I am known for being weird, frequently called crazy, but what’s ironic is that I actually don’t mind following the rules, so long as the rules are reasonable. But, sometimes, I bend them, tie them in knots, break them flagrantly. It’s not that I’m trying to be rude, obnoxious, mean, or evil. But, sometimes….well…the rules might not be as meaningful as they should be.
And that’s when I kind of shrug my shoulders and go about my own, merry-little-way.
I don’t run red lights or stop signs. I don’t drive on the wrong side of the road. I don’t steal or shoplift or borrow something without permission. I hold the door for other people, say “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome.” I give nice, firm handshakes (I hate limp handshakes…they creep me out) and do my best to uphold the Constitution.
But sometimes, just sometimes, it’s a little fun to look at the imposed normalcy that the world likes to think is good and, well, literally throw a splash of color at it.
When I first started teaching at the high school level, I was in a trailer. Most people turn their noses up at trailer-teaching. Personally, I have begged to be given a trailer again. Ever since I was “brought back into the building,” I have dreamt of being tossed back outside.
Trailer-teaching is not a punishment, no matter what people might think.
You’re outside. All the time. And no matter what happens inside the building, you are completely separated from all the silliness that might be happening because you’re outside.
My trailer had two windows and two doors in opposing corners for each other. I had control over the heating and air conditioning. Also, I had two “porches,” one at each door. I had my own television-VCR combination. I had peace, quiet, and isolation. I was next to the tennis courts which meant that I had a small set of bleachers next to my trailer. And a couple of small trees.
And did I mention peace, quiet, and isolation.
When my students did small-group work, I would frequently have at least one group on the bleachers and another group on each of the small porches, not including the groups inside the trailer.
On pretty days, the doors and windows were open. Ironically, when I was teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, two birds flew into the trailer, flew around the room several times before flying out the back door.
When snow hit, the students and I literally ran circles around the trailer (outside), laughing and singing and joyfully shrieking to the sky as we celebrated the cleaning of our world and the blanketing of all the nuisances we didn’t want to see.
Because I was in trailer meant that I would have assorted pests, especially ants. And it wasn’t uncommon for students to announce to me that I had ants. My response was to buy ant stickers and stick them to the ceiling next to the tape message that “Mrs. Graceless you have ants.”
I figured that if someone was going to tell me something obvious then I had to decorate the message. Every year, several times a year, a student would look up, read the message out loud, and then see the ants and start to freak out a little. That was fun.
The tape-message about my ant infestation led to other messages written on the ceiling of the trailer. I figured that if my students were going to be bored and stare at the ceiling, then they might as well have to read since they were still in an English class. I called it “inspiration from above.” I had quotes ranging from Ray Bradbury “If they give you lined paper, write the other way” to poetry by William Blake:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
Because the trailer walls were nothing more than flimsy, cheap dry wall, I had four walls worth of bulletin boards. And I love art work. So I decorated my trailer, with art work. I had posters of Germany, posters of Neo-classical/Pre-Raphelite paintings. I had student art work because I love my students and one way of demonstrating my love for them is to let them decorate my room. My Lauren gave me several pieces that I have taken with me from trailer to classrooms to my home and back to my classroom…and I will continue to collect student-artwork and will still hang everything with love and pride. Because in holding the artwork I am holding a corner of their hearts and I can’t help but honor that.
When my husband and I were going through a horrible time in our marriage, I found that work became my normalcy, that my trailer was my refuge. So long as I was in my trailer, I was isolated from the pain, tucked away from the sadness that was living in my home. But as I glanced around my trailer, my eyes registered (with exhaustion) the blasé neutral colors that were the original colors of the dry wall. Around the room, white-puddy patches hid holes that had been made by students (oh, and me from the time when I was trying to help the students hear how creepy the thuds of suicidal birds hitting houses in the story, “The Birds.” I kind of kicked a hole in the wall….ooops). My bulletin board had some graffiti on it.
In the end, the art work helped, but the room was still a bit ugly. And my home life wasn’t great. I had to find a place where I could have beauty and quiet and joy.
So I painted my trailer. Cranberry Red. A rich, warm color that would stand in stark contrast to the greying skies of early November and the approaching winter months. A color that would absorb and reflect the gorgeous sunshine that was a future promise in spring.
