I’d arrived just twenty four hours earlier to spend a few days with my mom at our family’s beach cottage. It was raining now. We’d planned to drive to a neighboring town to do errands but the steady downpour deterred us. Somehow getting in and out of the car repeatedly held little appeal for either of us. We hoped to take the dog for a walk, but the wind was blowing the rain enough so that an umbrella would be useless, and getting wet in a cold wind didn’t sound too fun. I considered a nap, but I’d slept in that morning and didn’t really need one. I picked up my knitting, only to discover that one of the needle tips had somehow broken. So much for finishing the blanket. That would have to wait until I got a new needle. My book wasn’t really holding my attention either.
And then the phone rang. It was Melanie. We’d made tentative plans to see each other while I was visiting my mom. “How about Garth and I drive your way for dinner tonight with you and your mom?”
“That could work,” I said. “Let me check with her.” (She’s 82 and she really likes Melanie, but I didn’t want to assume she would be up for a last minute dinner out.) “You call the restaurant, and I will talk to my mom.” (I suggested a place part way between our locations, so that nobody would have to drive the full hour.) If you know Melanie, you know she gets things done. And within minutes we had a plan.
There aren’t too many things I’d rather do on a Friday night than catch up with a favorite friend and her awesome husband over a delicious meal at the end of a dreary day. And that is just what we did. We laughed and shared news, and listened to my mom tell stories. The rain didn’t get in our way at all.
So what am I celebrating, besides a fun evening with someone I enjoy? I’m celebrating my writing people. Without them, I would never have met Melanie. Without them, I would not have ended my dreary day on such a high. And without my writing people, I definitely would not have written about a last minute visit with a favorite friend.
Classes ended last week. Graduation happened Friday morning. We completed report cards over the weekend. Meetings and deadlines filled the last two days. Departing teachers packed up their belongings, and the rest of us straightened our rooms and tucked things away for next year. But this afternoon we put all of that end-of-year busyness on hold to gather as a group- all of us who teach preschool through twelfth grade, to honor and say goodbye to five long time colleagues.
Four are retiring. One is joining the faculty of an all boys boarding school not far from here. Between them, they have given over 100 years of their time and talent and love and expertise to our school. One happens to be my boss- the only person I’ve worked for since reentering the classroom 13 years ago. Another is an anchor and mentor for me. To say I’ve been dreading the goodbyes would be an understatement. It’s hard for me to imagine our school without them.
But today arrived. And the farewell celebration began. And before long so did the toasts and roasts. I dreaded those too. My tissues were ready in my bag. And, here’s the thing. They are still there. I didn’t need a one. The stories and jokes and memories shared prompted so much laughter. The tears that sprang from my eyes were happy tears. Happy for the hilarious moments retold. Happy for the community they helped build. Happy for what we’ve shared. Happy for their next chapters. And oh so grateful that the words spoken today inspired laughs and tears of joy. Laughter really is the best medicine.
At the end of our last reading and arts class of the school year, most fourth graders leave my room with a big grin, a few ideas about summer reads, and a healthy dose of impatience for school to end and vacation to begin.
Last Friday was not much different. We spent the hour making summer reading plan game boards, talking about books, and reflecting on the highs and lows of our year together. Class ended five minutes before the end of the school day, and almost everyone was excited about the three day weekend that was about to begin. As my students hurried out the classroom door and back upstairs to their homerooms to gather their belongings and head to dismissal, I picked up a few stray pencils and piled the floor pillows in the corner. I thought about how quickly this year had passed. I smiled, realizing that this year’s fourth graders were as ready as fourth graders always are to be done with lower school. They were itching for lockers and “break,” not “recess.” They were looking forward to middle school.
My thoughts returned to the present as I glanced at a pile of books that needed shelving. “They can wait, ” I may have said aloud. I turned around to see one boy still in the room, taking his time to tuck in his chair and gather his folder and reading response journal. I could tell he wasn’t lingering by accident.
“Everything okay, Burke?” I asked him. He looked up and smiled, walked over to me and said shyly, “Thank you for teaching me.” And then he leaned in and gave me the sweetest hug. A hug without even a hint of I’m-too-cool-for-hugs-because-I’m-about-to-be-a-middle-schooler. The kind of hug that eleven year old boys rarely give their teacher. And then he ducked out of the room.
