I walk into my building from the fifth grade door, a heavy block of metal in the center of a windowless brick wall. Standing opposite the cafeteria and a good walk past fourth grade, past the gym, past the playground and a basketball court with one hoop and no net, sometimes feeling like a small journey from the parking lot, this door is one that requires shoulder strength to evenly close with its partner. Inside, two and a half years of students haven’t yet taken the new smell from the walls and floors, even without their summer wash and wax. A single hall of classrooms, three on the left and two on the right, sit with lights off and desks tipped upside-down. Between their doors are thick layers of bold purple and yellow paint, one color framed by the other in a huge rectangle, makeshift “bulletin boards” that sometimes display illustrations of figurative language or 3D geometric shapes cut from templates, but now hang empty, waiting.
I wheel my cart of fresh supplies slowly, the weight of 120 composition notebooks and bags of white board markers, pencils, folders, pens, and prized independent reading cushions making the wheels drag along the linoleum. I’ve been harboring chronic anxiety for the three days I’ve been back in town, after a summer geographically and mentally free from this place. I’ve been arguing with myself that three years in this school should and does make me qualified to face a new schedule, a new set of futures, a new school year.
The argument always falls flat. I’m not traditionally trained, I’m not from here, my ties to the community are weak even after three years living a mile from the school. After countless football, basketball, and peewee softball games, after attending more churches than fingers and toes, after participating in both the white Ding Dong Days and the black Hoodnic, I am not enough. I do not have enough, I do not know enough. I am not ready.
This hall ends at the start of the administrative side of the sixth grade hall, my hall. It ends in a sharp corner: to the left a warmer, newer, more functional set of doors to the playground; to the right a second home for the oldest students in the school.
Before the office, lounge, and student bathrooms are two wide, curtainless windows recessed in the wide cinderblock walls. It’s 97 degrees today in Arkansas. Earlier, before the sun was high and while my trunk was still over-packed with items weighing down this cart now, I begged my body to finish four grueling miles down the gravel roads just south of this school. I spent the whole time focused on finishing, being free of the obligation to my health and free of the heaviness of my flesh.
Now I notice the sky I should have seen two hours ago. With the cool metal of the cart against my palms I approach the start of my hall, amazed at the fullness of the rows of cotton that are only a window from my career, my place in this building. What I remember from my departure seven weeks ago is resignation and regret from the things I did not do. I felt like the fields looked then: flat and brown, remains of harvested cotton strewn between rows. Resources stripped, earth tired, waiting for a renewed purpose.
Today the same fields are robust, are outstanding in their change. There are endless green leaves, glossy and healthy. No snow-like tufts have burst from the bolls yet, but they will in time. I pause my cart to thank the plants for coming back. Pause to embrace this empty hall, not yet in my own, embrace this town, never to be my own, and embrace this year, soon to be surrendered as not my own, but belonging to students.
Welcome to year four. Welcome home.