The marveler’s eyes well with gratitude: “Oh guys. . . If you only knew the beauty of what just happened.”
The alarm breaks into my dreams at 5:45am, pulling me reluctantly back into my mostly dark room. The desert sunrise is creeping into the corners of my window, thus beginning the 175th iteration of the morning ritual: stop the alarm, drain the mason jar, stumble to the shower. Too late last night, Williams. Stagger to the kitchen, grind the coffee, slap the sandwich together, ask Fernando Ortega to help realign my mood for the thousandth time. Can I restart the day and get back up on the right side of the bed?
Swallowing my eggs and potatoes almost whole somehow manages to provide an uptick in attitude; but I’m still kicking myself for poor time management when I hop into my truck a solid seven minutes too late. I’m all too aware of the other lives I could be living right now. Lord, are you sure this is what I’m supposed to be doing? An audio recording of Psalm 90 and the early morning blaze over Paradise Valley puts at least a temporary mute on my doubts, and I arrive at school with a miraculous two minutes to spare.
Our campus isn’t ours at all, but a church’s; a massive set of buildings nestled up in front of two small mountains. The sanctuary’s white stucco and cylindrical architecture have always comfortingly reminded me of a southwestern Minas Tirith. I park, grab my coffee thermos, water bottle, and briefcase, making it halfway up the parking lot before groaning—rather embarrassingly in front of a mom and several students—at the realization that I’ve left my lunch bag in the car. Eventually, I stumble into the classroom, mumble “Good morning” in the I-know-I’m-late-tone to my lead teacher, Laura, and furiously sharpen pencils until it’s time to go to my morning duty.
As a hall monitor for first and second grades, I’m ostensibly supposed to keep the kids from being too rowdy. In reality, it looks like saying, “Slow down, gentlemen” sprinkled in between a chorus of hugs and morning greetings. Gabe cocks his eyebrow as I remind him to be virtuous, Kylie and Anna shout “MR. WILLIAMS!” from fifty feet down the walkway, and Rodrigo tells me about how he was able to burp-spell two whole words. Best of all, a number of the second graders greet me with, “Good morning, Homer!” referencing the time earlier in the year when I grabbed a walking stick, threw a sheet toga over my dress shirt, and read them stories from The Odyssey as a dubiously well-sighted Blind Bard. “Good morning to you too, Mr. Plato! Have a great day, Mr. Odysseus!” I reply. They’ve been doing this for six weeks now and my face still hurts from smiling.
I get back to our own classroom as the students are wrapping up their morning busywork before going to art class. Walking up and down their rows of desks, I greet them quietly and try shake to their hands as unobtrusively as possible. Jessie shows me the new book she’s working on, Mario shoots me a sheepish look as he desperately tries to finish his homework, and Carlos gets his first of likely many reminders to tuck in his shirt. You’d think he’d get tired of me reminding him.
After taking them up to the art classroom, I return to furiously sort their homework, write the missing assignments on the board, and put together some semblance of a game plan for diminishing the mountain of grading in front of me. This is one of my primary tasks as a teacher’s apprentice. Fifteen minutes for math drills, twenty-five…no, thirty-five…ugh—forty—for math. Twenty for that history worksheet; thirty for finishing those compositions. Sigh.
The next two hours pass in something of a blur. Though I’ve been practicing for an entire year now, it is still a struggle to grade effectively with one eye and ear on the rest of classroom. The interruptions are numerous. Maria needs a bandaid. Elizabeth spills her water bottle on the floor—for the second time this week. Laura needs some copies made. Jack needs mid-lecture redirection multiple times—several times from Laura, a couple from me. He finally dials in after catching my last warning glance, which I’m pretty sure he was deliberately looking for anyway.
Somehow enough of the grading gets done before we head to recess. The walk down to the playground is typically when they come up with their best one-liners, and today is no exception. “Mr. Williams, have you always been bald? Did your hair actually migrate from the top of your head to your face?” I’m forced to belly laugh. “I’ll bet you looked really weird.” Well, Adeline, you’re not wrong.
I pull Landon aside after dismissing the rest of the class into the field. He’s the class leader and a model student, tenderhearted with a strong sense of justice — the eleven year-old I wish I could have been. He’s also a good little soccer player, and his recent frustration with the chaotic, hang-the-rules nature of the recess soccer games has started to wear on his otherwise impregnable good nature. I tell him how proud I am of his desire to play the game the right way and remind him that setting a calm example is the best way to keep the game in hand. He nods quietly and runs off, and my heart aches just a bit. Oh buddy. If you only knew what a joy it is to watch you grow.
