I’m northbound on the 405 heading up into the Sepulveda pass, and I am screaming. The wind matches my howling through the open window of my tiny compact car. It is the moment, the pause in the universe, when I feel my life change. A single instant, and nothing is ever the same again. Such a moment of singular transfiguration, and I know I will never experience anything like it again. On the passenger seat next to me are a stack of textbooks: social studies, English, math, religion, spelling, literature, science.
I am a teacher.
I am a teacher.
The sky is the most amazing shade of blue on an early summer afternoon. There it is: St. Joan of Arc School. The iron letters line the concrete apron over the double doors. The playground, a kindergarten building—that’s new—the church hall, the asphalt parking lot, the old convent building. I walk up Gateway Boulevard to the doors and peer through the dusty glass. My old classroom to the left, the school office door on the right, but something is missing. No bulletin boards, doorways stand open, a ladder parked under an open light fixture. This is an empty place. Too quiet and dusty. I realize that the school is closed. It stands abandoned. Schools should not be so silent. They should be filled with young kids hustling to class, calling out to one another. Not today. St. Joan of Arc has no students, no teachers, no life. The building sits waiting.
I dial the phone number for the school the next day and get the disconnected-and-no-longer-in-service recording. I hang up and dial the church office.
“The school is closed,” a woman’s voice tells me.
“How long ago?” I ask.
The call comes one morning as I am shaving. I hear the machine click on: “This is Sister Caroline from St. Joan of Arc School. I would like to speak to you about your resume. Can you please call me back?”
I am shaking as I dial the number on the pay phone at work. “This is Paul Martin. I am returning your call.”
So I leave my apartment at five o’clock for a 7:30 appointment on a late summer’s evening. I sit in the car sweating, waiting for the clock to hit the appointed time. My faded corduroy pants are my best; my shirt is wrinkled, and I screwed up the knot on my one and only tie. My clothes do not fit properly. I remember how my Catholic school teachers dressed; I do not look the part.
Sister Doris answers the convent door. She smiles at me; she is polite, but cautious. “Sister Caroline is over at the school,” she says, gesturing toward the building a few doors down. “Just knock.”
Just knock on the door of the rest of your life.
Sister Caroline and I sit on opposite sides of her desk, talking about my history. I am so nervous I can barely control my hands. “You will teach all the subjects…sixth grade…thirty students.” I am trying very hard to listen, to think of questions. “Here is your contract,” she says.
I look at the legal jargon—words, words, words—and then the bottom line. “This contract begins August 31, 1987 and concludes on June, 30, 1988. The teacher will be paid the sum of $15,500 in ten monthly installments commencing on September 30, 1987 and concluding on June 30, 1988, with each installment paid on the last working day of the month.”
Fifteen thousand dollars is double my security guard salary. I feel there must be some mistake. I did not want to tell Sister Caroline that I would gladly do the job for free.
We go upstairs to the sixth grade classroom. The room smells of pencils and paper, old books, school supplies. The bulletin boards are blank, waiting for my inspiration. The chalkboard has been cleaned for the summer. In one corner is my wooden teacher’s desk. Thirty student desks sit in rows. My classroom.
Sister Caroline helps me carry the books to my car. “Welcome aboard,” she says, shaking my hand. “Now all I have to do is hire a first grade teacher.”
Inspiration strikes me like a fist. “I maybe able to help you out with that,” I say. My wife has never expressed an interest in teaching, but before I realize what I am doing, I offer her name and sketch out her work history.
“Have her call me tomorrow,” Sister Caroline says.
We both end up at St. Joan of Arc School.
And Sister Doris who answered the convent door? She becomes our mentor teacher. This tiny nun with a quick sense of humor and an iron will teaches us everything we know about teaching. We use her lessons, her attitude, her techniques to this day. I sit in my classroom and Google her name only to find her obituary.
“Sr. Doris Marie was a person small of stature but large of heart. Her personal charisma and authority could easily control a classroom or an entire student body. No one had to wonder where she stood on an issue or what she did or did not want to do. But, under her ‘in charge’ exterior was a gentle, compassionate woman…Besides her love for her students, Sr. Doris Marie was a faithful friend and confidant to young sisters and lay teachers whom she mentored…In her last moments she was surrounded by the loving presence of her sisters as she slipped peacefully into eternity.”
Sister Doris has been gone seven years now.
Sister Caroline, the first principal I ever worked for, had a stroke during my second year at the school.
St. Joan of Arc School is gone. No more first days of class on a crisp, fall day, no recess, no classes, no bells.
I exist here in the present while I watch the past slip away. It is a habit of we who are middle aged to reflect upon what has come before, how we came to be where we are, and the mistakes we made along the way. When I look around me, I see people who lack the values, the foundation, the ethical grounding of those who taught me to be a teacher. There are no more like Sister Doris.
I am a teacher because I believe in the power of education to change a person. I am a teacher because I dream of a better world, and I cannot think of another profession that does more to shape the world of which I dream. Most of all, I believe that we are all on a journey from darkness into light and that I am charged with helping my students find that light. But I also know that our fate is to slip away back into darkness when our journey is over.
I began my teaching career at a school named after a French woman who heard voices, and came to call them her counsel. She told the judge at her trial that they were saints, and that she saw them as plainly as she saw the judge. She fought for her country, for what she believed was right, and in the end, she was put to death for her beliefs. Her ashes were scattered on the river Seine. She was canonized a Catholic saint by another Pope Benedict in 1920. St. Joan of Arc School opened its doors in 1947. Those doors closed in 2009.
These days, her school echoes with the ghosts of long gone students and teachers. I hope the school will one day rise from the ashes like a phoenix. I would like to be there to see that. In that way, the voices would be real, and St. Joan of Arc would be right again.