I walk down the long empty hallway of the school; it’s early… and eerily quiet. I can’t help but feel nervous…I’ve got doubts, fears, questions. I’m back at work after three months of living someone else’s life. Am I up to it? Will I be too tired? The other day I stopped at Stewarts’ to grab some chips and stood in the middle of the store not knowing where to start — it was all different. Feeling like Rip Van Winkle has become familiar…have I really been gone that long? Will I feel as out of step here at work as well?
The hallway seems the same…after all, this school has been standing since 1959. I graduated in its cramped gym on a stifling airless Friday night back in June of ’79…started teaching here in as a single mom in 1988. There’s been a few additions over the years and the individual room boundaries have been re-drawn a few times since then; the last major renovation saw the institutionalization of the rooms. Their unique personalities and footprints erased in an attempt at sameness — real wood cabinets and bookshelves replaced by chipboard blue and green. The same in every room.
Yet… amidst all this uniformity there is still room for magic and surprise.
I open my door. Sunlight streaming through the bank of windows that overlook the front yard of the high school highlights pink balloons that magically hang from the white drop ceiling tiles. A festoon of pink and white crepe paper frame the top of the windows and in oversize pink letters, “Welcome Back.” In between the windows, two very large and very pink construction-paper ribbons.
Now, in honesty, I had seen this part of my surprise the day before, when I had gone in to get some copies made and get reacquainted with my room. On Sunday, I had stood in the doorway with my bags gathered around my feet — amazed and overwhelmed with tears running down my cheeks. In the Monday morning sun, its sheer joy and cheeriness still took my breath away.
To my left, the bobbing of pink and silver star and heart helium balloons catch my eye. They are gaily tied to the arm of my rickety chair arm. This was new…this had definitely not been here yesterday. An involuntary laugh bubbles out; I feel like a seven-year old at Disney World.
And just when I think my heart could not be more full, students start appearing at my door…hugging me, showing off their pink sweatshirts and sweaters — some have drawn pink ribbons on their fresh cheeks. They are proud…they want me to know they did this for me. At first its just a trickle as they get off their buses and make their way to their lockers…and then more…and more…pink t-shirts, pink shirts, pink skirts…and finally, I realize, that nearly everyone is wearing something pink this morning. What I thought at first must be coincidence sinks in as being planned…
My colleague sports a pink silk tie, I even see someone with a sign with the word “pink” written on it. The student makes a point of apologizing to me. Seems they didn’t have anything pink to wear and they wanted me to know they were still supporting me. I am speechless.
And then…at my door appears a group of girls I am proud to have known, taught and coached — one I’ve known since she was a spindly elementary student in white go-go boots tagging after her big sisters. They are a special group of girls — strong, beautiful young women who have known sorrow, yet they light up the room whenever they enter. This morning they hand me bouquets of flowers — in beautiful shades of pink and rose — and they are sporting shirts that they had designed for this very day. These are my magic-makers; those who had stealthily decorated my room and arranged for this homecoming.
There are hugs and tears and then more arrive, until my girls are joined by the boys’ varsity soccer team…and there are pictures in their t-shirts. We pose; I can’t hide the surprise and pride that fill every fiber of my being.
The bells ring…and off they go their separate ways…
I sit at my desk and I think to myself…how strange and awesome life is. Last week at this time I would have been making my way to the hospital for radiation, returning to my quiet room, maybe taking a solitary walk downtown. Now, here I am…almost as if I never left… like I had been beamed out of my life and then beamed back in…hardly missing a beat.
But it is different. I am different.
Yet, the scent of bright flowers, the rustle of balloons, the steady stream of hugs and smiling faces — are like healing balm to the scars of the past few months. My fears all seem silly at this point.
One of my favorite movies of all time is It’s A Wonderful Life. One of my favorite lines is when Clarence turns to George who finally realizes how lucky he really was…”Strange isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
It’s been one heck of a journey, but now I am home…among friends….and it’s going to be alright.
To borrow another tidbit of wisdom from George and Clarence, indeed I know, “It’s a wonderful life.”