“You’re welcome,” I called after him. “Thanks for the hug and the thank you.”
A smile, thanks and a hug. Hard to imagine anything better.
When I think about time and how I spend mine, I think about commitments, like teaching and meetings, and PD. I think about other necessities like grocery shopping, errands, and laundry. I think about the good-for-me stuff like exercise and sleep. And I think about other pursuits like writing, reading and knitting. I think about keeping up with family and friends, over meals or in phone calls and texts. I try to squeeze in as much as I can each week. Sometimes I look ahead on my calendar and think to myself that there is not much open time in the coming week. I worry I may not get it all done. I wish there were more hours in the day. I wonder if I’ve said yes to too many things.
Which leads me to my celebration this week. Last minute gatherings. The kind that you can’t seem to plan for months because schedules don’t line up and we are all too busy, busy, busy.
I enjoyed two last minute gatherings this week. My daughter Frances sent a text to her dear friend Jack, his mom and me late Monday afternoon asking if our families could meet for dinner that evening. Two hours later we gathered around a table at a restaurant in town and shared laughs and stories with our recently returned college children. It was perfect. As we all hugged goodbye, Jack’s mom said to me, “We could never have planned this.” And I replied, “I know. Last minute get-togethers are just the best.”
On Thursday morning my friend Heather asked me if I could walk with her after work. Heather and I live at opposite ends of a four mile long country road. We love to walk from one end to the halfway point and back. We haven’t seen each other in months. She’s been traveling and I’ve been busy. But Thursday afternoon happened to be wide open for both of us. We walked and talked for an hour, catching up about kids and life. When we finished we hugged and both commented how glad we were that a last minute plan to walk had worked for both of us.
This week I’m celebrating last minute gatherings. The love and laughter, the hugs and high fives, the talking and listening. The time. Just the best.
It’s getting a little crazy around here. 10 more days of classes until summer break. The children are getting restless. The teachers are looking weary. The weather is just beginning to improve, but we’ve had a lot of cold and rain and that hasn’t helped anybody. Lots of lasts happening every day. Yesterday we had our last fire drill. Today my third grade readers started their last book.
Everyone is feeling the rush- so much to do and not so much time.
The little things help.
Today, our wonderful art teacher wandered around with a bag full of freshly cut tiny rosebuds from a bush in her garden. She walked into classrooms, popped into meetings, and ventured out to the playground and without a word handed a flower to every teacher she saw. They are small and beautiful. And they smell like heaven. They smell like beautiful soap. They smell like peace and calm and summer. She does this every year around this time, just as crazy is taking over. And we keep our rosebuds close and smell them. I waved mine just in front of each of my third grader’s noses as they walked into my classroom. And every one of them broke into a smile. I could almost see their shoulders relax and their brains reset.
I wish I could share it with you too.
It’s the little things that sometimes make a great big difference.
One of the things I love about growing older is gaining perspective and maybe even a little wisdom. My definition of celebration has shifted as I’ve lived and learned. More often than not, it’s about the small moments. It usually involves pausing and noticing and breathing in and exhaling. Some celebrations are as simple as sitting still and smiling.
As the school year winds down for me and my students (and my college age daughters), our days are full of celebratory moments. A raised score on an end-of-year assessment, a recognition of growth as a reader, a look back through the writer’s notebook, a look ahead at summer plans. The last page of the class read-aloud. The last spell check. It’s bittersweet, but they are ready. I am too.
My oldest comes home from college today. She isn’t just starting her summer, she is beginning a whole new chapter as she leaves the university she’s attended for the last two years and begins her studies at her dream school, which happens to be only about five miles from home. What I love and celebrate most is not that she got into such a competitive school, but that she took charge of her life and learning. That she decided what she wanted and needed and went for it. That she took time to examine where she was in her journey and where she wanted to go next and she figured out how to do that best. Today, in the midst of many small celebrations happening all around me, I’m celebrating Frances who is “braver than (she) believes, stronger than (she) seems and smarter than (she) thinks.”
