It was a damp sort of day from beginning to end.
Even the grass was wet when I tiptoed through it in my turquoise flip-flops to start my morning commute. It was early -- although not as early as I'd planned on leaving, since I needed to stop at Wal-Mart to buy each child in my class something special for the last day of school. Bubbles for one. A fancy pen for another. For the child who wishes it could always be either November or February, a daily planner -- one she can crease open to her favorite months and make-believe to her heart's content, ten months out of the year. For the child who is happiest with the simple things in life, a coveted orange soda. For each child, I searched for some special little something so they would know how much I appreciate them.
Except it's hard to shop for a kid with autism who likes exactly two things in life: his squishy ball and his flip-flops -- and he owns both of those already.
One magnificent giant bubble wand and ten dollars later, I sped out of Wal-Mart now fifteen minutes behind schedule. Having stood in line behind an old man buying a rotisserie chicken (at 6:57 in the morning? Really?), I was starving and ripped open my Slim-Fast bar as I pulled onto the highway.
Slim-Fast bars make me thirsty. So I balanced my giant bottle of water between my thighs and began to work on unscrewing the lid one-handed.
Just as a car slammed on its brakes in front of me.
I slammed on my own brakes just as the lid came loose, and, lo and behold -- an eruption of ice-cold water. Right in my lap. If I were one of my students, I would have adjusted my schedule to include an extra bathroom break at the mere sight of me.
Of course, because it was the last student day and we would spend much of it stacking chairs and sweeping floors, I had dressed casually in a T-shirt and jeans. I couldn't find my belt this morning, and the denim, now heavy with water, sagged mercilessly. All I wanted was to stop somewhere and shake the spare water loose from my outfit, but I was mired in morning traffic and it took 15 minutes to find a place to stop. By then, my jeans were soaked through, all the way up to the back pockets and nearly down to my knees.
Now twenty minutes late, there was no time to give in to temptation and stop at Wal-Mart to buy dry pants. Instead, I rushed into the school building, carrying a half-empty water bottle and wearing the rest of it on my clothing. Luckily, one of my students who wasn't quite toilet-trained yet wore roughly the same size as me and kept spare pants at school. I wore his baggy blue shorts all morning while my sopping jeans were in the dryer.
"It's okay, Miss Dooley," one student commented when she noticed my ordeal. "Everybody has accidents sometimes."
Speechless, all I could do was shake my head and give her a hug.
Just after ten, one of my students was picked up early. The minute I said goodbye to him, I knew I was going to lose it at some point today. But I held it together, gave him his gift (a daily planner so he can keep track of the weather over the summer) and waved goodbye.
We didn't do much work today, opting to play Yahtzee and stack chairs and dust shelves in the classroom. The rest of the school was locked down silent, taking end-of-year exams, so we couldn't leave our classroom, but that was okay; we didn't want to. Although the children didn't know yet that I wouldn't be coming back next year, I think they could sense something was amiss. We all took the day slow, basking in each other's company for one last long high school day.
Just after two, another student was picked up early. I gave him his orange soda and sent him on his way.
On Fridays, we watch movies. Or I guess I should say, on Fridays, we used to watch movies. You know, back when I was a teacher. The students worked all week for the privilege and then they took turns bringing in films. Today was Wednesday, but it was the last day of school and the general consensus was that it was sort of like a Friday, so we watched Twilight, which one child had been begging for months to watch. Normally, I spend movie time at my desk, using it as my weekly planning time. But today, I sat with my kids to watch the movie. There was nothing left to plan.
At two forty-five, a third student was picked up early. He didn't like hugs and couldn't wait to get home and play with his new bubble wand. So he wouldn't say good-bye. My eyes were starting to water. I gave the remaining kids their presents, packed book bags, changed diapers, untied knots in shoelaces, brushed hair, found missing earrings, and tried to deny that the clock was carrying us all closer and closer to 3:01.
At 2:59, teachers got an e-mail saying school would not let out until 3:05 because of testing. Sweet reprieve, a whole four minutes.
But the bell's ring came anyway, and with it, a tide of parents and buses taking children away from me before I got to say a proper good-bye. Before I knew it, one student was out the door with her new poster, and another with her coloring book, and another with his Yahtzee game. This last, I followed down to make sure he got on the right bus, and we sat outside playing Yahtzee in the post-three-o'clock-on-Wednesday-June-10 chaos that was the end of the school year.