He trudges back twenty minutes later, clearly trying to master his frustration. I pat him on the back as we enter the lunch hall and say a quick prayer for peace, all the while marveling at the fact that a preteen child is capable of compartmentalizing his emotions that well. But I can’t marvel for long, as the room erupts with the sound of eighty fifth-graders opening eighty lunch bags and voicing their commentary on all that they contain. We teachers put in twenty more minutes towards our master’s degrees in Chaos Control.
We eventually return to the classroom for my favorite part of the day. “Good afternoon, class.” “Good afternooooon, Mr. Williams!” “Get out your copies of Jungle Book. Jessie, can you give us a summary of what we read yesterday?” I’ve had the privilege of teaching almost the whole of the literature curriculum this year, and as such, have been on the receiving end of more than a few questions one wouldn’t typically expect from an eleven-year-old. Elizabeth, our resident philosopher, asks a real barn-burner today while discussing the creation myth in the middle of one of Kipling’s stories. Commenting on how the first tiger was marked with stripes after committing the jungle’s first killing, she says, “Mr. Williams, how is it fair that every tiger that came after the first one was cursed with stripes, too? They didn’t do anything to deserve that.”
I’m stopped in my tracks, and it’s a few seconds before I realize that they’ve caught me marveling yet again. It’s highly doubtful that she is aware of the Edenic and post-Edenic parallels of the story and yet. “Well, Elizabeth. To be quite honest with you, you’ve just asked a version of one of the oldest and hardest questions in the universe. I don’t know that I have a good answer for you.” But inwardly, I say a prayer of thanks for such curiosity. Lord, let her remember this the next time she picks up Genesis.
Literature class slips away, much to our collective dismay, and though I’m still recovering from the insightfulness of Elizabeth’s question, I still have enough awareness to shoot Carlos the side-eye referencing his un-tucked shirt. Is that four times today? Maybe three. Nope. Definitely four. Back to grading.
The last few hours of the day contain a mixture of spelling tests, vocabulary quizzes, a trip to the nurse, and, well, more marveling. I marvel, as I do almost every day, at the skill with which our lead teachers conduct their lessons. I marvel, rather ruefully, at our printer’s ability to malfunction at the most inopportune moments. I marvel at the gracious way in which Marilynne, our office manager, conducts the business of the campus; at how our headmasters somehow maintain an open-door policy amidst the countless other responsibilities on their plates; at the kind fortitude displayed by Mrs. Bristow, a beloved first-grade teacher who—despite chronic health problems—puts on a master class in longsuffering devotion each and every day.
But the day’s wonder comes to a head in the closing minutes leading up to dismissal. I step back into the classroom just as Laura is recognizing Carlos for his highest math test score of the year. The rest of the class releases a few scattered cheers and applause, but time slows down as I watch Landon turn around in his seat with the biggest grin on his face, extend his hand to Carlos, and deliver perhaps the most sincere congratulation I have ever witnessed from someone of any age. Carlos smiles sheepishly and accepts the handshake. My eyes are welling with gratitude as I quickly step back outside. Oh guys. . . If you only knew the beauty of what just happened.
You see, the exchange would have been precious without context, but the context makes it remarkable. Tension has been brewing between the two of them for weeks now, due in no small part to, well, differing perspectives on how the game of soccer should be played. But the humility of Landon’s unaffected sincerity, coupled with Carlos’s willingness to accept it, was for me, a peek behind the merciless curtain of a conflicted world—a momentary embodiment of “brother love bind[ing] man to man.” I stay outside for a few more minutes, deciding that it would be wrong indeed to prevent these tears from falling.
An hour later, I sit alone in the classroom, watching the afternoon rays drop down onto the empty desks and cast a few playful shadows upon the whiteboard. I realize that I have spent the entire day in a sustained state of awe—a far cry from the morning grumblings of my all-too-faithless heart. I technically have a vocation as a teacher, but days like today remind me that “teacher” is just a more succinct way of saying “professional marveler.”
God forbid that I should ever approach such good work with anything but an open eye and a grateful heart.