Sometimes things happen in life that make you want to cry for an hour. Sometimes things happen in life that only time can heal. When these things happen, you can remember everything clearly, clear as freezing ice on a cold October day. They aren’t anything extremely drastic, like a grandmother in the hospital, never to come out again, or one day being able to walk and the next being strapped into a hard metal wheelchair. They aren’t little things either, like a scraped knee or a balloon flying higher and higher into the sky, until it’s lost forever into the blue. They’re kind of in the middle of these things, suspended in between. They happen quickly. In a week or a couple of days. They’re sad and bittersweet. Cold and chilling. They shake you until you flop onto your living room couch, exhausted. But in the end, you emerge stronger.
This is how it happened to me.
* * *
MAY 25, 2011
I ran toward my school as I heard the bell ring, signaling the end of recess. I had heard that bell for the past three years that I had been at Lincoln Elementary. I was in second grade at that time and was content with my wonderful friends, my school, and my teacher, Steve Cifka. Lincoln is different from other schools, and I like it that way. There were split grades (I was in a second- and third-grade class), we had a humongous organic garden, and students called staff and teachers by their first names.
It was late May and pouring down rain. I lived in Olympia, Washington, and people around here joke that summer doesn’t start until after the Fourth of July. Judging by that wet Wednesday afternoon, it was definitely true. I pushed open the door that led into the building and heard it shut with a dull bam. I noticed wet footprints on the blue-and-yellow diamond-shaped floor tiles.
The halls were quickly clearing, and I had to get back to my classroom. I bounded up the three flights of stairs, which made my calves feel like they were going to explode. I pushed open our classroom door and hurried into the room breathlessly.
My teacher, Steve, was standing in the middle of the room playing his ukulele. Steve was wearing his usual outfit: a brown-and-green plaid shirt that went down to his upper thighs with a white T-shirt underneath. He had beige pants with brown buttons for the pockets. He also wore brown Keen sandals with socks underneath, which I thought was slightly strange. He had a faded, light brown beard that was peppered with white. Steve wore glasses, and I thought he was in his late sixties.
What I saw in the classroom surprised me. After recess, we usually had to work on our spelling words. But instead of kids working on spelling, I saw my classmates in a circle around Steve, who was playing his ukulele. I wondered what was going on, so I walked up to Steve. “Why aren’t we working on spelling?” I asked, trying to tease the worry out of my voice. Steve only shook his head.
I sat at my usual spot at the carpet and thrummed my fingers nervously. When everyone was gathered in front of him, Steve told us that he was going to talk about something serious. Whispers broke out in the classroom. I thought about all the horrible things that could have happened. Did someone’s parent die? Did another school burn down? I considered the ideas in my head but knew they were not reasonable. I looked around at my classmates. Some had knitted eyebrows, and some had wrinkled foreheads. Others were staring blankly or whispering. I was worried.
Steve started talking about retirement while still strumming his ukulele. I started to feel impatient. Why couldn’t he just tell us what he wanted to tell us and get it over with? I felt my stomach tighten like a squeezed lemon. I looked at Steve, and he was smiling. But underneath that smile was a look of sadness. Uh oh. I think I knew what was going to happen. Finally Steve said the words that would make me cry for an hour. I wished that these words were never in the English language. But they were. “I’m going to retire,” Steve said.
Some people think that words aren’t powerful. They are.
I felt as if I was struck by lightning. I felt as if I was buried in a pile of cement. I felt crushed. Lincoln School had mixed grades. Steve’s class was made up of second- and third-graders. I was in second grade. “Lucky me,” I thought sarcastically.
I was looking forward to third grade for so long. A few minutes ago I could picture myself as a third-grader walking into Steve’s class and saying hi to my friends, learning how to knit a scarf for my mother, and running in the playing field to the fence and back during recess. Now all I could picture for third grade was walking into an unfamiliar classroom feeling sweaty and awkward. Steve started to talk again, his voice sounding warm, yet tired. “I’ve been teaching for over thirty years and I’m sad that I’m going to retire,” he began. “But I wanted you to know that I love this school, I love my job, and I love this class.”