Three fives. He rolled again and got a fourth. Then again and got a fifth -- the first and only true "Yahtzee" of the whole school year.
"Rockin'!" he screeched, hands in the air.
There was something yellow in the distance. I tried to deny it till it pulled up and flashed its stop sign. No matter how hard I ignored the bus, it wouldn't go away.
And wouldn't you know it, this kid didn't like hugs, either.
Blurry-eyed, I somehow ended up back in my classroom, lost, looking around in bewilderment at the stacks of papers and supplies. Worksheets I ran off that we never got to finish. Craft supplies for a group time unit that never got taught. There were books with bookmarks in them, half-read, and someone left their cake on the table, half-eaten.
There was still a half-empty bottle of water on the table, too. But that wasn't the cause of the dampness in the room, not this time.
I dried my eyes when I heard the assistants coming. Things were always tense between me and my classroom assistants, and try though I did, again and again, I was never able to make things right. That's okay. Three more days of entering grades, boxing up materials, filing papers, and Clorox-wiping surfaces, and they can go back to plastering Easter crosses all over the classroom and requiring the kids to pray before meals. It won't be any of my business anymore.
Still, when one of the assistants accused me of procrastination because of my messy desk -- a desk buried in the paperwork that just didn't top the priority list when there were so many other things to do -- I lost it a little. Which is why, when ten after four rolled around, I was still in my classroom, boxing and bagging and sorting, determined to prove her wrong.
Because she wasn't wrong -- at least -- not entirely. My desk was messy. Ridiculously messy, in fact. But that's what happens when you are teacher to eight kids who are always moving. There are always problems that need solved, diapers that need changed, children who need encouraged, tears that need dried. And sometimes, even as the tower of papers on my desk climbed sky-high, I just couldn't do anything except stand, and watch, and enjoy my kids while I had them, knowing that it wouldn't last forever.
Of course, if I hadn't stayed late to prove wrong something that may well have been right, I would have made it home before the sky broke open. The storm hit halfway home, so sudden and with such force that my Bonneville nearly slid off the side of the highway. I pulled it straight and slowed to fifteen, inching through the torrents of rain that bounced back up off the road so thick, it was like both Heaven and Hell were raining.
I found shelter in a gas station, where old men in flannel stood lined up in front of the window with their coffee, gabbing about cattle feed and taking in the storm. I sipped coffee, too, and borrowed a phone to call home and let my partner know I would be later, even, than usual. Did you know old guys in flannel talking about cattle feed carry cell phones? Once the call was made, I holed up in my car with my coffee.
The storm kept pounding for almost an hour before I felt like it was safe again to make the remainder of the drive. There was a time, once, when I would have been impatient for the end of the storm. After a long day at work, I would have wanted nothing more than to get home, take a shower, and have things go my way without a hitch. I wouldn't have wanted to spend an hour outside the Texaco, watching shoppers dash to and from their cars as the sky got darker and darker.
But there was streak lightning blasting sideways, just over the mountains, and I'd never seen rain blow quite so sideways before. So I sat and I sipped and I watched the whole world get watered down to match my day.
Of course, because I had those rare moments for quiet reflection, my mind kept going over the goodbyes -- and the lack thereof -- that had punctuated my day. It hurt to say goodbye to those kids. Supposedly, according to wise men, I was supposed to take comfort in all that I had taught them. Calendar facts. Time-telling skills. How to go to the restroom, tie their shoes, and do the laundry.
But sitting in my car at the end of the last day of the privilege of being their teacher, I was much more concerned with the things they had taught me. To write a novel, for one. To play Yahtzee. To care about the weather. To draw accurate Beauty and the Beast characters. They taught me that sometimes it's okay to count on your fingers, and that sometimes you need to have cake even if you're watching your waistline. They taught me that anyone can dance, to any song, any time, no matter what people think.
And they taught me that when it's raining, there's no point in getting impatient and there's no point pretending it's not beautiful just because it's a tad inconvenient. You might as well give into it and sit. And watch. And enjoy it while you've got it. 'Cause you're not going to have it forever, and no matter how tired and frustrated it made you, you're going to want it back once the sun comes out.