I finally took down the calendar I made Charming for Christmas, laden with photos of us and our family and friends with special dates marked. It’s just four days from the overlapping ring graphic that mocks our broken engagement. Many of those calendar faces are still adventuring together in the OBX as planned during the week prior to our dream wedding. My family still took a vacation together, they just didn’t invite me. July is the same; I guess it’s me who changed.
My associations for Independence Day have grown beyond celebration of our nation alone to encompass a student whose heart for service and empathy for others earned her the pseudonym Snow White around the time she launched her blog during sophomore year. Her birthday is the 4th of July, and after four years in my classroom exuding national pride, I can’t see an American flag without thinking of Snow and her quest for freedom and independence in high school.
At this time last year, we’d just returned from Italy, and Snow was no doubt gleefully distributing all the gifts she’d picked out for her happy dwarves back in Hampton. Now, she’s enjoying her last summer before college… but there are no more school days ahead for me to enjoy that front row seat on Snow’s journey. In a decade of public education, over a thousand young, impressionable minds have been entrusted to me for ten month intervals. Beyond meeting curricular aims, I saw my place in Snow White’s life as a mentor with a responsibility to support and scaffold beyond poetic progress, though she saw that transpire in my classroom as well.
I found myself thinking about this new graduate last week while watching the fireworks over water from a rooftop in Newport News, simultaneously wondering if I’d ever see her spark up another heated debate over a hot topic that impassioned her. In her analysis of Katy Perry’s “Fireworks” a couple of years ago, Snow White became the teacher, flushing out an empowering message of hope and healthy pride. She identified the common struggles of identify, worth, meaning, and belonging, and her words at sixteen were powerful enough to spark my mind during an expensive lightshow that faded to the background as I took a quick mental detour to celebrate the teenagers like Snow from my Yearbook staff that finally earned freedom from their four-year sentences and have untold futures to write without me.
I ran into another of my students last week, though I’m pretty sure she had to do a double take to match my familiar white Honda with the blonde curls in the driver’s seat. Job interviews in neighboring districts the last couple of weeks have reminded me of the need to change my verbiage. Since I was getting married and moving to Germany, this was always going to be my last year at Kecoughtan. Still, I reference the way my department and school and district run in present tense. I’m not their teacher anymore. That part of my career ended, and I’m excited to start over in the fall and inherit a new team of Yearbook staffers for the next ten months. I was Snow White’s teacher for four years. She graduated. I changed schools. The other primary role I had, as her mentor, that responsibility never ends.
I know that because it’s July and I’m thinking about a young woman I chose to invest in who poured back into my life with her tenacity and resilience. She outgrew the worrisome sophomore woes and walked the stage a month ago with honors cords weighing down her neck, but it was still held high and proud. I think I found Snow White to be the most free and happy over the course of her high school quest when she began to accept criticism as constructive instead of blustering to self-defense. I saw it in a traditional example with her responses to my writing critiques. By the time she was ready to leave campus for the last time, Snow White believed in herself enough and trusted me enough to take feedback and make her work better. This 4th of July baby makes me proud to be an American, proud to be a teacher, and proud to be imperfect and vulnerable so others can grow along with me like they do with Snow, for ten months or four years or a lifetime.
Last year, we missed the fireworks, Charming and me, and maybe that was symbolic, so I was determined to watch a great show from that rooftop vantage point surrounded my new faces, maybe ones for next year’s homemade calendar. We were caravanning from a barbecue, and I started to get snippy when we couldn’t find parking right away. My friend called me out on it, saying, “Watch your tone, girl.” It was effective. My concern over being late to the fireworks wasn’t improved by a snippy comment about having left earlier, as I suggested.
My personal mission for the month of July is to find freedom from myself and my inherent ability to abuse the dangerous combination of a high IQ and a mastery of the rhetorical power of persuasion to explain things away. As an English teacher, I’m supposed to be good with words. Even my neighbor felt safe asking me for a second pair of eyes on a recent cover letter given my profession. My discipline requires me to mold malleable minds in a medium that’s flexible, promoting synthesis and analysis. In essence, if I’ve done my job, kids can make connections even between things that, at first glance, seem unrelated. I’ve been doing that for years in my blog, writing about life and my garden and finding an analogy in the resolution that comforts readers who weren’t sure my digressions would cement to meaning. I’m not worried, because my typing fingers always get there eventually.
If our dream wedding was still on, I’d be writing somewhere on the shore in the OBX tonight, bubbling over all the pre-day festivities as we made memories with friends and family. No, I’m not getting married, I’m not moving to Germany, and I’m not Snow White’s teacher anymore. So, who am I? Labels are efficient. If I’m targeting a certain protein intake, a nutrition label will quickly get me the information that I need to calculate. For a while, I used an app in my phone to track my diet and exercise, but eventually I gave up because cooking from scratch produces now barcode to scan. To determine actual nutritional value, I would have to manually add the quantity of each ingredient, or find something similar just to fill my daily eating log. Either way, the need to create a label is time consuming and finding a similar meal defeats the purpose of tracking my nutrition. I uninstalled the app about the same time I decided I preferred spending my team cooking and eating rather than calculating the nutritional content in those meals.
I stopped counting calories long ago. I still fit my wedding dress, though that doesn’t matter. There are some labels on that calendar I made for Christmas that will always matter, like Independence Day and my great aunt’s birthday, but taking down that calendar is necessary. I am not Charming’s wife. My family relationships are tenuous. In the freedom of the summer when I’m not a teacher, I get to dive deep into the life lessons I need to learn most, and I know the results won’t be as obvious as my metamorphosis from brunette to blonde, but I feel a little of the peace and happiness I saw in Snow White just before graduation when she believed in herself enough to see where constructive criticism could only make her better.
Labels are great when they work. Snow White wasn’t surprised when her writing mentor was diagnosed with ADHD last summer, but I was. For thirty-five years, I survived fine without the label, but I can recall at least a dozen times in the past year that I’ve cited my ADHD as an excuse for forgetting something. In fact, I remember worrying about spending a week’s vacation in the OBX prior to the wedding because I’m “not good away from home.” I likely would have excused snippy comments to being tired because I only sleep well in my own bed, or to having a headache because I forgot to take my medicine, or to a tummy ache because I was too worried about the centerpieces to eat.
In short, I’ve let labels become my crutches and excuses for bad behavior. I’ve only seen Snow White’s bad side a couple of times in the past four years, and even in an impassioned outburst, by her senior year, you’d never catch her blaming anyone or anything. She didn’t need to master manipulate words to convince herself and others that she was still a good person despite a misstep. At thirty-five, I guess I’m coming into my own senior year of self-esteem, where I can look at the fireworks from a rooftop in Virginia and smile over the abundance of sparks like Snow White that I’ve had the privilege of learning from over the past decade.
The furthest travel I’m doing this week is to Air Power Park to catch a Pokemon Go raid with friends. I’m not getting married. Instead, I’m using July to find the freedom to fly, unentangled by the labels I’ve allowed to tether me to should and oughts, ready to take responsibility for myself in my thirties like I did without question with the young minds entrusted to me to teach… and the ones who wind up teaching me.