Sick Day

I drive to school in the morning at night. The moon and the stars still hang in the sky. The llano fed by the Rio Grande stretches soft and dark outside my car window like the bed I leave behind. 

When I turn onto Military Highway, white US Border Patrol suburbans appear now and again like ghosts. They train their headlights on Mexico, 1.6 miles away. I haven’t seen any people emerge in those beams yet. The lights at the international road bridge to Progreso blink red, green. Sometimes there’s a parade of 18-wheelers; mostly, it’s just me and a few other early commuters. The animals at this hour are still nocturnal. When I get to school, the milk is just being loaded into the cafeteria. I see the sunrise from the hallway door when my first period class lines up outside my room. Unless I have recess duty, I don’t go outside until 6 pm. (My students don’t have it much better, on the days when they have inside recess). Military Highway winds me home between the llano’s fields when the sun hangs close to setting. 

On the drive to school on Friday, I hit a racoon. Baby’s first roadkill. Thump. I saw its eyes shine in my headlights. 

My voice was almost gone, anyway. All I did last week was wake up, go to school, drive home, prepare for the next day, and fall asleep worrying about how I was going to get all the pencils sharpened before class. How N. has been more and more defiant. How I feel like all I do say is no. How the kids who speak the least English misbehave the most because they're not engaged. I noticed myself getting sick but was too worried I was an incompetent teacher to pay it any mind. 

On Thursday, most of my 120 students had been sweet. Miss, you’re sick, they said. Miss, you should go see the doctor. They were less chatty than usual, sort of, out of kindness. 

But your voice, you see, is power. Tone and volume change responses and reactions in ways I’m just beginning to comprehend. I still believe there’s power in silence. But you need vocal power if you’re going to corral 120 under-exercised, over-sugared Friday-morning ten-year-olds into a hallway to read silently while Kindergarden gets to use the playground. That didn’t go so hot on Friday. I rasped and coughed instructions to a substitute and drove home feeling defeated. The raccoon’ s corpse lay on the middle of Military in the midday sun.  

I got home and sorted through the surveys I had given my morning classes. I had asked them to tell me how they felt about our class, statements like (Agree or Disagree) “Miss Parker believes in my potential” “Our class feels like a safe place” “I feel like Miss Parker is working to get to know me."

I had expected their responses to be negative, based on how many of them mocked the questions while I was reading them out loud, how loud our room still gets at breakfast, and how my pockets fill with confiscated eraser bits and cootie catchers by the end of the day. 

 And I couldn’t decide if that expectation, or their positive, thoughtful responses and notes (“This is my favorite class” “Can we decorate the classroom for the seasons?”“I wish everyone were respectful to everyone else” ”HARRY POTTER”), made me more melancholy. How the heck can I tap into the potential of all of these children when I spend most of my time with them and away from them worrying I’m not doing things right? 

I just taught simile and metaphor, sorry. I lost my voice and I have been losing my voice. I have been forgetting why I’m here. I’ve been in a daily tunnel of stress and nerves, driving up and down Military Highway in a fog even on the brightest evening. 

The fog was so thick it took me about 24 hours to remember that when you’re sick you normally try to get better. I drank tea on Saturday morning and called the doctor, who told me I had laryngitis, badly infected. Don’t talk, she said, until you’re back 100%. 

So I called a sub for today. This weekend, I did all of the things I normally do for the upcoming week but breathed in between them. I took more than five minutes to eat dinner and I vacuumed my room and I spent a few hours on Sunday morning exploring river channels with my roommate in an inflatable kayak. I’m starting to remember that I need to do the things that fill me with joy, so I can bring that joy into my classroom. (Duh, but revelatory, two months into this job). 

This morning, I drove to school so I could make copies of a work packet to leave for my students. I left the building just when the kids would be pulling the breakfast cooler into our classroom. The sun’s fingers appeared. Parents’ pickup trucks lined up outside the long, low building. As I was pulling out of the parking lot, it all seemed sort of miraculous: two faithful buses shimmered on the horizon, bringing a hundred more kids for another day of learning.