Can retired surgeons bury memories of the hours they spent in the O.R.? Can retired trial lawyers suppress their urge to mentally construct a defense or prosecution strategy when they read an account of a crime? Do writers ever cease imagining new characters and plots?
I doubt they can because it’s mighty difficult to walk away and never look back at a career that spanned more than thirty years.
I’ve heard you can take a teacher out of the classroom but you can’t take the classroom out of the teacher. That seems to be true for me. The skills, relationships, and strategies I honed remain etched in my subconscious. The memories, both good and bad, seem to be woven into the strands of my DNA.
Two Sundays ago, I heard the concern riding on the edge of my spouse’s voice as she approached and held out a section of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“Look at this,” Viv said.
I glanced at the page’s headline and then at two photos posted beneath it.
A former colleague’s image stared back at me. Had her name not been written under each photo, I would not have known who she was. How was it possible that I’d failed to recognize this person with whom I’d worked for so many years? How unfair it was that this perpetually physically fit former Physical Education teacher and Dean of Students, was now shrouded in dementia?
I read about M.’s current struggles and about her daughter’s sad challenges as she took charge of her mother’s care. Having steered my own mother into a wonderful CCRC five years ago, and having witnessed her decline and death after suffering a tsunami-like stroke, I related to M.’s daughter’s anguish.
As that Sunday wore on, I found myself skimming through the Rolodex of memories of my first two decades in the classroom. I remembered the ever-shifting emotions I’d experienced during the ups and downs of my teaching career. One profoundly low day involved M., the now unrecognizable person in the newspaper photos. That one incident from so long ago left a wound so deep that that the very memory of it seeped into a few pages of my first two novels, “Leave of Absence” and “Breaking Jaie.”
I was walking down the steps, headed to the faculty lunchroom. I noticed the clump of students gathered in the broad landing near the stairway was larger and louder than usual. Suddenly I felt something cold and wet splash against my right leg.
A crescendo of screams arced through the air and the mass of students’ bodies grew thicker by the second. Whoops of excited delight muffled the static of a security person’s walkie-talkie, as the crowd shifted to the left and then to the right, like a swarm of starlings caught in the quickly shifting air currents.
Suddenly I saw the source of the mob’s excitement.
M., her back against the floor, had her arms crossed over her chest. Soundlessly she tried to defend herself from the student sitting astride her.
With machine-like speed and force the girl powered her fists into M.’s upper torso and face.
Galvanized, I watched as adult arms reached through the chaos and pulled the student from atop M. I saw the uniformed security officer propel the girl along the phalanx of cheers and fist pumps. She walked away, leaving shrieks of profanity and death threats in her wake.
The students/starlings who remained staged instant replays of the violence they’d just witnessed.
As a Non-Teaching Assistant attempted to usher the hangers-on away from the scene, she spotted M.’s twisted, broken eyeglasses abandoned against a wall. and She retrieved them.
I forgot about lunch and returned to my empty classroom.
That evening I tried to reconstruct what I wished had been only a nightmare. I remembered feeling a cold liquid course down my leg and into my shoe. I looked down and discovered the dried remains of orange soda, the orange soda M. tried to remove from the grip of the student who assaulted her. I replayed the beating M. had endured, and I cried. For the first time in my teaching career I questioned whether I belonged in the classroom.
In the here and now, it’s unlikely M. remembers that incident. If there’s an upside to dementia, losing the memory of a horrible event must be it.
I remained in the classroom for eighteen more years, long enough to experience many of the upsides of teaching and the moments when you learn about a student’s successful ventures.
The same Sunday that I read about M., I read an interview in the Philadelphia Gay News, “Philly Actress Brings the ‘Thunder’ to ‘Black Lightning.’”
This time I did recognize the person in the photos.
Nafessa Williams,a former student, is in the midst of a successful acting career. She’s one of the protagonists in the CW network’s series “Black Lightning.” Nafessa plays the role of Anissa/Thunder, television’s first black lesbian superhero. A self-described anti-bullying activist and straight ally of the LGBTQ community, she described her experiences at ClexaCon 2018. A young woman approached her and tearfully thanked her for her portrayal of Anissa/Thunder.
“…after seeing Thunder, I feel normal for being a lesbian now,” she said.
I thank Nafessa also because she is one of many students who validated my career choice. If the trauma of having witnessed a co-worker’s beating had persuaded me to abandon the possibility of working with kids who wanted to learn, students who stood up to violence and adversities every day of their young lives, I would not have given myself the gift of knowing so many young people who have found success and fulfillment as adults.
One more thought…Doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers etc. have the option to retire. I’ll go out on a limb and say writers do not have this option. I suspect that as long as we can think, we’ll write. Right?
Renée Bess is the author of five novels and with Lee Lynch, the co-story collector of OUR HAPPY HOURS, LGBT VOICES FROM THE GAY BARS, winner of the 2018 GCLS Best Anthology Award. She is one of four writers who have won the 2019 Alice B. Readers Award. You can read her blog posts here, at Women and Words the fourth Thursday of each month.