“Oh, no! Honey, I prayed to God last night that you wouldn’t be back here.”
This is not the way that I’d expect to be greeted by a client on my second day at the same job. But she didn’t mean it the way it sounds out of context.
Vern and I arrived on a Thursday to a little trailer up on a hill with a wide view of the Tucson Mountains. We were investigating a water leak which was pouring into the void at forty gallons an hour. It was a bit of a mystery, as there was no obvious outpouring or plant growth except for where gray water drained into the yard. But the main line ran from the meter, up the pitted, rocky driveway, and under the trailer all the way to the far side, where it connected to the house and then ran to the water heater on the street side. The leak could have been anywhere or in multiple places but it was certainly nowhere obvious.
Just to ensure it wasn’t in the pipes under the house we could access, because I heard running water, and also because I wanted to, I decided it would be best to take some skirting off and go investigate with a flashlight. It was dark and moist under there from ages-old drips coming from some of the drain lines, but on the street side at least there was plenty of crawling room so I explored about to the middle of the house until I could be sure that those lines weren’t pouring the forty gallons an hour. There were, however, a few droplets coming steadily from the calcified old plastic piping to the bathrooms, leading me to believe it would be best to replumb the whole house.
As I was coming out, I heard Ms. Willard – as her friend Dave, who greeted us initially, called her – yelling at Vern. “You let that baby girl crawl under my trailer?!” She was leaning her head out the bedroom window which overlooked our workspace and stared at me in shock and disbelief as I came out unscathed and unconcerned.
“I do this all the time,” I said with a shrug and nonchalant smile. She shook her head at me.
Vern and I started to dig for the waterline, and ended up with almost an eight-foot trench (“maybe it’s just a little further this way…”). I threw my jacket off as the sun shone strong on our shoulders. Ms. Willard came out with coffee and observed me heaving massive piles of red dirt around in her yard. “How did you get into this sort of work?” she asked me.
“I volunteered.” I grinned to show her I was having fun and kept digging.
Vern asked her for a wire coat hanger and cut it into two rods to try and locate the waterline. I was delighted at the opportunity to use witchcraft at work. We found the waterline in the exact center of the house, barely six inches underground and making our sixteen-inch-deep trench feel quite silly. It was ancient and encased in rusty flakes that chipped off at the slightest touch, destroying our initial idea of attaching it to the near side of the trailer and bypassing the busted part. The whole thing was begging for death.
When I told Ms. Willard we would be back the next day and collected all the necessary documents, she asked, “So I’m approved, then?”
“Of course,” I said, not even realizing that was a question. She hugged me out of relief. She’d been putting up with having her water off for two weeks by the time we came, and plumbers had estimated the cost of repairs at thousands of dollars.
When Albert, Vern, and I came back on Monday to get the real business done, aside from expressing her wish that I wasn’t there to endanger myself again, Ms. Willard offered us coffee and homemade banana bread. “I just couldn’t sleep last night worrying about this,” she said, “so I made this to help me calm down.”
I did my part in being the smallest and youngest person there and helped Albert repipe under the trailer while Vern dug the trench alongside the old waterline. Ms. Willard was not pleased about this. “Where’s your mask?” she demanded. I fetched a dust mask from the car. “Tie your hair up in a bun so it doesn’t get stuff in it! Put this bandana around it. Wear this jacket.”
“I’m not even going under at this point,” I protested, as I passed Albert, who was lying under the house, a new coupling. There was considerably less room to wiggle on the far side, and he was using bits of skirting and scrap plywood as a bed. I considered it distinctly unfair that she’d let Albert go under with just a T-shirt.
“Put the damn jacket on!”
When it was my turn to bring the main new Pex lines towards the back of the trailer I became more grateful for the jacket. A fact about pack rats that I didn’t know before is that they store cacti in insulation, eat the cacti, and leave the spines. They had been doing that under this house for years. I’m no stranger to cactus spines at this point, but it’s been a week and I am still finding them in my body.
In a quieter moment I crouched on the bathroom floor, inside, next to a hole I’d drilled and waited for Albert to send me the new toilet supply line. Ms. Willard waited with me. “I’m sorry I’m so distracted and not much help today,” she said suddenly, and I looked up to realize she had tears running down her cheeks. “I just was waiting on this doctor’s appointment, and now my paperwork hasn’t been processed and I don’t know if I have cancer in my throat, too, and all this…”
A reason I like CHRPA is that usually I am faced with problems I can fix. This was not one of them.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. I set the drill down. “Do you want a hug?”
She did. I patted her back and held her. “I keep telling all these women in my life to be strong,” she said. “Now I gotta do that, too.”
Her daughters came to visit that day, as did her twelve-year-old granddaughter, who helped pull up the kitchen supply lines. Ms. Willard pointed at me and bragged to her granddaughter. “See this girl?” she said. “She’s been crawling under that house all day, with all those spiders and whatnot!” I waved to her on my way out the door.
Vern, a champion among champions, dug the entire trench himself. Every time I’d go back to the truck to get something he would be a few feet closer to the meter, swinging a pickaxe non-stop. By the end of the day he was done, and so were we. We left it nearly ready to be hooked in.
I was not assigned to go back the next day and see the final result. Ms. Willard made me keep the jacket and bandana. I will not forget about her and I hope that our work relieved some part of the heavy burden on her shoulders that kept her up at night, baking banana bread.
I’m writing this as a letter to my former students. I don’t know that any of them will read it, but if they do, I want them to know I mean EVERY word.
