The end of January is when we have our professional development day for the teachers in my district. Today marked #14 for me. I had to help with the agenda and be one of the facilitators, so it wasn’t one of those days when I could slide into a seat somewhere in the back of the room and put on cruise control.
It’s actually a bittersweet day for me.
Eleven years ago something happened on our January PD day that would change my life forever.
I was a presenter that year. I had only been teaching at the school for three months. I probably only knew a handful of names on campus. My co-presenter and I had to teach a couple sessions about cooperative learning, and we used my classroom for our presentation. After the first session, I distinctly remember getting bombarded with questions by a particular math teacher.
“How can I do any of this in a math class?” he pressed, staying behind after everyone else had moved on to their next destination on the agenda. “It doesn’t apply at all to what I teach. Maybe you can do it in a history class, but it doesn’t work for math.”
He kept going on and on, not willing to leave until he adequately berated me for the useless strategies I had the nerve to teach them. I remember him standing a little too close, and me trying to inch away so I didn’t have to smell his breath.
The second session went smoother. I eyed the clock toward the end, counting down the minutes until lunch time. No more presentations after that. I was so new on campus that I didn’t know anyone to eat lunch with and I planned to eat alone in my classroom and do my grading.
The bell rang and all of the teachers scuttled out of the room almost faster than the students did when it was lunch time. My co-presenter left to go have lunch, and thankfully there weren’t any math teachers looking for blood. I could take a deep breath and decompress before our next staff meeting.
Except one person lingered.
The teacher next door. He had been sitting in the back, near the door with his friends. I barely recognized him, even though we shared a wall between our classrooms. I couldn’t even spell his last name. Shim-A-Something? I knew that he came to work right before the bell rang every morning, because I heard his door open as I would be writing the agenda on my whiteboard. After school I heard him make a mad dash out of the classroom along with his students. We never ran into each other. The few times that I did see him he wore all black, had his ears pierced, and he had a jet black faux hawk. I thought maybe he was gay, but I didn’t know him well enough to conclusively say either way. Honestly I didn’t really think much about him. I was just trying to survive as the new person at a fairly large school with too many faces and names to remember.
The first time I spoke to him was on Halloween. I stood at my door during passing period wearing my costume. I had only been working at the school for a few weeks, but I went out on a limb and dressed up anyway. Mr. Shim-A-Something came out of his classroom and leaned against his door. He was dressed as Indiana Jones and the movie soundtrack blasted from inside of his classroom.
“What are you supposed to be?” he asked.
“A Victorian queen,” I said, diverting my eyes.
That was all he said. Then the bell rang, and I wouldn’t see him for another several days, but sometimes I heard him through the walls. Classrooms are weird like that. When we close our doors we can easily get lost in our own worlds.
A few weeks later I had to go inside of his classroom. The computer teacher told me that Kenneth was the last person to have the Easygrade Pro CD that I needed to start keeping grades for my classes. Having started at the school a month after the school year began, I was behind in everything and desperately needed the CD.
It was between class periods when I decided to go into his classroom. Students were starting to arrive to class. I found him standing at his podium. I explained why I was there.
“I don’t have it,” he said, not even looking up from his computer.
“But they told me that I could find it here,” I said.
“I don’t have it,” he repeated, still not making eye contact with me.
I left his classroom feeling like I had just bothered him. That night I had to buy an $80 copy of the software. (Years later, he would admit that he found the CD somewhere in his messy desk.)
About six weeks later, it was winter break and I brought my younger cousins to school to help me work in my classroom. I heard him in his classroom, so I thought I should say hello, even though I still couldn’t remember his name. It seemed like the polite thing to do though, especially being the new girl in the department. Kenneth mumbled a disinterested hello, and that was that. I went back to my classroom to work, and at some point he left and didn’t say goodbye. (He later told me he didn’t pay attention to me because he thought my 4 cousins were my kids.)
It was a surprise to me when he lingered in my classroom on the professional development day, seemingly wanting to talk. After months of being ignored, I wasn’t even sure if he knew I existed in the room next door. I doubted he even knew my name.
As it turned out, Kenneth was very engaging in his conversation skills when he wasn’t mumbling disinterested one-word responses. He kept pelting me with interesting topics, from politics to poetry to books to philosophy to traveling to…everything. I felt like he grabbed my hand and took me on journey after journey through our conversation, not letting my mind rest for even a second. I hardly realized that an hour passed and it was time to go to our next meeting; I did not eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich that day.
We became inseparable.
One day he came into my classroom after school with a big black book of poetry.
“I don’t like poetry,” I said, always one to ruin a romantic moment with my big mouth.
“You’re such a knucklehead,” he said, laughing. He proceeded to read it anyway and ignored my grimacing.
I had to admit that I was enthralled by the way he read the words with intensity. He did everything he cared about with intensity. Kenneth had a soul ablaze with passion. It was contagious. There was no turning back.
My soul became melded to his.
And then, just as fast as he came into my life, he was gone.
It’s true that I never liked poetry (except when Kenneth read it to me), but when he passed away I found myself starving for the words to explain the hollowness inside of me. There was no adequate way to capture and convey the gnarled, agonizing pain with words alone. But I wanted a method to quantify my anguish. I wanted to be able to categorize my despair. I needed to define my brokenness. But there never seemed to be the right words to match the feelings.
It was poetry that helped me fill in the blanks and somehow gave me multiple ways to express what words alone could never achieve.
I still have Kenneth’s big black book of poems at home, like a sacred bible that reminds me about how all of this all started.
I almost forgot the significance of the PD day this year until the day before it happened, when I looked at the agenda in the afternoon and it hit me.
Grief is like that. Just when you think you are fine and the worst days of grieving are over, it punches you in the gut out of nowhere and forces you to acknowledge it. A constant reminder that you will never be completely okay.
I spend so much of my time trying to be pragmatic about my life. I try not to dwell on the crap I’ve been dealt. I try to be forward-thinking. I try not to linger in the past. I worry about spending too much time stuck in the details of my memories, so I often force myself to be present.
This strategy works until the flood gates open, and they inevitably open whether you consent or not. Once they do, you find yourself knee-deep in your grief.
I can see him in my classroom, sitting near the door with his friends, watching me with budding interest. I can picture the excitement on his face as he talked to me about politics and the way he moved his hands around as if he were in the middle of an important lecture. I remember going home that day and feeling excited, like I had just caught something electric that buzzed inside of me. I can see him as clear as day in my mind, and yet sometimes I wonder if he was even real.
On that professional development day 11 years ago, I remember only feeling like I wanted to talk to him again. That I didn’t want to stop talking to him. It didn’t matter that I had never contemplated dating an Asian single father, 18 years my senior, who had his ears pierced and wore True Religion jeans. None of that mattered. Kenneth had this intellect energy that I immediately knew I wanted to be around, and it didn’t need to make sense.
Today was the second professional development day without him. I didn’t know what to expect, but I anticipated sadness. I was short with the kids in the morning during our commute to school, but I think it was because of my own stress in dealing with this day. I arrived on campus a little early. I had a conversation with another teacher about something work-related, and then I eased into my world of teaching with a second nature that develops over time. I didn’t feel sad. I wasn’t bothered. It’s almost as if life had changed so drastically that it didn’t feel like my old life, and therefore could no longer remind me of the life I once shared with him.
Bittersweet is the only way to describe it.
And I’m not as much of a pragmatic ice queen as I try to be. Sometimes I let myself be a sentimental fool. I wore his shirt today.
I miss my buddy. He was always my biggest fan.