Sunday, May 27, 2012

Telling Tales

It's cold this morning, but I want the windows open. The air is clean from a late spring rain. The world is quiet except for the birds. I'm not doing much more than just listening to them rustle through the trees. Finally--finally--all of the stress, emotion, and hard work of the last three weeks is complete. Finally I can write more than blah, blah, I'm sad. Because now I know it's going to be okay.

Last night was the final movement in a symphony of retirement goodbyes for my beloved friend, K. And as tired as I am, as big as the bags are under my eyes and as sore as my muscles all feel this morning, I'm so glad we had the opportunity to celebrate her twenty four year teaching career this way. The last few weeks have been a string of hugs, tears (okay, sobbing, uncontrollable ugly-cry tears from me on the last day of school), but most importantly, laughs.

When K and I talked about what she wanted her retirement party to be, she told me that what she wanted was us, the Social Science Department (of which I count myself an honorary member), "being us," doing what we do: eating, drinking, sitting in our friend Dave's backyard into the dark, remembering. Affirming our bond with each other and celebrating what we've endured. Last night was joyful and familiar. Last night was a night with family. Last night was a night of stories.

The Bocce ball court dining areaIMG_6569IMG_6599IMG_6614

It's only fitting, too. K is a master storyteller. At fifteen, as a student in her history class, I was transfixed. She would tell you it was because of the good material--kings and knights and rights and fights. And in some cases, it kind of was. But there was something special in the delivery, something I am still challenged to define. As a college freshman in Western Civ I was sorely disappointed by the teaching of that same material. And I didn't really need to learn it over again because I still remembered. To this day I can recite her stories that illuminated the French Revolution, the signing of the Magna Carta, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Battle of the Bulge, Cleopatra on her barge. Too many others to list here. But more than stories about things that happened, these were stories about cultural literacy, making choices, questioning authority, finding opportunities to make a difference. A primer in being an adult.
The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness.   --Tim O'Brien
I know now that my time in her classroom helped to shape what I wanted to do. To teach, yes, but to do that fragile thing closer to my heart and soul: telling stories. In many ways she modeled for me how a story can capture the attention of an audience, how it can instruct, how it can shock or horrify or inspire change. Her stories--her gift--kindled curiosity in generations of students.

And last night as we told tales together, person after person affirmed what K has meant to them as a colleague. Our friend Bob put it best: she had your back. We trust her with the kind of confidence that comes only from years of dependable support. At school K was a leader, and she was a great friend. She inspired all of us to be curious in our own teaching, to pass a love of learning on to our students because they saw us wanting to know more, wanting to know why. As the chair of her department, K carefully constructed a family. She brought people together and kept them happy, made them feel protected. She devoted her life to the people she worked with.

The beautiful thing about that devotion is how it has spilled over into real life, how it brought about something more wonderful than its original purpose. K and I are fond of discussion the difference between work life and real life (and of where importance lies). Though these friendships--this family--came from work, it survives and flourishes in the real time, that time when we don't have to be Mrs. Soandso or Ms. Whatshername. In my real life, K is always there, and has been since I was about sixteen. She is the person who taught me to be discerning about art and literature and movies and music. She is the person who taught me about Tiffany's, Jane Eyre, Steve McQueen, Clinique Sparkle Skin and the West Wing. She is, most often, the person who gives me advice about taking risks, trying new things. She shows up, and so I try to do for her. At every important moment--big and small--she has been present. The smiling face in the back of the room at the dance competition. The arms full of sandwiches, CDs and movies after I miscarried my first baby. The voice in the hall at the hospital while I labored with Addie. The drawer full of chocolate for the end of the rough day. The fingers tracing the lineage of English kings as she explains to Henry about his namesakes. The comforting email when I'm worried about grad school. The text messages to say goodnight.
Many friendships are between people who are quite different and who fill the unoccupied spaces in each other’s character. --Anna Quindlen
I need K in my life, plain and simple. I feel fortunate that she was in my work life, actually, for that certainly made my first eleven years of teaching easier. But I'm glad that's not the be-and-end all. Real life wins out over work life every time. She is family.

On the last day she taught a lesson, K showed her class HBO's Taking Chance. She talked to her students about what it means to bear witness. That night on her Facebook wall she posted that if she only ever had once chance to teach one lesson, that's what it would be. I am pretty sure that's the lesson she was teaching every single day: "You’re his witness now. Without a witness, they just disappear." Every day she spent in the classroom was a way to witness history, to make it relevant and memorable for decades of budding adults so they would live in a way that shows reverence for what came before them. So in that spirit, I think it was important that we spent last night bearing witness, spinning the tales we will continue to tell at EGHS long after she's taken down her Bruce Springsteen poster in C4. We will bear witness to future colleagues about the kind of teacher she was to work with. We will bear witness about what leadership looked like when it worked. We will do so also in how we rise to the occasion, how we teach our students by the example she set.

IMG_6497Hallelujah...IMG_6539Congratulations, Kitty!

I tried to keep busy all day with the things that needed doing. It was easier to plan and create lists and check things off than it was to think about the kind of change that her retirement means in my professional life. But after last night I feel like the change was marked with the same kind of casual warmth that has colored all of our time as a group of friends.
This is what rituals are for. We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don’t have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down. We all need such places of ritual safekeeping... And I do believe that if your culture or tradition doesn’t have the specific ritual you’re craving, then you are absolutely permitted to make up a ceremony of your own devising, fixing your own broken-down emotional systems with all the do-it-yourself resourcefulness of a generous plumber/poet. If you bring the right earnestness to your homemade ceremony, God will provide the grace.  --Elizabeth Gilbert
Yesterday was a blessed day, a perfect day of love, song, and laughter. I am beyond happy for K that she gets to fill this next stage of life with things that bring her joy.

Heather and Kitty

Congratulations, K! I love you so much.


  1. The story-writing here of Kitty's exceptional story-telling, is as moving and inspirational as any of the quoted notables. As I prepare for my wedding day in a month, I am inspired with a new vision of the ceremony. Thank you to You and Kitty!

  2. Wow, that was so neat to read and watch the video. I loved seeing so many faces of people I knew back at EGHS, Mr. Hill, Ms. Hart, Mr. Woodward, Mari Lynn, and was that Carlos Garcia? It's making me all nostalgic! In many ways it seems like another lifetime ago. We are moving to Florida next week, with a relocation change for Michael's job. We seem to just be moving up and down the east coast, and never back out west. It seems to be our lot in life, but I easily become sentimental when reminded of the people and places that meant so much to me. Now there are people and places like that all over, which is good and bad, I guess. Anyway, Ms. Laubacher (as I still think of her) is so wonderful. Shame on me for not keeping in touch. Please tell her hello for me.