The things you learn along the way

I’ve always enjoyed being in a classroom. I’ve been lucky to have teachers that created these kinds of spaces. It obviously isn’t possible to mention all my teachers or moments in class, so there are many other things that I’ve learnt along the way that were not mentioned in this piece, but I trust that those involved in them know who they are. I’ve kept these things with me and will continue to do so.

I’ve never been very good at endings. At saying thank you, at saying goodbye, at having to walk away when you know that there are still things you haven’t said — whether it was out of awkwardness, or a sense that I didn’t know how to say what I had wanted to.

Each time that a term, semester or year winds up, I would feel the onset of the panic and I’d end up stuck. Often, I have not been able to explain how much I have appreciated a gesture, or thank those who I feel were instrumental to it.

This seems odd for a person who talks so much. I know that I talk a lot. I’ve been told this practically my whole life. It didn’t always start this way. My mum once told me that my garbled speech concerned her enough to ask at daycare whether they thought I might have a speech issue. They explained that instead it seemed like I was thinking too fast for my little mouth to keep up. I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to work faster, trying to keep up with my thoughts. And getting stuck in the gap in between, when I can’t.

I feel a great debt to the teachers that have taught me over the years. I know the ways that I’ve thrived in carefully cultivated classroom environments. I know how much I’ve appreciated being able to exist in these spaces. I’ve never really been able to tell them what this meant to me.

I started school with teachers who enthralled us with stories of paperbag princesses, reward lists that involved them rolling down a hill or letting us be the teacher for the rest of class, and comforted me as I clumsily found myself accidentally slamming my fingers in the door trying to get back to my desk too quickly. I still remember the effort that they invested.

My Year Four teacher decided that every time we cleaned up, we would listen to the song “How Does She Know?” from Enchanted. I don’t know why he had picked this song. Maybe he explained it to us, and maybe it slipped my mind. Maybe we accepted it, not needing to question it. We would wander around the room no longer daunted by the previously boring task, as it was easier to bop to a dancing princess wandering her way through Central Park. I could still quote you the lyrics. I still remember the joy he cultivated in our classroom.

I had four Year Five teachers. That is a weird amount of teachers to have in one year, but between a move between schools and two teachers at each, it was a little chaotic. Amidst this, I ended up with my arm in a cast for about a term. A word of warning: don’t try to stop a slamming door from closing if it has a panel of glass in it. Things were harder to do with no use of my dominant hand. The combination of a mid-week work trip and notably knotty hair left me unable to tie up my hair for school — or at least unable to without starting the day in tears from the process of detangling. My final Year Five teacher had offered for me to pop up to the classroom before class started, and she would tie it up for me. She did it each morning when I needed it. I still remember her kindness.

The move left a somewhat wary eleven-year-old wandering down new halls wondering about how she didn’t know anyone. As we walked down the hallway, out walked a familiar face as if out of nowhere. It turned out that a teacher from my old school — the one who had had me when I accidentally caught my finger in the door — had moved to this school before I had. She stopped to speak to me about things about my old school and what was about to be my new school. I still remember how this conversation put me at ease. I could make this change.

My Year Six teacher loved owls. I also love owls. I don’t remember if I did before Year Six, but I know that I’ve loved them a whole lot more ever since. On our Canberra excursion, I remember standing in the middle of the Sportex exhibit in the Australian Institute of Sport. I had an excruciating headache, and was on the verge of tears. I knew I was about to cry. I burst into tears. She took me outside and we sat down on a couch in the corridor. As we sat there, she showed me pictures of owls and ducklings on her phone until I calmed down. Her plan had worked, and I was sufficiently distracted to make it through the rest of the day. I still remember the care she showed me — and the owls. As I look around at the owls peppered around my room, I can still see her influence.

I began high school as a nerd (in case you were wondering, I also finished high school as a nerd). A nerd who had been told her whole schooling life to slow down and not rush so much. However, it was the only speed I could work at, otherwise everything was infuriatingly slow. This meant that I would frequently finish tasks too quickly for what the teacher had planned. My Year Seven science teacher noticed this and started preparing additional tasks, experiments or challenges for students who finished early. I remember my friend and I at the back of the class learning to magnetise objects. We both loved and continued to love science. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

He would later briefly accuse me of stealing my paddle pop stick from the name jar (a way to pick who would answer questions), but a reminder that did it seem in character for me — a person who would constantly try to answer questions in class — to make it harder for myself to talk resolved this quickly. I still remember a check in on a day that I hadn’t been talking so much, just to make sure that I was okay.

Talking a lot in class became a bit of a pattern for me. I still remember an awkward moment during the parent-teacher interview with an English teacher where my mum had just been told that I didn’t talk in class in Geography (somehow the only class where this was an issue). My mum decided to ask my English teacher if I talked enough in class. For context, this teacher had already dealt with me during book club and this class, so knew how chatty I was. I remember the shock on his face that I was the child that this question was being asked about.

He encouraged us to question what he was saying. That just because he was the teacher, it didn’t mean he was right. Somehow, this didn’t extend to me checking his translations on phrases in a book we were reading, which was met with, “You don’t need to fact check that Veronica.” And even then, I semi-frequently proclaim that the reason that someone doesn’t demonstrate critical thinking is because they didn’t have a teacher like him.

Another of my English teachers would begin each lesson with a word of the day. Much to her annoyance, she soon discovered that I already knew many of these words or could hazard a decent guess at their meaning based on their etymology. Out of a year worth of words-of-the-day, I remember the handful of words that I’d never encountered or couldn’t guess. I can still picture the way that she would revel in that moment. I honestly don’t know if I owe her an apology or a thank you, but I certainly remember my English classes from that year.

My Year Eleven maths teacher once told me that I had panicky eyes. In her defence, she told me that because midway through her explanation of what we would study next year. I somehow communicated so much panic, that she felt the need to say that I didn’t need to look so worried. I had protested that I was leaning my face in my palm, so the only part of my face visible was my eyes. She explained that was enough to communicate the panic… No matter what else was happening, her classroom felt like a place where I could just exist. This meant more to me than I could at the time express — or could even do so now. I still remember one class where she had offhandedly mentioned to my friend that they should ask me, after class, how I was going. My friend was confused but I felt seen. I appreciated the gesture.

I learnt so much in Ancient History and so much has stuck with me — even if it means that I also am stuck with facts about market gardens in Pompeii, funerary reliefs in Sparta and administrative officers in Ancient Egypt. I once accidentally (probably) insulted a friend in the class, during a moment where, in my defence, I was really really tired (it was Year Twelve, you know?). As I spluttered apologies about saying stupid things when I am tired, he seamlessly moved the conversation on claiming that he said stupid things even when he wasn’t tired.

I’ve always enjoyed being in a classroom. I’ve been lucky to have teachers that created these kinds of spaces. It obviously isn’t possible to mention all my teachers or moments in class, so there are many other things that I’ve learnt along the way that were not mentioned in this piece, but I trust that those involved in them know who they are. I’ve kept these things with me and will continue to do so. I don’t know if my teachers meant to teach me these things. Perhaps, it was their intention all along. Perhaps, it was a happy accident. Either way, I know that I wouldn’t be the person that I am without their influence.

I still wish I was better at saying thank you. I’ve tried resorting to crocheting something as a distraction from the words I couldn’t find. Maybe it’s time to look for the words again.  This is me trying.

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