“There was freedom, there was peace, there was, most welcome of all, a summoning together, a resting on a platform of stability.”
--To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
I once taught seventh grade Language Arts and Social Studies. How can I capture the stress of that experience? It was the only time in my twenty years in the work world when I didn’t have coffee every morning. I was so sick with stress, I had to switch to tea.
At school when I used the students’ bathroom (because it was closer than the staff one), I saw profanities about me etched in the dented, metal stalls. My classroom--despite my first-year teacher's attempt at kind, firm, and fair guidelines--was no better. Over the summer when maintenance had tried to contain the asbestos in the wall, they’d sprayed a row of rats climbing up the corner to the ceiling. Those rats were frozen, mid-dance, in a column of tiny dead limbs holding in the asbestos. Of course for health reasons they couldn’t be removed. When I wasn’t watching the students snickering and yelling at me, or the few with sympathetic faces, I looked to the window where my eyes landed on the chorus line of dead rats. All in all it’s just another rat in the wall.
That year was the most disrespected I’ve ever felt, and I had to show up for it every day. It was a painful experience; one that I knew I wouldn’t be able to write about for some time. It’s been ten years. When I look back at my journal from that time I’m surprised how little I wrote about the actual school days. Instead I recorded simple pleasures: feeling limber in yoga class, the thud of the Sunday paper on my porch, or the way sunlight came through an empty water glass. I think the teaching job was just too hard to write about. But over time, sprinkled throughout the journal, you could see the school year devolve.
In November I’d gone to get an x-ray and noticed the technician’s desk with a silk plant, box of Kleenex, family photo, and a cup with the all same kind of black BIC pens. I’d written how nice it would be to have an orderly desk with all the same kinds of pens no one would steal. One day was so awful I’d almost forgotten to write that we’d also had a bomb threat. In December when I’d made a list of things I wished for, one was “a job with coffee and typing” and “people I enjoy having conversations with.” By January I’d declared: “This job does not define me.”
After I left the teaching job I took a trip to London to visit my sister during her semester abroad. I’d booked the trip when I was still teaching but now I had the time to plan: booking extra days for Liverpool’s Magical Mystery Tour, finding a quaint B&B in the Lake District to visit Beatrix Potter’s home, mapping every Cath Kidston store in London, and expertly curating a British Invasion mix CD. In London I walked everywhere, no longer hearing the sounds of screaming children but the soothing trill of Gerry and the Pacemakers. It was one of the first trips I took that was more than a mission to visit family or friends. I was living my dreams.
I went to the real Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane (there really is a barber showing photographs!), posing in my fabulous new red trench coat as a subtle nod to Sgt. Pepper. I stopped for a pint in the exact pub featured in The Tale of Jemima Puddle Duck. In London I had high tea at Kensington Palace and toured Westminster Abbey. Once I followed a commotion in the distance just in time to catch the changing of the guards. I gazed at St. Paul's Cathedral like a benevolent Mary Poppins. I found treasures at Portobello Road, just like in Bedknobs and Broomsticks. I strolled through Kew Gardens past bluebells, magnolias, and daffodils. Then I stumbled upon Queen Charlotte’s Cottage that looked exactly like the White Rabbit’s. I’d fallen down the rabbit hole of pleasure.
My third day in London after a trek across town and through the Tate and the Tate Modern, I sat down to tea at Harrods, exhausted. The menu was filled with pictures of huge ice cream desserts: chocolate sundaes and fruit parfaits. They were the kind of thing I’d always drool over but never order. But dammit, I’d faced the horrors of middle school in a room of dead rats. I deserved a sundae. After I’d ordered a tropical parfait and tucked into the mango, cardamom, and coconut scoops, the waiter asked if everything was to my satisfaction. I nodded. To which he affirmed: “Your happiness is the most important thing.”
Finally, it was.
Taking his words to heart, I marched right over to the Cath Kidston store and bought out the English Rose collection: a makeup case and stationary, candle, and oil cloth tote bag. I even bought a queen duvet which required buying an additional oil cloth bag with a pattern of red double-decker buses. Then, feeling triumphant to the tune “Itchycoo Park” (“It’s all too beautiful!”), I hit the toy section and bought myself a stuffed Paddington Bear, complete with red hat and blue toggle coat.
I write about teaching middle school and the trip to London together not just because they happened sequentially, but because the former was such a painful time and the latter such a pleasurable one. I wonder if I’d remember them differently if they hadn’t happened in succession. But they did. And they remind me that sometimes really great things happen after really terrible things. “How can you have your pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?”
After I came back from London I got a job scoring standardized tests in an office park. I’d cross the parking lot, enter a cold, gray building, place my lunch in the fridge, and walk onto the testing floor with my bottle of water. All of us test scorers were in groups of a dozen or so seated around tables or in rows. The room had no decorations. No color. No rats stuck in the wall. The quiet was almost audible. My task was simple: sit silently and score tests. And while monotonous, it was also a healing time. I was so grateful to actually be able to do the job I was paid to do. We could have beverages, but no food except hard candy. Always one to turn limitations into options, I brought in a huge variety bag of Jolly Ranchers and ate candy til my tongue was stained and my teeth ached. When I got tired of fruity flavors, I switched to Baskin Robbins’ creamy candies. Mint chip was my favorite.
The company provided a safe and clean environment where I felt respected by my supervisors and, after I was promoted one month later to scoring supervisor, my team of scorers. On the last day of work I approached the director and told her I’d enjoyed the job and appreciated the respectful workplace. She looked at me like I was a little nuts, but to me the concept was revolutionary and needed to be said.
At some point you’ll be there, too. Your workplace is spacious and safe. You rise to walk to a clean bathroom. You return to sit in a supportive, cushioned chair. You settle in, feel a chill, and hug your cardigan closer. You take a sip of pure water. You work diligently, fueled by a simple drive to do your best. You look up from your work to see your supervisor give you an approving look. You unwrap another watermelon Jolly Rancher. You made it through.