Each year my seniors are tasked with writing an essay called “This I Believe.” It’s a little contest based on the 1950’s radio program of the same name. Likewise, each year I am tasked with completing one of my own. Here is what 2016 has taught me.
The Memory Collector
My husband tells me I’m a hoarder. While he’s prone to bouts of hyperbole, I suppose there’s some truth to it. You name a sentimental article of my past, and chances are, it’s stored somewhere amongst the clutter of my very small basement. I kept the movie stub from my first “date” with my 8th grade boyfriend—Stand by Me, where he tried to share his Dr. Pepper and ended up spilling it in my lap instead. There’s a mixed tape from senior week that we played the car ride down, the car ride back, and all hours of the night. Even though I have the whole senior week soundtrack collected on a playlist in my iTunes, I can’t seem to part with the cassette tape. I saved the red sequin prom dress that seemed to move on its own as my best friend and date played “Lady in Red” for me. I didn’t want that night to end. I have boxed neatly away my Cabbage Patch doll—an original that my mom stood in line for, with the flu, because it was one of two gifts I asked of Santa—a blond hair, brown eyed doll for me and a red hair, blue eyed doll for my friend in class that had to stand in a special line for school lunch. I kept the tan-pearled earrings Keith Mastronardo gave me on his last day of school in 2006. He said he didn’t know what to get me and added, “well, you wear a lot of tan.” It’s been three years since he died. Of course I have my gorgeous wedding gown, boxed pristinely away, preserving the best decision I ever made in my life. It has waited patiently for a daughter that never arrived.
It should then come as little surprise that I do the same in my classroom—tidbits of memories surrounding me—reminders of everything I love about the job I worked incredibly hard to obtain. Projects, paintings, beautiful essays, cards from parents, and pictures—good lord, pictures everywhere creating the hearth I’m known for, creating a home in my own little corner of the world. It’s a running joke among my colleagues that I am the building historian. I have an impeccable memory and so when my friends are trying to remember a graduate’s name, they show up at my room, sometimes interrupting my class because their faulty memory is beginning to incite sheer panic. “Jen, who was the kid that graduated in 2003 who always wore that hat and fishing vest?” I rattle off a name and they smack their forehead and walk away, not even finding it the least bit entertaining that I remember them all—the funny ones, the quiet ones, even the ones who barely showed up to school.
You see, I have been given a great gift. I am the memory collector. The funny thing is, I don’t need the mementos, the essays, or the videos. I’ve made it my mission to tuck all of you neatly into the folds of my heart and open you from time to time when legislative bureaucracy makes me scour the want ads, when I’m feeling old and disconnected, or even when I’m just having a rough day of attitude problems. I’ve made it my mission to look past the typical mistakes that come with youth and see my kids for who they really are—in some cases, little perfectionists that are much too hard on themselves. In other cases, awkward, hot messes that are even more spectacular than they could ever realize.
My life is a cycle. I know that you will leave, and I will get others. We’ll have our own memories with Beowulf, Grendel, Oedipus, Macbeth not to mention all of the same school activities you’ve experienced. But if I’m being honest, I share the same fear that one of your classmates posed. The space in my heart is not finite, and I don’t want replacements to overshadow my beautiful past. I have yet to find another Chloe Steerman, Matt Rafferty, or John Gonoude. Similarly, how can I find a boy like Vraj who will start a sweet little friendship over a college essay google doc; another Carolyn learning the lesson that we will one day thank those who broke our hearts; another Alex to call me mom and keep me organized; another Dante to make me laugh and cry in the very same moment; another Dan, Ethan, or Andy reminding me every day what I love so much about my own son; another Brandon who has never once worried about a grade—only the value of real learning; another Noelle or Hannah to show me that stigmas exist and maybe I should dust off the Bell Jar from the shelf more often; another Isaiah to save my life and another Josh to simultaneously teach me about life; another Saloni to remind me of all the good I might not see in a very bad day; another Anna who arrives in my classroom at just the right time, every damn time I need a pick-me-up. Another one of you.
The poet Rumi tells us not to grieve. That everything we lose will come around in another form. It’s a lovely thought, and I agree, to an extent. We fill gaps to deal with pain, but there are no replacements in this life. I suspect one day when I’m a very old woman, I will open the book I’ve been chipping away at for the past three years, and I’ll tell about you. You with all your imperfections, you with the lovely awkwardness that encompasses these cinderblock walls, you—forever young in my mind. You are not just a passing face in this broken building, not just a name that showed up on my Sapphire roster. You were here—an addition to my amazing collection.