Welcome back. Goodbye.

On the last day of instruction for high school seniors, I greeted many for the first time. “Nice to meet you,” I said as student after student took a seat – every other desk remained empty to keep social distancing. Our last hybrid Honors English 12 class began. Does anything encapsulate this disjointed year better than welcoming students and sending them off on the same day? 

“I didn’t want my last memory of senior year to be clicking the ‘Leave Meeting’ button,” said Kaleb. Yet, that’s exactly how 60% of the class of 2021 ended their 13 years of public education in my school district. The students who opted for in-person instruction started returning to the building on April 6, alternating A weeks and B weeks so that we could stay six feet apart in the classrooms. 

The result is that students couldn’t sit with their lifelong friends until the last week of school, when they collapsed the A-B weeks as more community members got vaccinated. Any seniors who wanted to return in-person could do so. Suddenly, 15 students in a class felt jam-packed. It was great to hear their voices again and see those beautiful eyes looking up from their laptops. 

On the way out, Aaron gave me his senior photo, a little wallet-sized memento – the facial hair visible above his lip caused me to smile. I’d never seen his full face. At the Senior Farewell Party earlier in the week, Marta and I posed for a photo outside the football stadium, maskless for the first time. She’s been in my class all year, but I didn’t know she wore braces. Her nose and mouth looked different from how I imagined it. 

Bidding adieu on Zoom was anti-climactic – even though teachers made little speeches about resilience and perseverance. “Does anyone want to turn on their camera to wave goodbye?” A few faces popped up briefly on my screen, but most virtual students just disappeared when class was over. Some have chosen to skip the in-person graduation ceremony in two weeks as well, remaining enigmatic little black boxes in perpetuity. 

It’s too raw to process what this pandemic year has meant for young people. I’m a married woman with decades-long friendships to bolster me throughout the year. However, I’ve been back at school for two months, and have nearly forgotten how to make small talk. Kids will be affected for the rest of their lives in ways we can only imagine – a new kind of PTSD will take hold as a year of social isolation becomes a silent national crisis.

I hope that our school system will examine some of the old policies and procedures. What used to seem so normal — 18-year-olds asking for permission to use the rest room, penalizing kids for missing a due date — already seems antiquated. We will need to teach students how to talk to each other, how to interact as a class. We need to address the deep mental health challenges that will affect teaching and learning.

But the graduating class of 2021 will be on their own to figure it all out, to heal from the traumatic year. I hope that they’ll be okay as we send them off to “the real world.” I hope they’ll teach us all how to be resilient and persevere through hardship. I hope they come back to say hello and introduce themselves again one day. These seniors will remain in my heart forever.

Beginnings and Endings

Beginnings and endings have always been easy for me. As a young child I was constantly on the move. By the time I was 12 years old I had lived in four different states and 10 different houses. According to family lore – aka my older sister – of all my siblings, I was the first to adapt to a new place. When we moved from Southwest Louisiana to upstate New York, I was the first to lose my southern drawl and acquire a new accent. I was the first to give up eating mayonnaise on hotdogs because it repulsed my Yankee friends. My rapid adaptation to a new culture was helped by some modicum of social awareness and the general opinion that I was pretty damn cute. These traits have served me well over the years, and I may need to rely on them again soon.

My older sister has fed the myth of my popularity to all who would listen. She will never let me live this down. During the first week of school in Huntington, West Virginia – where my father had taken a job at Marshall University – I was named to the 7th grade student council while she suffered miserably in gawky adolescent angst. My sister was actively rebelling against the backwardness of her teachers, her classmates’ behind-the-times fashion choices, the poor curriculum, the “run down” school and the entire experience of leaving behind a place she loved. She was 15, awkward, and hated everything about her new environment. Even though I was affected by her negativity, I kept those opinions to myself. I got along with everyone and made true friends. Big Sister left for college three years later and only returned to West Virginia thereafter as a guest. It would be my parents’ last big move, and my and my younger siblings’ home base for the next four-and-a-half decades. My mother still lives in the Victorian house pictured above.

I have completely adapted. When people ask where I’m from, I easily respond “West Virginia,” even though it’s more complicated than that. I spent my formative years in that state and can code switch naturally. After college – West Virginia University, with a gap year in Boston – I moved to Washington DC, then applied to the Peace Corps. I was on my 17th home in 23 years and I wanted to live overseas desperately. What is it about being the newcomer that is so addicting? For years, all I had to do was show up, smile, and try to fit in. People were so nice and accepting. In some back channel of my mind I wanted to re-create that pleasant childhood experience.

In my mid-20’s I spent two years in the Peace Corps in West Africa, where I met my husband. I smiled and he showed up again and again. I was his “vision in white,” and he was my “knight in shining armor.” The fact that we’d met in West Africa meant that I had met my true match in terms of adapting to a new culture. After we married and our children were born, he became Peace Corps Country Director, and we moved back to Africa. I was more than willing to follow him overseas, to become the welcomed newcomer again. When you’re the novice, people have few expectations of you yet, and it’s possible to reinvent yourself while nobody’s paying attention. When we first arrived in West Africa, I still had the robust confidence that comes with youth. I was going to lead literary salons, host international parties, travel, and write a book. Except that I was a “trailing spouse” with two children under the age of five. I quickly learned that I needed more than good looks and wishful thinking to get by.

The year I turned 40 provided a jolting wake up. My social expectations had been shaped by Peace Corps, but I was surrounded by expats who played by different rules. The easy friendships that had always come to me without effort suddenly became tense. It seemed that my husband’s high status position – or maybe the fact that I had young children – changed people’s perceptions of me. Or maybe it was because I became the old-timer and was supposed to lead the way. It was such a struggle to adapt to others’ expectations in West Africa, that I’ve written a 400-page memoir about how difficult that sojourn was. At least one of my youthful dreams has come true.

So why, in 2017, am I seeking the newcomer experience again? On September 1st, I will be moving to Laos, Southeast Asia, for an English Language Teaching Fellowship through the U.S. Department of State. This time, I am going alone, without husband or family. Another new beginning. While I’m excited to start fresh in a new place where my professional experience might allow me to make a big difference, I am nervous that maybe I will not be able to adapt well socially. I will arrive with only one context, one role: Teacher. I will not be “the wife of ~” or “the mother of ~.” That puts more pressure on me to make friends and claim my own extracurricular identity. I think I’m ready.

Some teacher colleagues believe I’m brave and adventurous, but I’m really going back to my roots. I’m trying to recreate that familiar childhood experience of just showing up,  smiling, and expecting the best. I don’t know what the equivalent of eating hotdogs with mayonnaise will be in Laos, but I’m prepared to give up some of my comforts. I’ll be on  the lookout for unfamiliar customs, people, places and language that will shape my Fellowship year. I plan on sharing my impressions via this blog. Even though I’m not so cute any more, I’m good at new beginnings. I hope people will be interested enough in my experience to follow me on this amazing journey. Laos will be my 28th home.