It’s funny how the simplest, most elemental experiences from our youth often get overlooked in the big picture when it comes to defining our core character as adults.
Because what we think of as merely marking time can; in actuality, be a life expanding breakthrough that contributes to our future destiny in more ways than we will ever know.
A recent trip to the doctor’s office late in the afternoon reminded me of this. I was one of the last patrons in the building. And as I was exiting after getting my prescription and settling my co-pay, I noticed 2 little kids, who appeared to be brother and sister siblings, racing their toy cars on the hallway floor together. Their Mom ducked her head from out of the bathroom and spoke to them. She apparently was a janitor working her evening shift and those were her kids whiling away their time while Mom worked.
The kids had endless hallways of smooth tile to conduct their races and pursue other adventures. They were immersed deeply into their own imaginations. I could sense their innocence and their enjoyment.
And watching them transported me immediately back to my own childhood with my own Mom as a teacher at Herndon Elementary School. After my Dad passed away I switched elementary schools so I could car pool with my Mom and so she in turn could keep track of me in the afternoons. I attended 4th thru 6 grade and rode home with her every day—often staying late as a teacher’s job description often dictates.
It was an often miserable time for me in terms of the classroom time with my peers. The cool kids seemed to thrive in that period and be impossibly poised and I felt very conspicuous being the son of a teacher. But that changed when the final bell sounded–because I made friends with the other teacher’s kids whose parents were also working late. And the bonding became very intense as we spent hours making up games and ways to pass the time.
The entire school became our own oyster for passing the time and exploring once the final bus for home rumbled away. We played basketball and dodge ball in the gym. We hid and ran around courtyards and staircases and odd shaped ramps and corridors. I watched the changing of the bulletin boards and the layout of science projects and reading the various thick textbooks. The library was always inviting. Also truly nostalgic of that period was the intense smell of the mimeograph machine with its ink stenciled onto paper as I accompanied my Mom to endless copies of worksheets and quizzes being cranked out with that circular drum.
After 3:30, suddenly the school was open for adventure! My mother and the rest of the faculty stayed greatly busy with setting up lesson plans and meeting formally and collaborating informally.
Despite my insecurities, staying after school afforded me a transformed rapport and camaraderie with other faculty members who treated me very kindly. I learned to relate better to adults and to be sensitive to how teachers thought.
Of course I have so many other memories as a little kid waiting by my Mom’s side while out in public. The world was wildly wide open back then with mystery and possibility.
Like the fabric stores with all those bustling women. In fact every time I am near a fabric store to this day I get an immediate déjà vu feeling of some ancient dim memory as a little kid following my Mom around all the endless stacks of fabric patterns as the only male in the facility.
Of course back in those days, being a seamstress and sewing one’s own clothes was a much more common occurrence.
I remember stomping ants outside walking to shopping centers and noticing all the merchandise meant for adults, arranged on high tables and shelves that were just abstractions to me. In fact most of the stores were full of isle after isle of incomprehensible materials that only adults understood. Nevertheless I always felt secure and validated every time I accompanied my Mom.
And over these years as an adult, in retrospect, I realize now what a great gift all that extra waiting time was for me while my Mom was organizing her classroom and preparing lesson plans. In fact it was golden.
My Mom did an amazing job of making every one of her sons feel constantly surrounded by the greatest, most durable kind of family love anyone could ever hope for; despite all the sobering realities of making ends meet on her own and having no choice but to keep her job. Mid-life crises and career experimental-ism were simply not an option for her during those lean years of the 70s. Yet she shouldered all of these burdens silently and with great supplies of grace while I obliviously played in the background and rode home late with her after she had thoroughly burned the candle at both ends at school.
And then in the morning the three of us, back in the days when my brother Andy still went to Herndon High School, would sing in the car together as we drove in to school (“HELLO DOLLY” it was if memory serves). And it got us psyched up better than any cup of coffee ever could.
All this close time with my Mom has continued to instruct and enrich me. As a career teacher, it is clearly obvious to me how much I was influenced by watching my her stay late and work so hard after the kids left at her elementary school. Because that was when she REALLY rolled up her sleeves and caught a second wind. She seemed to thrive in that quiet, empty classroom and really enjoy going back to the drawing board to recommit her skills.
Each late afternoon was a new beginning to find solutions to problems and draw up lesson plans. And she spent an inordinate amount of time grading papers and finalizing copious details of lesson plans and emergency lesson plans just to be doubly prepared.
I learned that the more you take ownership of where you work, the more FUN you have ultimately. Teaching becomes the greatest job you’ll ever love, when the hours become contagious. And ironically, for me the biggest stamp of making it as a teacher is NOT solely the time spent with the students doing lessons, it is the after-hours time spent alone in an empty classroom tinkering and restructuring things to do better the next day. That is the fun flip side of establishing great relationships with students.
Teaching is the ultimate “wait until tomorrow” job. It means never arriving at full success until the next morning—while always enjoying the pursuit of it.
And I have come to love that same freedom myself in my own classroom. There is a special pride in the afternoon when the classroom is quiet and you can attend to cleaning up and fixing materials with only yourself to answer to.
But even beyond the vocational aspect of becoming a teacher, I think I am most blessed by learning the art of waiting from being around my Mom for the transcendental value. I learned to appreciate all the props around me and all the landscape. I learned to be content with where I was and to always discoverer new things when others just saw dead ends. And best of all, the ideas that fuel my best lesson plans at school are the same ones that excite me equally in my personal life. All of this is forged in the process of waiting–watching other people and window shopping. Taking long walks and meditating.
Waiting. Just for the love and the faith of it—and the imagination of it!
I have ever since been a fan and disciple of waiting.
And that ability has served me more than I can say in my lifetime. Because when you are willing to take stock and really trace the journey that directed you to where you are today, you can find a sense of completeness and rightness regarding where you were naturally meant to end up based on little things like waiting.
And you find that your dreams become answered for you in ways you didn’t expect when you were a kid—back in those nerve wracking times when so much energy was wasted worrying about fitting in and becoming famous.
So I am very grateful each and every day that I not only waited but understood the value of waiting. Because I treasure the camaraderie of talking to custodians and walking out with a new set of ideas and activities for the next day. And it first came to me while soaking up the atmosphere of my Mom’s elementary school and seeing how staying late helped her bloom and grow into making the classroom her own.
The waiting was always the most rewarding part. All this I got while watching my Mom and being in her precious company every day of my life.