I know the world is kind of scary right now. There are lots of people saying lots of things that aren’t very nice. Heck, I’ve said some not nice things in the last number of months, and I’m sure some of you have too (because you’re human beings with opinions. Opinions that often get ignored.) I also know I left and am not your teacher anymore. You have a new teacher (who seems like a wonderful person, by the way, and I hope you’re giving him a chance, just like you gave me a chance!) and that may still seem weird, even after almost a year. I know it was still strange in my first year towards the end of the year. Some of you still wanted Mr. Hillard back. And it can be very confusing when people move on in life and you’re still kind of in the same place. Trust me, I know. I’m the one who left, and it is still confusing.
I know that may seem weird. I’m an adult, right, so I should have everything figured out, right? I don’t know if I told you the secret about that while I was still your teacher in the classroom, but, well, I don’t. Chances are, most of the adults you see don’t. Yes, we have more experience, we’re older, and we’re expected to have the stuff figured out. I went to school for the subject I taught you, but one of the things I knew everyday in that classroom was, I didn’t have all the answers. And that I wasn’t just supposed to teach you how to sing and read and play and make music. Part of what I was supposed to do was teach you how to be a wonderful, unique, confident, thoughtful person. That was the more important thing really, for all that I harped and chided, coaxed and encouraged you to learn that a quarter note in common (4/4) time got one beat or that Elvis Gets Busted Driving Fast, you put your FACE in the space, Great Big Dragons Fly Around, and All Cows Eat Grass. Those things were important, yes, but they weren’t always the most important. The most important thing for me was, and is, that you connected to the music, and through that, connected to each other, and other people around the world and through time, even if that connection was short lived and just for a fleeting moment.
And I can tell you, there were some moments. You see, I’m an adult, but I would call my parents sometimes after you had a great day and just tell them ALL the things you’d done. How you’d read that rhythm perfectly the first time, how my fifth graders were composers, how my Middle School chorus sang in three parts a capella and when the piano came back in they were right in tune, how my general music middle schoolers were talking about real world issues through music and how I thought that, maybe, just maybe, you were getting it. And how happy that made me. I hope I told you that enough, that I was so very proud to be your teacher and so very proud of the learning you were doing. I don’t think I did. I think I should have said that more. So very much more.
Because, guys, I have to confess that leaving that classroom was one of the scariest things I have ever done. Scarier than packing up all my things and moving to a new state (which I still did), scarier than walking into a classroom with no chairs and no music and having to figure it out. Because what if I’d made a huge mistake? What if I had left something so wonderful and magical and full of joy and real human interaction only to find nothing here in Tucson was as good? What if no one came along to teach you how to be wonderful, vulnerable, sensitive, kind people?
Part of me feels guilty for saying I was worried. Part of me feels guilty for saying that I found wonderful things here. Because, guys, I want you to know that YOU MATTER. There are things going on in our country and world that people have different opinions on and, let’s be quite honest here, friends, adults are being really ugly to each other. And they’re angry. I promise I won’t lie to you and I confess, I’m ANGRY. I know, I said a lot in classes that I wasn’t mad, I was intense about things (stolen from my own chorus teacher, because it was true!) but that was because it was you guys! I couldn’t get mad at you, although sometimes we had hard days and it was rough. Because you’re kids! You’re still learning! But with adults, they’re supposed to have it together! So I want you to know, that we don’t. We’re trying really hard. I’m trying really hard. I want the world to be a better place for you because even though I’m not your mom, I’m still your teacher, even when I’m not there to teach you. I worry about each and every one of you each and every day. I told you that when I left. That even though I was going away, doing something different, there was not a snowball’s chance in a very warm place of me ever ever ever forgetting what you each meant to me. Each one of you made my life better. Each one of you taught me something new, did you know that? You taught me. I hope you know that.
And so, here I sit at 3pm on a drizzly gray day in Tucson, out in the desert, thinking about how I hope I taught you half as much about life as you taught me. Tuesday (because we have a holiday tomorrow) I will go into my office, and sit at a desk, and work very hard to help feed people in need. And not just to feed them, but to help them find a way out of the line for food, to be able to provide on their own. And sometimes it feels easier than teaching and other days, guys, I am overwhelmed by the scope and range of the need that their is in the world, and how people can be so very ugly about it. And I think of how many of the people in line are kids, just like you, with stories, like yours. They want to play minecraft and post on instagram, and they want the latest phone, and sing in chorus, or play in band, or wish that their teacher would let them play the recorder all day everyday. They like to draw and laugh, watch football and dance. They have normal kid worries, just like yours, and are probably really kind of confused about what’s going on. I hope they have friends like yours, and teachers like yours. And I hope that maybe, just maybe, the little bit I do here, this letter, my adventures (because let me tell you, this is an adventure.) may still teach you that you can do and be anything you want to. And that the thing I hope you choose to be most often is compassionate, caring, and kind. I hope you choose to be risk-takers and thinkers. That you choose being curious inquirers over taking someone’s word for something (but be nice about it!) and knowledgeable in an age of misinformation. I hope beyond hope you will be principled when others aren’t. The world needs more people who are as kind and wonderful as you are. And if you aren’t sure what to do, guys, before you worry about being anything else, BE YOU. There’s only one. I may not have it all figured out, but I can tell you right now, that is one thing I can do.
So I’ve written enough words. I’m not sure if this counts as “teacher talk” like it would have in a classroom, but if it does, I’m way over my allotment. I’m cheering for you from exactly 1731 miles (or 25 hours and two time zones) away. Don’t give up! Keep learning! I believe in you!