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There But Not Back Again

Updated: May 12

In a classroom on the ground floor of Newman Elementary there worked a special education teacher. Not a classroom with windows overlooking a grassy playground, nor with attractively painted walls: still, it was her first and very own classroom, and that meant comfort.

It began innocuously enough with a March 2019 email from my district’s special education director: “ Hi Amy, I am wondering when you are available for me to take about 20 minutes of your time? I want to share some important information with you about next year.”

I was a bit apprehensive but not overly concerned: her announcement the next day completely blindsided me. The self-contained programs at Newman and Riley Elementary were being dissolved and combined into one program housed at Parkview Elementary.

First question: Do I still have a job? Yes. Next question: Do I get to keep my kids and best friend (4-6 grade teacher) Carolin Quist? Yes. Final question: My staff? Yes.

At first, this was enough. The summons to adventure seemed rife with possibility. Greater inclusion opportunities for my students would lead to better life outcomes. I’d get to keep the core group of people I cared about the most. I’d mainly be saying goodbye to a place.

Rewind Five Years

I started my teaching career at Newman Elementary in August 2014. I’d interviewed for the job four months earlier and had received an offer the same day. I accepted. Mulling the school’s name over and over, it became a prayer: Newman. I wanted to be a “new creation in Christ Jesus,” an example of his love to my future students. I used the electricity plant two blocks south of my school not only as a landmark to indicate where to turn right but also as a reminder of how Temple Grandin visualized God’s “power and glory” when reading the Lord’s prayer as a child.

Reality zapped hard.

Sacred Space

Teaching early elementary (K-3) students with significant cognitive disabilities might have been my dream job, but my classroom was decidedly not my dream room. The only “window” I had looked into a hall, and there were five unique exits (read “escape routes”) for my students. The room looked exhausted and impersonal, the grayish-green walls dented and chipped. Everything was haphazard and chaotic. I spent four days a week--six to seven hours a day--of my first summer “break” decluttering everything from a half-eaten apple rotting in a filing cabinet to portions of the former teacher’s wardrobe. Through this time-intensive process the space became a second home.

Despite my initial reservations, Room 172 is a repository of some of my most vivid memories, signposting my teaching journey thus far.

Me, sitting on the carpet after my first full day teaching and sobbing to my new bestie, Quist, that I wasn’t sure I could do this job.

Dressing up with Quist as Thing 1 (me) and Thing 2 (her) for our first Halloween together.

Chatting about students and our lives while sitting on the counter and tabletops, cheekily acknowledging our poor after-hours behavior modeling.

Granny and Grampsy touring my room. Granny watching me teach. She’d dreamed of being a teacher herself. I was completing that vision.

Granny dying in January 2015. Returning to my classroom, a fixed point, after a week of bereavement leave even as I packed up my personal life to immediately move in with Gramps.

I’ve spent the last five years of my life refining my practice and redefining those my four walls. I’ve put up a 77-picture CORE board, a customized PECS word wall, and a weather behavior clip chart. With the help of my dedicated staff, I mounted two large Zones of Regulation reference charts I created-- emotions Velcroed on for easy removal when a kid needs some quick redirection on the best way to return to “green.”

I’ve come to terms with the door situation, barricading three and affectionately naming the two remaining exits as the “Cat in the Hat Door” and the “Green Eggs and Ham Door.” I also hung a meme of Gandalf declaring “You shall not pass” by the Green Eggs door, so my students know the spot their line should begin if they want to avoid being hit when we open the door. Each time I see it, I’m reminded of my first paraprofessional, a devoted Lord of the Rings fan. This same person comforted me during my grief at Granny’s death before exiting my classroom on her way to earn her own Masters of Arts in teaching degree. Four years later she opened the door to my actual house and become my roommate following Grampsy’s death.

When Gandalf Writes a New Label on Your Door

Bilbo Baggins lives a solid, respectable, and predictable life in the Shire. He is comfortable in his familiar routines and does not appreciate the disruption the dwarves’ arrival brings. Bilbo would never identify himself as a burglar, and he doesn’t even realize this new identity has been scrawled on his newly painted door. Gandalf doesn’t inform him in advance of the summons to a new life. The dwarves steady onslaught to afternoon tea provide the first clue that his well-ordered life is getting some well-overdue disruption.

What do fictitious hobbits have to do with my life? A lot.

There, But Not Back Again

Effective stories have a clear antagonist. The good versus evil battle in Middle Earth has grossed billions over six movies and sparked George R. R. Martin’s lucrative series Game of Thrones . Yes, sometimes the antagonist isn’t Sauron, Cercei, or Smog. It’s internal. It’s inside. It’s me.

The early March 2019 pronouncement of “important information” has had profound and unsettling ramifications on how I perceive my identity as a teacher.

I like trendy words: Pivot. Nimble. Best practice. Inclusion.

I like the reality of change much less.

Processing emotions with my counselor helps. She recently told me, “You feel like you are emptying yourself of all your blessings.”

I do. I easily slip into rigid thinking and am not above endlessly perseverating. Year five, and I’d finally hit my stride. Now I was being told I’d need to alter my path to Parkview with a future as clear as Murkwood.

Volta

Bilbo makes it there and back again. His quest to the Lonely Mountain provides him a new cadre of friends. His one-year journey provides life-long fodder for reflection and tale-making. He takes note--and scrawls lots of notes. He becomes a “different person...much fiercer and bolder” despite dangers and discomforts that would have initially disquieted him. He learns to reframe his identity: “I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I as chosen for the lucky number...I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles.” Bilbo goes, changes, returns.

My quest to Parkview doesn’t have an exit strategy: it’s an entrance only, the kind of interlocking metal gate that only allow travelers to go one way. I am turning--at first against my will--to something new. The Baggins in me craves stability while the Tookish side is starting to embrace this unforeseen volta. I am boxing up my possessions in cardboard apple cases (repurposed from the cafeteria), so I can cart my belongings 20 blocks south and two blocks east--straight on to a new morning.

In a classroom on the ground floor of Parkview Elementary there will soon work another special education teacher. Not a classroom devoid of natural light but rather with three windows overlooking a grassy knoll: it was her second classroom, and that meant growth.