My drive to work was unremarkable.
The familiar four-mile route from my house in Montclair to Jewish Vocational Service, my workplace in East Orange, took the usual 12 minutes. So why did I have a premonition that I was travellng in a time machine?
The answer was clear. Not only would I be seeing my ESL (English as a Second Language) classroom for the first time since March 2020 – when the pandemic was officially declared – but I also would be emptying it out. As in-person classes resume, a new teacher would inhabit the room while I continue to teach remotely in the evening. Thirty-one years of accumulated classroom materials awaited me.
How would I react when I’d see my classroom? I wasn’t sure, but I had an inkling. For example, I still cry when Lucy Ricardo tells Ricky that they are having a baby in an “I Love Lucy” episode. And I’ve watched that scene a zillion times! What about the first note of that overture in a Broadway musical? I’m relieved the theater is dark, so that no one can see the lump in my throat and my teary eyes.
I wondered, therefore, what were my chances of emptying bookshelves and desk drawers, stripping the walls of anything that said “Merrill’s class was here” and then leaving the building without being a slobbering mess?
And yet I surprised myself. At first, the memories did not overwhelm me. Rather, I felt that a room, frozen in time, welcomed me back. While millions of covid deaths, a new president, an insurrection at the Capitol and a war in Ukraine — to name just a few events — forever changed our world since the pandemic began, my classroom remained unscathed. Everything was exactly as I had left it when we exited the building, when we believed we would return in a few weeks or at most a few months. Even the bag of pretzels and bite-sized chocolates for the class party we never had remained lifeless on the shelf.
Of course, that stillness was unsettling. Pre-pandemic, the rooms and corridors bustled like a terminal at Newark Liberty Airport. Although English was the prevailing language, the Tower of Babel always came to mind.
I tried not to sentimentalize my visit. I had a mission. As I combed through old folders overflowing with grammar lessons, or exercises about work, health, banking, and so on, I felt like a miner searching for nuggets of gold. But all I found were shards from the past, which I easily tossed in the trash.
I took some textbooks home to donate but I laughed at the cassettes I had used regularly. Today, no one would even know what they are.
The nuggets I did find were on the bulletin boards. They were the photographs of classroom life from the past three decades. So I filled my Fresh Direct shopping bags with pictures. Pictures of Fazile using a computer for the first time. A picture of Cheriya, her husband, Edward, and their friend Faina on the cover of the December 2, 1999 New Jersey Jewish News, enjoying an English lesson.
Suddenly I was desperate to know the fates of my students. Had they succeeded in America? If they struggled, were their children’s lives easier? Did the English language remain an enigma or were they able to master it?
As I packed all the birthday cards and thank-you notes from students, I could feel their love and respect. I reminisced as I tossed postcards from around the world in my bags. I had traveled to Serbia and Albania, St. Petersburg and Moscow, but I had never left my classroom. Similarly, my students had visited cities across America and had never left their desks, as I sent them postcards from my vacations. When they actually visited Wildwood or New York City, they were sure to let me know with a card.
I saved students’ beautiful stories and I saved the scraps of paper where I had translated the “question words” into many languages. I already had known how to ask what, when, where, why, and who in French and Hebrew, but how proud I was to learn and to rattle them off in Russian, Portuguese, Albanian, Arabic, Spanish, Creole, Bosnian, and Farsi.
I laughed at a photo of me, covered from head to toe with index cards, identifying parts of the body. And I would treasure the photographs of our class library party, celebrating the fact that each student in the class had gotten a public library card.
After a few hours of clean-up, the bookcases and bulletin boards were barren. I had practically disappeared! But what about the walls? I decided to bequeath a big poster of the American flag and a map of the United States to the next teacher. In that map, there are no red, blue, or purple states. I also left him a poster of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech because it is just as relevant today as it was in 1963.
As I removed George Washington’s picture from the wall, I thought of his Farewell Address. I wasn’t exactly leaving a presidency, but what the heck, in the spirit of the Father of our Country, I wrote a letter to the new teacher:
I cleaned out “my” classroom and now it is YOUR classroom! If these walls could talk they would tell amazing stories of the human spirit – of challenge and frustration, but mostly of hope and resilience. I always pictured this classroom as a microcosm of the world. Only in this world the people are kinder and gentler.
I hope you don’t mind that I left the U.S. map and the flag on the walls. I also left you a quote about immigration on the wall. It reminded me why I came to work every morning.
Hope to meet you in person one day. Enjoy your new classroom.
While I finished packing my belongings, how relieved I was not to be a slobbering mess. Instead, I was sated with memories. I clutched a caricature of me, drawn by one of my first Russian students. In the picture, I am holding a loaf of bread and there is an English book on the desk. A heartfelt message in Russian – which, luckily for me, is translated into English – completes the picture. It still makes me smile, and fills me with gratitude, after so many years.
As I turned off the light switch and left the classroom, I thought of the final episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” where Mary Richards and her colleagues leave the WJM newsroom for the last time. Although I didn’t have anyone to huddle with and hug, I was leaving my “home,” too, and it felt like the end of an era. On the other hand, my virtual classroom and new students were waiting for me that evening.
Merrill Silver and her husband live in Montclair. She is a freelance writer and teaches ESL at JVS of MetroWest. Her work has appeared in the New Jersey Jewish News, the Jewish Standard, the New York Times, Hadassah Magazine, the Forward, the New York Jewish Week and other publications. Find her at merrillsilver.wordpress.com