I am sitting in my car in the parent pickup carpool lane, here to get Free, who has early release following a field trip to the IMAX. I am grading student essays from the final exam, skimming the main ideas and taking off a point here for not having a clear topic sentence, a point there for not embedding quotes. This grading is easy; I can get through five more in the ten minutes I have before the bell rings for dismissal.
The sun beats down through the windshield as more cars pull up, and the low drone of other parents’ chatter wafting through my car door–opened to let in some air–builds to a distracting crescendo. I put the fifth essay on top of the others and snap my blue Papermate pen over the top to keep it together before tossing the pile onto my bag. I step out of the car, slowly shifting my sore neck back and gently to the left. I’ve been doing everything the physical therapist recommended, but still the days and weeks stretch on without much improvement. It’s alright though; the day before the last day of school is here, and my pile of ungraded essays keeps shrinking. There is much to feel good about.
I amble toward the school, feeling the energy pick up as other parents move with me to gather in the front lobby. Normally, I would walk directly to Free’s classroom, but since everyone is waiting, I wait with them, watching as mothers and fathers and children shift their weight from one foot to another, looking up and around or making small talk or quietly watching and waiting, like me. I see a student of mine who just graduated a couple of weeks ago; she is here to pick up her sister. I smile, and she smiles back. I am pleased to see her, and I note, in our brief conversation, that she already seems different, already a little more at ease, a little lighter than when she wound her way through the halls of the high school, the mantle of her last days heavy on her shoulders. But perhaps it is I who is lighter, I think as she waves goodbye; maybe I am able to see her better now without the mantle between us.
I shrug the thought off and turn my attention to the trickle of children heading down the hallway toward the lobby. Bright colorful clothes and half-zipped backpacks bounce their way toward the small gathering of adults; I pull back toward the window so I can both be out of their way and get a better view of the rapidly growing troop. I study their hair, their eyes, their ever-moving hands. I see them as they are and as they will be in six or seven years, striding through the bigger halls in the school up the road where I work. I try to hold their faces in my mind, to remember that those I teach are not so far removed from these young souls, to know these young souls are already well on their way to those whose energy I am accustomed to.
I hear a teacher gasp and turn to see her greet a young girl who seems about 11 or 12. The girl gives her a shy smile; the teacher exclaims at how tall she has become. Another older sibling, I think, one who looks so young to me yet is too old for the voice and hug her old teacher gives her in the manner of one used to dealing with six year olds. I turn back to avoid the awkward exchange and return to child-gazing, letting the beauty of these beings settle on me like so much stardust. They stream past me, gracefully bumping and laughing their way through the familiar space, their faces animated, thoughtful, alive. I watch, motionless, as one turns into the next and then, there she is, the one who is mine but not mine, the one who is turning her face toward me and letting the edges of her mouth turn up just enough for me to see that she sees me, that she is pleased I am here waiting for her.
I reach out for her hand, and we walk outside to the car that will bring us back to the high school, where I keep her with me during the last faculty meeting of the year. She is polite and quiet while speeches are made, and colleagues lean in to comment on how big she’s become. Gifts are being given out to the teachers who are leaving; Free whispers to me that I should quit so she can get a present. I giggle and smooch her on the cheek; she has been making me laugh more frequently these days. I open my arms to see what she will do; without hesitation, she climbs onto my lap, and as if she were a toddler again, I scoop her up and in and close my eyes as I kiss her head, breathing her in and holding her close. This is what happiness is, this smell and this touch and this weight in my arms. This is why the world moves and seeds germinate and the sun shines and why I rise and fall with it.
It’s as complicated as being in a roomful of strangers, watching and waiting, and it’s as simple as locking eyes with the one who belongs to you, and to whom you belong.