TEACHER CLOTHES. THE FIRST YEAR NOTEBOOK
It’s 5:45am. I stand barefoot in my walk-in closet, light on, door shut tight, not wanting to wake my husband, trying to get dressed. I have nothing to wear… or so it seems. None of my clothes work anymore. How come your skin isn’t fitting, Ms. Miller?
This has been going on for the past three weeks, ever since I began teaching. I try on outfit after outfit. One thing goes on, just as quickly comes off, and goes right into the give-away pile. Like layers of an onion. There’s hardly anything left, and still I give away more. I can’t seem to strike the right note with the clothes I own.
And I own lots of clothes. Plenty of corporate suits and blouses. Beautiful stuff. Paid a fortune for them when I was making a fortune. Lots of dressy outfits, too, for the endless weddings, christenings and confirmations of my husband’s large Italian family and for the star-spangled galas we used to go to when my youngest was at the Italian school.
Jeans and heavy cargo pants for doing sculpture in my studio. Shorts and thin, gauzy skirts for hot, summer days. But very little that seems to me to be ‘teacher clothes’. I feel like a snake whose shed its skin before the new one’s had a chance to grow.
I feel raw… exposed… vulnerable. I stand here, deliberating, the minutes ticking by. My old clothes shout, “Choose me! Pick me!” and I grab something, anything, knowing they’re not ‘teacher clothes,’ but needing to put on something, anything, so I can leave the house and go… go to my new job, where the children are waiting and shouting and noisy and excited and care only that I’m Ms. Miller, the Art Teacher, and could care less about what I’m wearing today.
“How come you have all the blue veins and your skin isn’t fitting?”
Quaveon, waiting patiently for his class to settle down and begin work, has found something with which to occupy himself. Weighing my hand in his like a ripe piece of fruit, he uses the fingertips of his other hand to make the top skin of my hand glide over the prominent blue veins. I glance quickly at him to see if he’s teasing or being mean. But no, he appears to be simply… curious.
“Because I’m old,” I answer him and others who ask as they frequently, surprisingly, do. Our students examine us carefully, as though looking at slides under a microscope… endlessly interesting specimens. Quaveon considers my answer as he continues playing with the thin spotted skin of my right hand.
I am reminded of my son the summer he was three, sitting on the floor in front of the kitchen chair I sat on, swinging the hanging flab of my pre-Weight Watchers thigh from side to side. “Why don’t you have any bones in your leg, Mommy?”
In my former career, financial technology recruiting, it was my voice that was important… my on-phone personality. My hands were tools for inputting new applicants into our database as well as backdrops for expensive rings. Now, as an art teacher in a school for students with special needs in Spanish Harlem, my hands do the important work and, as such, are often on display. A New Name For a New Year
My hands model the next step of a project I am working on with my students. They sketch, as my students do, during the last period of the week; relaxed and relieved as we all are, staff and students, to have made it all the way through once again.
I use my hands to hold tissues to tiny runny noses and to brush back flyaway, frizzy hair, mine as well as theirs. I use them to hold students close when they are sad or to restrain them when they are mad. I wipe away tears and sponge chocolate milk spills from cafeteria tables. I use my hands in much the same way I did when my own children were small.
I tie shoelaces with my hands. Why don’t the parents buy the kind of shoes that attach with Velcro? those of us saddled with the job often wonder and discuss among ourselves. We tie their children’s’ shoes often enough to be current with each child’s entire shoe wardrobe, winter and summer, and to be familiar with the hottest new styles – how do our students decide which to buy, anyway, as the intriguing possibilities seem endless? Sneakers with lights that flash with each step, sneakers with skate wheels that insert into the bottom of the shoe when the skate is not in use.
Morning yoga on the stage in the auditorium, led by our speech therapist and assisted by yours truly, has come to an end. Today during yoga, I use my hands to pull Jimmy off Vincent during another of the endless fights they’ve been having lately. I catch Freddy, six years old, non-verbal and autistic, by his long black hair just as he runs off the stage and down the stairs to get away from Isa, who has been teasing him by pulling his pants down.
Now we are putting on shoes so we can proceed to the cafeteria for breakfast. Isa, dreads hanging in front of his eyes and ready to be friends despite the severe tongue-lashing I gave him for taunting Freddy, dangles a black, high-top leather shoe right in front of my face.
“Miller,” he mutters in his low, gravelly speaking voice, “Miller.” I seem to be the chosen one today. I get a whiff of his sweaty head, sweet and spicy, as I lean forward over him to tie his high top shoe. I breathe in still more deeply, savoring the moment.