On a teacher-work-day…or was it a Saturday…I can’t remember, a small group of students and I met at the trailer with brushes, rollers, plastic sheeting, and paint.
And we painted. Long, heavy strokes of red covers up the beige and the room turned from a rather boring classroom to a haven for students, for my children, for me.
I loved that cranberry red because as the autumn wore itself out and winter came into my world, I found that no matter how cold the temperatures were, I was warm, even if it was because of nothing more than the fact that it was just a color. And when my marriage started to repair and the coldness at home was steadily replaced by a renewal of love, the cranberry red added to that warmth, reflecting my internal joy.
Students said that coming to my trailer wasn’t like coming to a classroom with a sterile environment.
It was like walking into a person’s home.
I guess it helped that I had a couch and a dumpster-dived-recliner as well.
But I think the moment that I knew I had done the right thing was the chalk drawing on the wall. Graduation was approaching and I had three seniors who had been together in show choir for years. Show choir students have an incredible bond; they are a family. With all the hours they have spent singing, dancing, practicing, riding on buses to and from competitions, and just working and working and working at honing their craft, these students stop seeing one another as colleagues or peers or just friends.
They are a collection of diverse family members who truly love and care for one another.
And three of my seniors were only a couple weeks from graduation. And as we were in the wrap up stages of a unit and the room’s atmosphere was relaxed, they needed to find a way to leave a mark, to leave a legacy of their lives together, the hours they had shared together in both my class but also the show choir class.
Cranberry red walls are a good canvas for yellow chalk drawings. With quick strokes, a caricature appeared on the wall (by the way, I did give them permission). Three, four friends. Their faces just below the back window. Golden smiles. Golden eyes. Golden laughter exuding from every porous line.
The chalk drawing didn’t last. Sometime later, I eventually washed it off the wall, but not before I ran my fingers along the lines, pressed my hand against the edges of the faces and thought about those students.
Lindsey. Megan. Nick. Angela.
Lindsey who was the president of Students Against Drunk Driving, who was in a Christian youth group I helped lead.
Megan who, at the last show choir concert, saw me sitting in the front row. And during her solo, came up to the edge of the stage where I was sitting and tossed her hat to me. A gesture that put me in tears and still makes me smile (while getting a little teary-eyed).
Nick, a young man I was blessed to teach when he was a freshmen and a senior. Nick who is (not was) kind and gentle and smart and loving. A young man who wrote about losing his mother and the courage it took to recover from the tragedy.
And Angela, dear Angela who understood my playfulness and was incredibly forgiving when once, when we were joking around, was accidentally bumped into the mud (by me) and ended up falling onto her bum, mud caked along the lengths of her leg.
Over the course of a decade, the memory of the yellow-chalk picture on my trailer wall evaporated from my memory. Within a couple years of painting my trailer, a new high school was built and the over-crowding situation at my high school was resolved. A new collection of students met me at my trailer and we painted over the walls with Killz, spray painted over the quotes on the ceiling.
Stripped off the stickers of ants.
The neutrality was returned.
Eventually, the trailer was hitched to the back of a truck, was sent away. All the memories were left behind in a barren patch of bumpy soil that held the remnants of ant nests and a broken piece of cinder block that I had used as a door stop.
I took the cinder block; it is currently sitting in my front garden.
The chalk drawing fell away into history. Until somewhere in the last twelve months, one of the former students posted a picture on Facebook of a golden yellow-chalk drawing on a cranberry red wall.
And the memories fell back into place and I remembered the warmth of a cranberry red trailer, the laughter on a snow day, the golden memories of fall leaves turning into snowflakes that become golden-yellow leaves of spring that eventually are the long stretched out summer days that are a promise of sleep and relaxation and anticipation of the next collection of students who will fundamentally (and positively) change my life.
I sometimes wish I had found a way to make the yellow-chalk drawing permanent. I wish I could have bundled it up into green Tupperware tote that carries all the memories and cards and artwork that I have kept for years and will keep for years.
So many years ago, I broke the rules. I painted my trailer without permission. And I brought in furniture that was comfortable…without permission. I wrote on the ceilings and put stickers on the ceilings and created an environment that enabled my students to see themselves as human beings who are loved and valued.
I broke the rules.
And I have never regretted it.