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A New Teacher, Before the Beginning

There is a certain shine to early September, a hard, chestnut kind of feeling that grows inside while Indian summer makes its last stand of prickly heat. I can feel the weight of summer's ending in my hands, heavy as a load of books. No more rows to hoe in the garden. No more cicadas whining from the highest parts of trees. No more hydrants arcing freedom onto the wavy pavement.

Suddenly, a neighbor's dog I haven't heard all summer begins to bark. Passing the park, I see a man in overalls scrubbing the walls of the drained public pool. When I climb the steps of the high school, two janitors are drilling at the hinge on the front double doors. Already, they must hear beyond the drill's whizz tomorrow's din of a thousand young voices.

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Nodding to the janitors (soon I will know their names), walking past them into the empty school, I know that what I smell - that clean mixture of new books, wood polish, ammonia, chalk dust, lavatory soap - is an odor I will come to carry home with me from work, an odor I will make my own.

When the bell rings, I am so startled that I gasp. After today, that bell will call to life a huge eruption of noise - squeak of chair legs, shuffle and beat of sneakered feet, jiggle and clang of lockers, hoot and holler of hallways full of students. There is nothing so terrifying or astonishing as the first day of school. When you're a student, that is. What it's like when you're a teacher, I won't know until tomorrow.

Tonight, I'll be happy if I sleep at all.

Waiting for the second bell, I hear no sound but the janitors' distant drilling. Nothing moves except the dust falling slowly, like movie snow, in javelins of light thrown into freeze-frames by the small windows on each classroom's closed door. I am the first one here for the new teacher's day-before-school orientation. I am early. I want to be. I think that before I can make sense of a full school,

I should know it first when it is empty. I stop at the hip-high water fountain for a drink, and in the gleaming metal I see myself for just a second, almost a boy again, before the water covers it with drips.

The English office is on the second floor, somewhere between the writing lab and the library. I'm surprised to find my heartbeat quickening, pulling at the muscles in my chest, my throat, my jaw, lifting my cheeks into a smile. I never really liked school as a child.

When I recall the fall of 1969, the year before I started kindergarten, the year when both my brothers and my sister were off in school and I was home alone with my mother, I recall it without specific detail but with a surpassing sense of happiness and tenure. Perhaps, being the youngest, I could finally school myself in my mother's full attention.

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So when the next September came, I could do nothing but cry out the bus window as my waving mother diminished with each shifting gear. Grammar school I remember as a series of scoldings, my class somehow the most deserving of punishment. High school a time of ceaseless self-awareness; running cross-country after school was all I could do to escape or understand myself. There were problems to solve, stories to comprehend, languages to learn only to forget again. There were a million moments I would never trade for a chance at others, like running in a meet beside my brothers as teammates, propelling ourselves through cool autumn woods, our parents at the finish line, cheering.

I FIND an open classroom and sit in a chair in one of the rows. The big silver clock, as ever, ticks, ticks. If only my father were here and I could ask him - a high school teacher for nearly 30 years - how to make a class listen, how to project my voice, how to be funny and serious at the same time. But he's retired and 200 miles away. And there's not even the impulse now to raise my hand. Once you've crossed to the other side of the classroom, you continue to learn, but you're never not the teacher anymore.

When the second bell rings, I get up. I walk to the board, and turn. I begin.

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