Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Last Days of Summer

“August, die she must.”  Paul Simon

It is night and quiet. Stone and I walk the streets of my neighborhood. Frequently, he pauses to sniff the air and stare off down the darkened streets while I contemplate the stars and think about the end of summer. It all went so fast.

This has been an unpleasant summer for Stone. We have had nothing but trouble from Stone’s stomach. Evidently, he has irritable bowel syndrome, and has suffered through several bouts of extremely painful digestive problems. At one point, he was on antibiotics and other drugs, as well as a bland diet of boiled chicken and rice. When he recovered enough to return to regular dog food, we had to change to a brand free from grain and other additives.

In the months we have had him, the dog has been nothing but polite and loveable, a true gentleman. I hate to see him in pain. He stares at his stomach like he cannot figure out why it hurts so much. Walking seems to ease the discomfort, so we are walking. Other than a distant drone of a police helicopter, the night is calm. Tomorrow, it all begins again, the real new year. My stomach leaps with anxiety. Stone is not alone in his discomfort.

9:00 AM. All the department chairs, counselors and administrators gather in the lecture room. We call this group the Academic Council. We are supposed to decide the academic direction of the school and solve any problems that occur in the area of curriculum and study.

This year, the focus is on goals and objectives, and as we break these down and discuss them, the thrust becomes clear. We must raise the academic level of our school. We lost a large number of students due to the bad economy and competition from other private schools. So we must raise our standards, demand more of our students, and offer more programs and enrichment to remain competitive.

After the meeting, I try to set up my room. Interruptions are numerous: there are problems with class lists, new students who want to be in honors and Advanced Placement courses, and teachers who have needs and questions. Finally, I am able to sort and arrange the books on my shelves. I have brought in a crate of new books and magazines to share with students.

By the end of the day, my classroom is set up. Only a few more posters need hanging, and then I will be ready. My hands hurt from pushing thumbtacks into walls and handling files with razor sharp edges—who ever thought paper cuts could be so painful. Tomorrow is another day of meetings and work without students, although the kids are all over campus. They stop in to say hello while picking out their lockers, buying books, and taking care of business in the office.

Once back at home, I turn on my computer and continue revising my syllabi and course outlines. Before I know it, the clock strikes 1:00 AM. I am not tired and continue working. I finally go to bed at 3:30. My mind races and I cannot sleep.

Stone scratches the edge of the bed at 5:45 AM. One of the side effects of his IBS is that he is sometimes ravenously hungry. The food goes right through him. I take him out into the warm humidity and walk up and down the street. I can actually read the look on his face: this urination is a formality. He wants to eat. I feed him and take him back inside. He goes back to sleep while I make coffee and read the newspapers.

9:00 AM again. The English teachers gather in my classroom. I had worked out everything I would say in the shower last night and again this morning, but when I open my mouth, the words come out mushy and disorganized. My colleagues stare at me as if I’ve had a stroke. About forty minutes into the meeting, I find my sea legs and things begin to pick up. We talk about the changes, we talk about goals.

The principal and I had an intense discussion at the end of last year. He wanted the English and math departments to team teach an SAT preparation elective. We have been down this road before and it did not work. I argued with him that SAT material is included in all our textbooks. He wants us to use one of the test preparation workbooks and drill on the test skills only. I respond by telling him we should not be teaching to a test; the skills required for the SAT are not the only abilities our students need to succeed in college and the workplace.

We compromise. I have two periods each day with eleventh grade students in English. During the second English period each day, we will drill skills for the SAT, the ACT (another entrance test), and the English AP exam. The math department will run the elective separately. So during the my department meeting, I set this up with the eleventh grade teachers. We discuss the book and a scope and sequence for the course.

In addition, I encourage all teachers to keep in mind that we are trying to raise the bar of academic excellence in the school, and that each teacher must do his or her part. I try to end on an upbeat note, and then we are off to the full faculty meeting where teachers hear some of the same things all over again. It is rather mind-numbing.

By the time I arrive home, I am exhausted. And tomorrow, the students arrive. Where will I find the energy? I still have more work to do on my courses, summer reading tests to write, the list goes on and on. I also know that I will be too nervous to sleep tonight.

Even with the anxiety, this is my favorite time of year. I love going to the office supply store and buying school supplies. New pencils, pens, notebooks, folders—I love it all. I feel a rush of excitement when I smell new books.

I remember riding my bicycle to school, the fall air, the sharp smell of wood smoke from brush fires that always seemed to strike southern California in the fall.

I remember my Catholic school’s carnival that always came around in October. We got out early on Friday and had Monday off. We went every day, and my parents worked the booths. We rode the rides and ate cotton candy.

I remember the Friday night football games, playing in the marching band, feeling the first crisp breeze of autumn drifting over the field. We began the season in September, sweating and facing dehydration in our heavy uniforms. By November, we were cold in the stands, blowing on our hands to stay warm.

I remember my grandmother’s house after school. My mother would take us there and we would play football on the lawn and eat oatmeal cookies.

The daylight would fade early, slanting off to the west, filling the streets with gold-orange light. We would come home, change out of our uniforms, and run outside to play in the dying day. We would throw the football, race through the streets on our bikes, feel the season change. I can hear my mother’s voice, calling us home for dinner.

As a teacher, I always try to remember what it was like to be a child.

In my darker hours I remember the difficulties, the cruelties, the disappointments, the sudden realization that things are not always what they seem. And then in a hint from the night air, I will remember riding the Ferris wheel at the school carnival, and the time when I first held a girl’s hand. The fall of the year reminds me of these things.

The moon is bright as Stone and I walk the empty streets again. The air is hot and humid, more like summer than fall. Knowing California, we will probably have a heat wave in the middle of September, and records will shatter.

We walk the block listening to the traffic on the boulevard. I run through my list of things to do. My mind is racing, and I feel my chest tighten. I am still nervous about returning to the classroom, even after twenty-one years. I still have nightmares where the students will not listen, or my teeth have fallen out and I cannot speak, or that I have forgotten all my notes and plans at home.

Suddenly, the air changes. A breeze begins down the street. I can hear it coming through the trees, whispers of wind. A few leaves on the ground swirl and dance. I smell a hint of smoke. Autumn is coming, underneath the heat.

I tug on Stone’s collar and we head for home. It is time to get ready for tomorrow. Summer, like childhood, has slipped away, leaving us to anticipate what will come in the new school year.

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