“Do you want some help cooking?” Julia called from the sofa. Music to my ears. As usual I was not very organized. As usual, I was trying new recipes. As usual I’d left WAY too much to the last day.
“I’d love that,” I replied. A moment later Julia, who just might be my favorite of Claire’s friends, and Claire joined me in the kitchen. I looked around trying to decide what needed doing first. Why, I wondered, had I left the work of pulling together Easter lunch for ten until the day before? Why, I wondered, did I always leave holiday cooking until the last minute? The big bag of potatoes seemed like a good place to start.
The girls agreed to wash, peel and slice the potatoes for the gratin. Julia stood at the sink scrubbing each one before taking the skins off. Claire worked at the counter slicing and dropping the rounds into a bowl of cold water. I continued slicing the rhubarb for the cake. Claire turned on some music and the three of us chatted about nothing important.
I mixed the batter for the cake, and spread it over the rhubarb-sugar-lemon juice mixture I’d already put in the pan. Once I’d gotten the cake in the oven, I turned my attention to the asparagus. Julia searched on Google for tips about shocking asparagus to keep them green and crisp after cooking. Claire gathered ingredients for cookies and the girls made the dough. The three of us moved from counter to sink to stove, stepping around one another and over the cat who’d wandered into the kitchen to see if it was her suppertime. The music played on.
Within an hour we’d made a lot of progress and a big mess. Julia took over dishwashing and Claire found a towel for drying. The preparation for Easter lunch was under control, thanks to two college girls who came to my rescue. Perhaps last minute and disorganized was the way to go.
As I picked up my copy of the picture book Flight to continue reading it to my third grade readers, Alex called out, “Ms. Keeler, Ms Keeler. Wait. I have something to say.”
“Yes, Alex?” I asked, putting the book in my lap.
“My great-grandfather was one of the people who helped pay for the plane.” Alex announced.
“Charles Lindbergh’s plane? The Spirit of St. Louis?” I responded.
“Yes. And he took a picture and we have it and I forgot to bring it in today.”
“He took a picture of the plane?”
“Uh huh. He was there. He was there when the plane took off.”
“Wow,” I thought. I had all kinds of questions and so did his classmates. I’m often surprised by Alex but this may have been the biggest surprise all year. Clearly he’d gone home and talked about the book we were reading together. I loved that. And lo and behold he came back with an amazing story about our story.
It’s nothing that can’t be cured by rest, fluids and medication. But, it’s been a while since I spent almost the entire day in bed. I’ve just relocated to the sofa because it seemed like maybe I should have a change of scene or elevation or something. I’d forgotten that when you don’t feel well it is actually possible to spend most of the day sleeping. The only thing I accomplished was boiling water to make tea. Slug is the word that comes to mind. It was a sluggish day for me. My old cat Lucy was in heaven. She had a napping buddy all day long. Now that I’ve come downstairs, I’m wondering what I missed today, what I need to catch up on tomorrow, and how on earth I will sleep tonight. Okay, that last part… I’m not really worried about that. The challenge will probably be staying awake long enough to catch up on emails and school work.
I had a spare hour earlier today and decided to spend it sorting and shelving books in our school book room. It was all going well, and I was making an impressive dent in the enormous pile- finding tubs, figuring out levels, checking the master list, separating the independent books from those that were part of sets- until I came across several books from the Little Bear series.
I stopped and sat down on the tile floor of the book room and started reading. Memories flooded my brain. Those books, by Else Holmelund Minarik, perhaps more than any others, take me back 18 years to when my girls were small. They loved Little Bear. We read the books constantly. They passed along kisses just like Little Bear. They pretended to snack on bread and jam just like Little Bear. They said “I’m not tired.” just like Little Bear. They tried to help with chores just like Little Bear. They convinced their father to flip pancakes in the air just like Little Bear’s father. They couldn’t wait to read the books again and again.
And then we discovered the videos. Lots and lots of Little Bear stories to watch. Again and again. Sometimes we’d watch together, snuggled on the sofa in our family room. Sometimes the girls would climb up onto a chair and watch by themselves while I fixed dinner or folded laundry nearby.
For a few minutes, when I should have been shelving books in the book room, I was sitting on the tile floor reading, remembering, smiling, reliving, all at once.