(this is a continuation of this post)
I remember a few occasions when my body made a declaration, when it elucidated something as clearly as if it had spoken in a clear and urgent voice.
When I started teaching, I was young. Not age-wise since I was almost thirty by then, but in all other senses of the word; young as in optimistic, vigorous, lively, inexperienced, and naive. I had stamina. You have to be young to choose a career teaching high school English and, like most young people, I truly believed I could do a good job and make a difference. Student-teaching at Boston English, a couple years in Santa Cruz, California, and then eight years at the local public school in Berkeley, I always did the best I could, even when I had multiple new preps and had to invent everything from scratch the night before, even when I had more than 45 students enrolled in one class crammed with 37 desks or when the book room burned down and was never replaced so I had to pay for my own photocopies of books or beg my students’ parents for donations to buy class sets of the required reading. If I assigned only one essay per month in all five of my classes it would take an additional 50 hours per month to read those essays and make thoughtful and (negligibly) useful comments, even though I saw so many principals come and go I lost count (were there six or seven? I can’t even remember their names.), I still thought that someday I could get it right.
The year I was pregnant with my first child there was a rash of arsons on campus. For months, classes were interrupted by fire alarms at least once a day. We’d have to evacuate the building and take our students to a park off campus while the fire fighters extinguished a garbage can in a bathroom or a book room or simply verified a false alarm. The whole school was permanently infused with the odor of burnt plastic, a smell that clung to my hair and my clothing, a noxious fume my body still vividly remembers if I close my eyes. This was before they took away the teachers’ lounge so every day, my peers and I would tote our tupperwared leftovers to the lunch table where we’d huddle together telling jokes and tittering nervously. When the arsonist succeeded in burning down the B Building it came as a relief– we could finally teach without interruption.
When I wanted to cry, when the problems were so huge and impossible and ludicrous I couldn’t contain them, I’d go talk to my friend Susan, a fellow English teacher. Susan had been at Berkeley High for years and had the uncanny ability to solve any problem thrown at her. She’d look at my face, chuckle knowingly, throw an arm around my shoulders, and make some gentle suggestion I hadn’t considered. “Choose poems that are in the public domain. That way your students can read them online,” she’d tell me. “You can’t read every essay. It’s humanly impossible. This time, surprise them by giving an A to every paper that’s turned on time.” “Take a long bath tonight, girl, because that’s all you can do.”
Years after the fire, after various students were caught carrying guns and my AP English students wouldn’t do the assigned reading, years of carrying my boxes and bins from one shared classroom to another, I was sitting in a café on Shattuck Avenue before school. This was back when I drank coffee, when I needed caffeine like a junkie needs a fix, needed it to trick my body into going where it didn’t want to go. It was a rainy day and I sat perched on a stool facing the window watching pedestrians whose umbrellas blinded them to puddles, watching buses disgorge and swallow up their passengers ad nauseum and a homeless woman struggle to keep the contents of her holey garbage bag safe from the rain. I tilted my head back to drain the cup and when I felt the grinds between my teeth I knew, I understood in a searing, indisputable flash that penetrated the marrow of my bones, that if I didn’t quit my job immediately I’d die of cancer.
Who knows if my body was right. Who knows if it was truth or just some delirious paranoia worming its way into my brain. Perhaps it was the result of some lasting neurological damage from smoke inhalation or banging my head against walls. But a year after I quit my job, Susan, my good friend, one of the most dedicated, thoughtful, and overworked teachers I ever knew, the woman whose deepest desire was to stay home with her young daughter, died of cancer.
And when she died, I cried as if I was crying for myself.