29 October 2018

For Pam, For Healing, For You

About a year ago, I lost a dear friend of mine, Pam. I wish I could help you understand what a blessing this woman was in my life, but words are difficult for these things. But, alas, I will try.

The first thing you learned about Pam when you met her was that she was loud. I knew Pam my whole life; she and her husband were my parents’ best-best friends, and they were over at our house pretty much every weekend. I grew up knowing her as the wonderful, loud, sweet, outgoing, life-of-the-party Pam that I’m sure most people knew her as. Her heart was as big as her personality, and she lit up the room when she walked into it. But it wasn’t until I decided to become a teacher that I got to know the full extent of who Pam really was.

I was blessed to have been assigned to Dodson Middle School, Pam’s school she had retired from, for my student teaching in August 2016. Even though Pam retired a few years prior to my assignment, she was still a legend at the school. She loved to sub. She loved any chance she could be back in the classroom. She loved the students - I think it’s because those middle schoolers met her with the same energetic intensity that she had.

I was completely terrified when I learned I was placed at Dodson. Student teaching is the culminating experience of receiving a teaching credential, and although I had two awesome master teachers, I still felt unprepared. Pam, on the other hand, was nothing but exstatic for me. The night before I was supposed to go to school and meet the teachers she said that she had told the teachers all about me and that they were expecting me. This made me even more terrified, because I was scared I could never live up to the things Pam had told everyone about me.

On the second day of student teaching, Pam subbed in the same hallway one of my classes was in. When she stopped by my classroom at lunch, she stood in the doorway beaming at me as I spoke with a student. She was so proud of me, and it made me feel like maybe I actually could survive another day of teaching.

At lunch that day, she took me to the grass by a building I never could have found on my own and introduced me to her teaching friends at Dodson: another English teacher, a couple history teachers, a science and a math teacher - people I never would have met without Pam. From that day on, whenever Pam was on campus subbing (which was often, more on this later), she took me around to various groups of teachers: potlucks in the science lab and salads in the Spanish teacher’s room.

Some days, my favorite days, it was just the two of us sitting in the room she was subbing in. She would listen to my teaching problems and offer advice. I survived my student teaching in large part thanks to Pam’s guidance and moral support. I walked out of Dodson with friends and professional colleagues - people that I never would have grown as close to without her. I don’t think I would have the amazing teaching job I have today had Pam not done what she did for me.

In August 2017, Pam got her diagnosis (and subsequent prognosis): stage 4 liver cancer. She surprised me when she said she wanted to keep subbing as long as she could. My school year was just starting, and I was overwhelmed by planning and ideas and feeling unprepared yet again. I already needed a break, and I couldn't imagine wanting to go back to school by choice. But my first day of school turned out to be SUCH a good day that I couldn’t wait to tell Pam all about it. I went over to her house that evening, and I told her about the joy of that first day of school, how all my anxiety melted away into just pure joy being surrounded by students, new ones and veteran ones. She leaned her shoulder into mine and smiled at me.

“It’s healing, isn’t it?” she asked. Healing? I had never before thought of teaching as a healing experience, but somehow I totally got it in that moment. “That’s why I’m going to keep subbing,” she said. “Being at school heals me.”

I understand the word healing more and more these days, as I face uncertain things in my life outside of the classroom. Being a teacher doesn’t allow much time for you to sit and sulk and have an off switch. The only time I miss my mindless desk job are days where I feel like I’m running on empty (which, lately, has been more often than not). My kids pick up on my off days. It’s a blessing and a curse. It is deeply profound that my moods make enough of a difference for them to know when I’m not me. It sucks, though, because I can’t hide from them. Regardless of what’s happening at home, though, I show up every day and give them what I got. And the time I spend with students - human beings who are going through just as challenging, if not more challenging, things than I am and still showing up every day - is healing. Being at school heals me, too, Pam. I wish I could tell you.

And I carry so much of Pam’s goodness and spunk with me into my own classroom now. I miss being able to call her after school and tell her about something wonderful a student or admin said to me, yet I keep her alive by spreading goodness and spunk to the students and colleagues at my own school now.

Pam was the quintessential teacher, and everyone that knew her was one of her students. She taught me how to love deeply and to be silly and to be unapologetically myself. And I return the favor by teaching those around me to do the same.

Namaste, dear friends.

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