the dragonflies tell me so
There is a swarm of dragonflies outside my classroom window that I find delightful to watch around lunchtime. A cluster, I should say. In 2nd grade we learn about collective nouns and it is, far and away, our favorite lesson. A clutter of spiders; a gaggle of geese; a congregation of alligators; a troop of gorillas--who wouldn’t want to know these things?
I am here, now, and it is summertime. I am on-hand during the month of June in case any of the summer camps on campus need a pseudo-administrator at any point. But really all I do is order textbooks, rearrange shelves, work on school-related things. Sometimes I write. I sandbag August, really. Do as many things as I can while I’m here. I think it is funny to call myself the “boss of applesauce” in the summer, although I am really no such thing. Applesauce or otherwise.
That’s a thing that my friend Bess says--the boss of applesauce. She is the person with the world’s greatest expressions. Expressions and nicknames just roll off her tongue the way they roll off mine. Names-- Giant Josie (hers), Douchie McDoucherson (mine). No Neck. Shaky Boots. Water Cooler. All of these we have made up together over the years. So many shorthand expressions and I love them all. They are instantly accessible to us both as a shorthand diary of amusement that only we are aware of. But, Bess. Bess is the best at it.
I will miss her next year when she is gone from my room. She has been my teacher’s aide for the past three years and I can’t help but think back when I see those dragonflies. Back to when she started and we hardly knew each other. Back to the first jokes when we realized we had the same sense of humor, the same general way with kids. And then back further than that. Back over the hill, around the bend, years and years ago. More than I ever imagined.
I can remember when I started at Assumption so many years ago that Maggie LaGrotta was the other 2nd grade teacher. When I think back, what strikes me the most is that she would hand me things. I was new to Assumption, new to co-teaching, new to this job the day before school started. She would just...hand me papers, projects, do-dads. Hand me our work for the week. All year she did this. We were not equal--not in teaching experience, not in Assumption experience, not in 2nd grade experience.
“Here is our work for this week,” she would plop a pile on my desk. “Start Chapter 7 in Religion this week. Have the kids take the test on Friday.” And so I did. I did everything she said.
Hurt though she was by her long-time teaching partner leaving--and I remember her swallowed back tears well--she found the grit to get this new teacher off the ground in the 11th hour. I had landed here as a substitute for a different teacher's maternity leave. Truly, that was the only reason I was on campus in the first place. But two days before school started, while I was knee-deep in learning all about middle school math--the principal at the time called me into her office. “We have a problem," she said. "We don’t have a 2nd grade teacher.”
And so. I rerouted myself. Tossed out middle school math for 2nd grade everything--and that was my illustrious entry into this community.
I once had a coworker who jokingly referred to my ability to get a job without a proper interview, saying: “You’re like a veteran actor who refuses to read for parts anymore.” I laugh every time I think about that.
In all the years that followed, I wished I could have paid her back in kind. Maggie, that is. But I never did. I never could. I simply was unequal to “paying back” a teacher of her caliber. I would never have her experience, her knowledge base, her connections. I had to make my own. It’s not equality--it’s equity. I would never pay Maggie back, but I could pay it forward.
When I began teaching at Rohan Woods School--I encountered the same. The same kind of partner teacher--one who handed me things. Who did the things she could to help me because she could.
“It’s easier for me,” she would assure me when I never quite met her minute-for-minute of the mountain of assistance she provided me. And the truth is--the only working definition we have of “easy” is “easy is when you know how”. So when something is easy for you to do for others--of course you should do it. Of course.
I never was able to pay Stacey back for all she did for me, either. Never for all the “her” things she did for me. But I feel confident I paid her back in all the ”me” things I could do for her. It’s easy. It’s easy when you know how to be yourself.
The Head of School at Rohan Woods--Sam--and I had this running joke of the “fifth year”. Looking back over my employment history, she noted that no one got a “fifth year” from me. The longest I had ever worked anywhere was the four years I stayed at St. Angela Merici School in Florissant, Missouri. Noco-MO. My roots. My hometown.
I had only worked at Assumption for two years before I left to answer the call to be “not a one-trick pony” and wanted to try teaching in a different kind of classroom. An independent school. You see, by the time I started working at Rohan Woods, I had been in a Catholic School classroom all my life--either in the seats or at the front of the room. So I answered the call, as I do, and as I always will.
“Whoever gets the FIFTH year remains to be seen,” said Sam one day in my fourth year of teaching there. And Rohan Woods? Surely that magical, nestled in place deserved it. Alas, it wasn’t to be, I only stayed there for four.
I remember telling Sam I was leaving, teary-eyed in her office--such a warm place.
“But I’ve always known,” she said as she came around her desk to sit across from me. “You are a bit of a gypsy, Mona. You always will be. I knew we had you as long as we were going to...and I know it is time to move on.”
Stacy echoed the sentiment, “I had you longer than I thought I would.”
I returned to Assumption after that year. The wind was blowing me that way and so I rode the tide of life back. I told Sam, “I have to go. Somebody needs me. I don’t know why, but I hear the call enough to go.” So the mystery lived on--who would get the fifth year?
My fourth year back at Assumption, a pandemic struck. The fifth year, after all of our flirting with mystery, turned out to be simply a given. Last year. The fifth year. The COVID teaching year. Where else would I be? Here, keeping the fires burning through an extraordinarily difficult time. Guarding the gate. Doing my part to keep up the good spirit as best as one small contribution can. Maggie retired that year, exit stage left, without half the pomp and circumstance she deserved. But she was a servant to the end. It was a lonely good-bye, I think. No kids, the place a ghost town. Only the teachers in masks. Six feet apart. No, I never paid her back in kind. But I hope I paid it forward. This place she and I both love and have loved so well.
If you look up the symbolism of dragonflies, you will find many avenues to explore. Every culture has a slightly different meaning, but they all revolve around change. Transformation. I found it interesting to note, on a personal level, that while dragonflies most often exist around water, my personal cluster outside my window is nowhere near it. Just grass and sunshine. Still, the concept of water as representative of “emotions and the unconscious parts of the soul” is a beautiful one to me and I shall keep it. But mostly I loved reading that dragonflies remind us to be adaptable, creative and inspired--even if that means changing the way we approach our world, in thought or in action.
Yes. Adaptable. Yes, I will have to be. This next year--the sixth one in one place!--will carry with it change. And the biggest change is the best one. Bess will no longer be in my classroom, but will be in her own room across the hall. The fifth year--well that was one for the record books. But the sixth? Oh, but that will be the best one yet! Change, transformation, new ways of doing things. Yes, these will all come to our door. But I know in my soul these will be adventurous and light and lovely. I know this every day as I watch them dip and dazzle.
The dragonflies tell me so.