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Countdowns

May 21, 2016

As a teacher, I get the sweet pleasure every year of my working life of “the countdown.” It usually starts in May with some optimistic but exhausted colleague who is a coach or former cheerleader encouragingly posting a sign on his or her door or board that says “27 days left in the school year!” Sometimes it has tear-off pages that count us down to the last day of school. A few enterprising souls subdivide the countdown and announce in email “three more Mondays” or “this is the next to last Friday with students.” And every May, like clockwork, we look at those signs through weary eyes and tell ourselves together “we can make it.” At the point in May when these signs first appear, “we can make it” feels a lot like “we can claw and scrap and drag our way along to the end of this thing…dig deep, people…come on!…how much longer could 20 days really be? Show that backbone!” But that’s ok. We see the sign, and we know the end is in sight.

These countdown signs might seem a little negative to someone who doesn’t do this work. A friend of mine who had been to a school in the month of May once asked me “What’s wrong with you people? Do you hate your days with kids this much that you have to publicly proclaim how eager you are for the approaching finale? It just feels weird.” Clearly, this person not blessed with a professional life like ours just didn’t speak “school.” Hate our work? Far from it. The countdown signs, while certainly announcing to the world that we are approaching exhaustion, are heralds of the celebration to come…of doing work that has a finish line and reaching it together…of knowing that if we can just push a little harder, just a little longer, we will ultimately arrive at that exhilarating ending place. They remind us that soon, very soon, we will look back at how far we’ve come in one short year and feel the sense of joy that comes with knowing we have finished the race…bringing a lot of people we have grown to love a very long way in a short time.

Teaching is an amazing joyful crazy push. A school year kaleidoscopically melds the smell of new school supplies in August into warm September afternoons with bright leaves outside, crisp October mornings on bus duty with stacks of papers on your desk, November gray skies and kids tracing their hands to make turkeys or listing what they are thankful for, December anticipation of holiday breaks and first swirling flakes outside the window that send all the kids into frenzies of joy, January’s dragging feet and lethargy, February snowfalls that allow a day to sleep in which makes you rethink whether you really needed all those days to do this unit you are sick of, March mushy slushy apathy and third quarter grades due, April’s bounce-back into light mornings after spring break and tiny little restart feel, May’s finals, performances, exhibitions and practices for graduation with its commencement-y feelings of endings wrapped in beginnings. That’s our push. Those are our rhythms. A cycle of excitement, settling in, finding our way, hunkering down, dragging along, starting to fly, and finally…on that last beautiful day (even if it’s pouring down rain)…waving good-bye.

The sense of satisfaction in doing work that has a defined beginning and endpoint year after year has always made me love my profession and the colleagues with whom I share the rhythms of the year that only we understand. No other work I know has this sense of finale to it, a chance to step back and take stock of how far we have come together and what it all means.

Countdowns usually end in excitement, in liftoffs, in explosions of force and power. They end in racers leaving the starting line and hurtling toward a finish we can’t see. They create breathless anticipation for that second right after “ONE!” They cause us all to draw closer together, huddled around, intently focused on this “thing about to happen.” They command our attention to something very important.

So yes…I love the countdown signs, the “two more Mondays” reminders of my friends and students, the “FOURTEEN more days, not counting today because we’re already here” admonitions that often start a school meeting like an invocation in these final weeks of May. I love them. They aren’t the evidence of fatigue they seem to be (although there is certainly plenty of that when people are pushing into the stretch of an exhilarating all-out race to a finish line that matters). Instead, they are harbingers of the joy that will come when we arrive there together, waving goodbye to busloads of cheering children or gown-clad graduates. On that day, words will not be necessary because all of us know what the end of the countdown means. We will finally turn to each other in the silent parking lot and smile, return to rooms that hold only echoes, and rejoice deeply in the race well-run.

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