Friday, November 10, 2023

The Teachers of PS 39

           They were always together. Chatting in the hallways, sharing lunch in the break room, socializing outside of school. They were technically colleagues, but in essence they were more like family. It was just a small elementary school in northeast Staten Island, but they made it feel like home.

My mother was a teacher, and for most of her career she taught at Public School 39 in the South Beach section of Staten Island. She taught whatever the year required – third grade, fourth grade, music, you name it – and she did so with joy. I spent plenty of days visiting her in the school, and I witnessed the deep connections she made with students. Those visits had plenty to do with the decision I made to become a teacher myself.

But I was always fascinated with the relationships my mom built with her fellow teachers. These people weren’t all the same in terms of personality and interests. Yet they cared deeply about one another and knew all about one another’s triumphs and struggles. They all came over to my house, for my mom’s annual St. Patrick’s Day party, and for regular visits. I spent time in their houses as well, getting to know their children and becoming close with some of those kids. My mom organized Broadway trips, and the teachers would travel to Manhattan together for dinner and a show.

As I grew up, these women became some of the most important adults in my life. One of them delivered a reading at my wedding. Another became a trusted mentor. Still another gave me one of her old cars to serve as my first set of wheels. These teachers paid me to work at their houses, painting walls and raking leaves. They invited us to their Jersey Shore homes. And, when my parents retired to Cape May, they all made pilgrimages down there to spend time together. My parents returned the favor, visiting their retirement homes everywhere from Connecticut to Florida.

For most of my teaching career, I was hesitant about growing too close to my fellow educators, out of an attempt to maintain professional boundaries. It’s true that I did become an administrator in the school where I’d taught, and I found myself supervising people with whom I’d worked side by side. But that happens, and I’ve found that it is possible to supervise a friend. Over the years, my boundary-setting left me missing some of what my mom and her friends had. It’s as though I ignored the very thing they were modeling for me all along – the reality that the best friends you make in life might just be the ones teaching across the hall from you, toiling by your side in one of the toughest jobs anyone can choose. When you work in a school every day, you develop a partnership with those who care about it as much as you do, as you bond over a mutual understanding of how much compassion and dedication go into this job.

As my mom’s Alzheimer’s has progressed, these teachers have made their way to visit her in the assisted living home where she now resides. The teachers sit with my mom and talk, and she listens, sharing her wish that she could remember all the times they have spent together. They hug her tight, and tell her they love her. My mom does the same. Nothing can take away the love they have for each other. The teachers call me on the phone as well, and ask me for updates. When we finish, I tell them I love them, too. Because I do.

They will be there for my mom throughout, because that’s the only way these PS 39 teachers know how to operate. And I will be there for them as well, because that’s the least I can do to honor the friendships, the family, the inspiration, and the kindness I have received from these very special educators and humans.

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