Less than three months after leaving my husband, just two years after our wedding day, I moved into my own apartment in Brewster, NY. It was a two room cottage on a country road littered with stone fences and mile-long gravel covered driveways. There were trees – pines, oaks and maples – taller than any I had known on Long Island. My little cottage sat on a ten-acre parcel of land. The landlord lived in the main house just fifty yards behind the cottage. His two bear-like dogs, one a sandy colored Labrador and the other a black Rottweiler, roamed the grounds chased squirrels and lounged on the grass at the foot of my front porch. When inside the cottage only the chirping birds and the occasional whoosh of passing cars on the road beyond the stone fence could be heard. It was a safe haven, a retreat from the chaos of my former life and I knew I would feel at peace there. Eventually.
Just two weeks after moving into the cottage, I was offered a student teaching post at a school in The Bronx, some thirty miles from my new home. I was partnered with an experienced First Grade teacher named Helen. I quickly came to learn that Helen was well respected by her professional peers for her structured classroom management skills and her firm but loving way with students. She welcomed me into her classroom and taught me everything I didn’t learn in my graduate studies about what it really meant to be an effective teacher of children. We worked hard and spent every moment outside of class time planning and preparing for the next session. Most of the teachers in the surrounding classrooms gathered together in Helen’s room for lunch, checking in about what lessons went well, which copies needed to be made and how we would divide up the preparation of specific subject areas. We laughed much and shared stories about our students. I began to fall in love with my new profession and the women who supported my development as a teacher. Helen invited me to her home after school one day and over drinks I began telling her the story of my former husband and how I escaped from my former life. Helen did not judge me, or think less of me when I revealed my brutal history. She simply offered me another drink and looked into my eyes and said, “When you met me, you met God”. Many years later when I reminded her of this, she did not remember having said it but it was something I never forgot. The thing is, when angels come into your life, and many have come into mine, they do not always know the impact they are having.
My six week student teaching experience was coming to an end. I was called into the Principal’s office and offered a Guided Reading position for the Lower School (grades one through four) which began the day after my student teaching position had ended. It was now six months after I left my husband, with nothing but the tee-shirt and boxer shorts I was wearing – not even shoes on my feet – and here I was with a full-time job in my new profession and friends who made me feel like I was part of their family. I woke up each morning grateful for another sunrise, another day of work, and another dollar earned. I was blessed in ways I could not have imagined just a few months before.
When I was not working I felt the need to somehow document my emotions. I attempted keeping a journal but after a few lame attempts, found words were unable to capture what I was needing to express. I made all kinds of excuses to myself – the book was all wrong, the pen was the wrong color or thickness, I did not have a comfortable place to write, and worst of all, I could not form a clear sentence. Then one day, on the phone with my good friend Dawn whom I had met in the bookstore so many years before, she suggested I try painting. Dawn, who had always been a writer and artist, explained how I could begin by buying just a few acrylic paints in primary colors, a few basic brushes and paper or cheap pre-stretched canvas to begin with and get a feel for the medium. My next paycheck quickly vanished into the till of a local art store and I began experimenting with mixing colors and simply brushing them onto the canvas. I was surprised by how the texture, smell and feel of the brush in my hand had the power to let my mind escape into a new artistic experience. I wasn’t any good, but man, was I having fun. I began living in a new rhythm of long drives to work, shuffling from grade level to grade level trying to teach kids to read, then the long drive home, and sleepless nights fogged by chain smoking cigarettes and playing with paints. Weekends were spent getting errands out of the way in the early morning and losing myself in paint and cigarettes, cigarettes and paint. There were marathon phone calls to Dawn that lasted hours but I never shed a tear. I sat staring out the window and watched the leaves on the trees turn color and fall to the ground. I waited expectantly for new buds to bloom on the once dead branches and was altogether unable to articulate my understanding that time was moving forward. It took almost a year for me to begin to understand the gravity of what I had been through and where I now found myself.
I was living in seclusion, delving deeper and deeper into solitary confinement. What I perceived to be my haven was actually becoming a self-induced sentence to aloneness and fear. The strange thing was that I was excelling at my profession. I was like a robot at work and an indefinable mass when I was alone in that cottage. The one thing I had hoped for in my auto-pilot state was to have my own classroom. I felt ready for the professional challenge and was offered a second grade classroom for the following school year. I was looking forward to spending lazy days in the cottage painting and smoking and generally doing as I pleased.
As we all know, the best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray. As it turned out I could teach, but could not do. Not for a long while, anyway.