It is possible that my hands are what my students notice most about me. I believe many, if asked, could easily describe my hands, my watches, my bracelets. I’ve become keenly aware of what I put on my wrists in the morning; I now wear bracelets far more frequently than I used to. It seems the focus of my students’ attention to the details of me has captured my attention as well.
Miss Medina’s class is lined up in the hallway after their 4th period art class, waiting for their teacher to come back so she can accompany them to lunch. I wait with them. Jeremy, an emotionally disturbed student in her class, looks me right in the eye and then, still facing me, picks up my left hand with his right, moving my hand side to side so the entire arm slithers back and forth like a snake. “Skinny,” he says. “Skinny, skinny, skinny.”
“Skinny,” he says once more, reluctantly dropping my arm as his teacher gives him a teacher look as she hurries down the hall toward her class, preparing to retrieve her eight students from my care.
Alexis, has given me a watch for Valentine’s Day this year. It is, allegedly, from my three-month-old granddaughter. The watchband is red and the face is silver, prominent and round. It is a happy watch, bright and noticeable. Alexis watches expectantly as I open the box, anticipating how thrilled I will be when I see the watch from my new granddaughter. As the card says, this is my first “Valen-times” day gift from my granddaughter.
She is right. I am thrilled. I swoop in for a hug, warmed by Alexis’s love and thoughtfulness, by Ruby’s new deliciousness, by the anticipation of my students’ reaction on Monday morning when they see the bright red band, the large silver face .
Friday at this time. We are sitting around the project table. I am in the teacher’s chair at the inside edge of the gently curving table, five of the six students are arranged around the outer perimeter like the spokes of a wheel. Nantasya quietly eases herself around the curve to get a bit closer to me. I leave things as they are, preferring to avoid a tantrum on this last day of the week.
We are discussing today’s work, an origami folding project, something this class loves doing and is good at. Together, we are looking through a book of origami and discussing the pros and cons of various projects. I am giving the class choices. Having choices, I have learned, means a lot to these students. It is a privilege they have earned over time, and one they do not take lightly. They seem to understand and appreciate the trust implicit in a discussion such as this, as well as the opportunity to direct their own learning.
I have found that, in some deep way, I do trust these complex and emotionally handicapped five and six year olds. I find them to be intelligent, sensitive and creative. Right along with their acting out and sometime cruelty, more often than not they take good care of each other and the adults around them. After all these months, I love working with this class more than ever.
Now, choices have been made. We’re going to make an origami box and, if there’s time, an origami glider. We’re good to go. There is a momentary silence. Unplanned, surprising myself, I use the lull to raise an issue I’ve recently been pondering but hadn’t thought to discuss with anyone until this very moment.
“I’m thinking of changing my teacher name next year,” I find myself saying, “and wonder what you guys might think of the idea.”
In our teacher training last summer, it was recommended we use Miss, Ms. Mr. or Mrs. along with our name. There is no official name rule in the NYC Department of Education of which I am aware, and no particular protocol to follow. I have, in fact, observed that teacher names vary widely depending on student population and age. In one of my own children’s public high school, for example, many teachers are called by their first names. This has been a surprise to me, as I have always assumed that teachers, like students, are burdened with rules governing just about everything they do and that the rules would be on the side of formality.
Though I have been married for twenty plus years, I have always used my maiden name - Miller. It is the name I was born to, and it suits me. It’s the name I always used in business and, without much thought, I gave myself the name Ms. Miller at the start of the school year. I thought it would be an easy name for young children to remember and it has turned out to be so.
But, though I think of myself as Celeste Miller, I have learned that I decidedly do not think of myself as Ms. Miller. Nor do I feel like Mrs. Schettini, my married name and a name I like but have used only to establish links between myself and my youngest son at the bi-lingual Italian school he went to for many years, and I have no intention of beginning to use it more broadly now. I like my first name a lot, though, and have been missing it this year. The idea of being Miss Celeste appeals to me, and I am giving it serious consideration.
“What would your name be?” asks Edwin.
“I would use my first name, which is Celeste… I would be Miss Celeste instead of Ms.Miller. What do you think?”
“Miss Celeste,” Mark says experimentally. The others try it out on their tongues. “Miss Celeste… Miss Celeste… Miss Celeste.”
Nantasya picks up my hand and holds it up, ‘smoothing’ my hand and arm with her other hand. There is total silence in the room. The children appear to be thinking, and I wait a few moments. Then,
“So what do you guys think? Do you think I should call myself Miss Celeste?”
“She would still have soft skin,” says Nantasya slowly and thoughtfully, partly to herself, partly to the class as she continues to run her hand up and down my arm.
“And she would still be her,” adds Zaria.
“Yes,” agrees Quaveon, “she would still be Ms. Miller… she would just have another name on the outside.”