll cherish it while it lasts.


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