During the first two months of my leave, every time I left home I did so in full secret agent mode, planning the outing carefully to make sure I stood absolutely no chance of running into anyone I knew. During my school’s spring break in mid-March I barely left home at all except to go to the acupuncturist and the doctor; I assumed I would find my colleagues, my students, and their parents everywhere I went. During those early weeks and months, I would never have made a mistake like the one I made yesterday.
I needed to go to Target for things like cat food and toilet paper, so I went to a local shopping center where my school sometimes takes the boarding students on weekends. If this were February or March, I would have been totally paranoid about meeting people from school, but yesterday I didn’t even think about the possibility. I was eating lunch in a restaurant near the Target when I heard someone call my name. It was a student that I know casually from school, although I’ve never taught him or worked with him directly on a club or activity. I looked up when I heard my name and immediately felt my face unfolding into a smile; I was really happy to see him. I joined him briefly at his table and began asking him questions about how things were going. He more or less ignored my questions and interrupted me to say very emphatically, “OH MY GOD, YOU NEED TO COME BACK! YOUR STUDENTS REALLY MISS YOU!” It was nice to be able to tell him that I would be slowly reintroducing myself to the routines of work beginning this week.
There was no reason that he needed to reach out to me or implore me so urgently to come back to school; he did it because he honestly meant it. Now, I have received notes and get-well cards and emails from students and colleagues, and I know that there are many people out there who are wishing me well. But I have a long habit of not assuming that I am especially well-liked. Now, I have no desire to start a pity party here, so I’ll leave out the details – at least some of which are products of my own insecurities rather than anything based in reality – but a variety of life experiences, both as a child and as an adult, have led me to expect that most of my interactions with the world will be “professional” in nature: polite and cordial and respectful but without friendship or the expectation thereof. And to be honest, this has not been a terrible way to approach the world: I’m sure that this expectation has allowed me to sidestep problems at least as often as it has led to loneliness and alienation. But an expectation it is and an expectation it remains, and yesterday I was reminded once again how surprised I can be by genuine, uncensored expressions of warmth and friendship.
Tomorrow I will return to work – not to teach, but just to reenter the routine of work and see how I respond. I’ll turn some paperwork in to the business office, chat with the office staff, have some coffee, and then sit in my office and start thinking about doing some curriculum work or lesson plans. On Tuesday we’ll have a candidate interviewing, so tomorrow I’ll look over his resume and try to remember how to interview someone. My office is in an isolated location, so I could probably make it through most of the day without seeing too many people if I chose to, but I hope to be able to drop in on a few of my (former) classes and chat with students in the library later in the day.
All my life I have had a fear of being seen in places where I am not expected. Just as I would have been mortified to meet a parent at the grocery store on a Tuesday morning in the early weeks of my leave, I am nervous about reappearing at school tomorrow just when everyone has gotten accustomed to my absence. I know that most or all of my encounters tomorrow will be positive. But there’s always that question – does ‘positive’ mean polite and professional, or will there be some element of real friendship and warmth in people’s eyes when they see me return? That’s what I’m scared of, I think, and what I’ve always been scared of: that moment of initial recognition, before people have time to censor the emotions in their eyes.
But enough. I’ve just eaten dinner. I’ll read with the cats for another couple of hours. Then I’ll take my melatonin, brush my teeth, and investigate in the unfamiliar territory of the closet for items marked DRY CLEAN ONLY. I’ll go up to the attic and dig out the bag of bras. I’ll set the alarm and set the backup alarm and charge my cell phone and make sure the dishes are washed and put away. And then I’ll wake up in the morning and see what happens.