I felt as if I was falling. Falling into darkness and cold. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know what to say. All I could do was fall down, down, down. I heard a stifled sob from one my classmates. I felt like I was going to cry too. I looked up at the ceiling to keep my tears from falling. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, I was not going to cry at school. But my tears rolled heavily down my face, and I hid my face in my hands and swatted at my black hair that was plastered to my face and in my eyes. I looked up at some boys pretending to shoot each other. I stared numbly at them. How could they be so blind? One of the greatest teachers I had ever known was retiring.
When my father picked me up after school he said it was like a funeral in our classroom. To tell the truth, it was. Tears were dripping down pale cheeks, and eyes were shining with moisture. A boy in my class named Evan was predicting how many tissues we would use up. The result would have been interesting.
I walked home with my dad and sister in the rain, and everything was a blur of watercolor. Colors melted into drips until they all turned into blues and greens. My tears and rain made the world dissolve before my eyes. The words “no more” were stuck in my head and chanted there like an eerie mantra. All I could feel and all I could see was rain, rain, rain.
* * *
I woke up the next morning feeling awful. My head was a mixture of fuzziness, my throat was throbbing, and my nose was as stuffed up as my mom’s cotton balls that she used to clean her face. I went over what happened yesterday. I swore inwardly. Steve said he was retiring at the end of the school year. Just the thought made me want to cry all over again, and for a few minutes, I did.
I thought about Steve some more and then decided that I did not want to go to school. Why should I? I was feeling awful, and I felt like I needed some rest. I went to find my mom to see if she would approve.
I found her in her bathroom, curling her hair with the black curling iron. The lights on the ceiling were sickeningly bright, and I winced. “Mama,” I asked, “can I stay home from school?”
My mother looked at me hard. “Why?”
“My throat hurts, my nose is stuffed, and I have a headache.”
“That sounds like a cold.”
“Isabella,” she turned and faced me, “you don’t have to stay home from school for a cold.”
I sighed and slunk out of my mother’s bathroom like a cat that had been defeated in a fight. Why couldn’t I stay home? Why couldn’t my mom see that I was sick? Why did my teacher have to retire? Why couldn’t it be some other teacher? Why couldn’t some wizard wave his wand to make Steve teach one more year? Questions buzzed in my head like killer bees.
The whole morning I pretended I felt fine. I did and said regular things. I turned in homework, doodled on my math sheet, and listened to Steve talk about the elderly seniors who were visiting us that day. But inside me felt like the opposite of normal. I felt tired, cranky, hot, and sick. I asked to lie down.
Steve told me I could lie down in the closet/coatroom where a pile of pillows lay. I sat there for about half an hour and finally decided to go to the nurse’s office. I asked Steve and he said yes.
Inside the nurse’s office was horribly white, and I felt like a moth trapped in a lamp shade. Colors and dots danced before my eyes in a blurry spectrum. I cried softly in frustration of the mess I was in. I looked like I had just taken a redeye flight. I didn’t have any kind of fever or flu but I asked to go home anyway. As I walked home from school, birds twittered, flowers bloomed, and the sun came out from behind the clouds. Everything seemed like some ending to a cheesy movie, where the heroine realized she was going to be all right. This isn’t Hollywood,
I thought to myself. But the thought lingered. Maybe, just maybe, I was going to be OK.
* * *
The last day of school was warm and sunny. The Wednesday Steve announced his retirement felt like a bad dream. It had stayed in my memory, clear as crystal, but in the end, I got through it.
I had about an hour left of second grade, and I knew it was going to be wonderful. Steve read the class a story, my classmates and I told each other compliments, and we sang songs. Finally, Steve called each of us up and told us what “gifts” we had. When it was my turn, he said, “You’re very kind to other children and I loved having you in my class. One day I’ll walk into a bookstore and see a book written by you.”
I looked into his deep brown eyes and smiled. “I promise you will.”