It (isn’t) Well With My Soul

Tree, by evening_tao

The first time my college canceled classes during my undergrad, a Nor’Easter was brewing off the Massachusetts coast. It promised snowfall measurable in feet; it promised high winds and higher tides. The night before it was due, we went to the 24-hour CVS in our pajamas; it was the only place open past 9pm in our sleepy college town. I think I bought Swedish Fish, and probably some milk, because that’s what New Englanders do when a big storm’s coming.

The second time my college canceled classes during my undergrad, it was a postcard perfect day in a sleepy, small Northshore Massachusetts town. The sky was perfectly blue, so blue without any clouds to break it up. The leaves were still green, the contrast against that blue almost painful. The sun was bright, the air sweet and warm with the last hints of summer.

The reports started trickling in. It was 2001, so we weren’t as ultraconnected as we are now. We had the luxury of learning things slowly, of horror unfolding a little bit at a time, and it was still hard to process. My eyes couldn’t believe a sky could be that blue. My brain couldn’t believe that something that horrible had happened.

They called off classes when it became clear that the world was a different place, when students couldn’t get through to family in New York or DC or Pennsylvania. They scrambled to hold an emergency chapel session, pulling out Bible verses and hymns, and we went because where else could we go? We sang “It Is Well With My Soul”, meant to be a comfort in times of loss and hardship. I sang it. I harmonized it. It’s a beautiful hymn. Our voices cracked. Chapel ended and we retreated to residence halls, numb, trying to make it well with our souls.

We huddled in the lounge, watching the news on the communal TV, where we watched the morning play itself over and over again, and they talked about it, the same stuff over and over again, with nothing new. As if reiterating it every two minutes could make it make sense, could make it well with our souls, could make us understand.

That night, the skies were silent.

We were a half-hour north of Boston (I used to make extra money doing Logan Airport runs with students on breaks). Air traffic was a buzzing constant I could tune out, until it was gone, and nothing I did made it tune in.

In the intervening years, as the day gets farther into the past, I think about that day. I think about the shock and the tears and finally the silence, of singing “It Is Well With My Soul” and realizing that it wasn’t. I wanted it to be. I wanted to accept it and use that to move on. My first years teaching we’d talk about where we were; my students mostly remembered, had been in middle school. Then elementary school. By the time I left teaching, my oldest students had been in pre-school when it happened and didn’t really remember. Sharing the experience changed.

My morning commute takes me by the town fire station, and each year on this day they hang a huge flag from the top of the extended ladder on the ladder engine, right over Main Street. It’s been eighteen years and I suddenly teared up at that red light, especially when I saw the town department out in the driveway next to the engine, in crisp uniform with hands folded and heads bowed. I wasn’t in New York, or DC, or Pennsylvania that day. I didn’t lose anyone. But my college canceled classes for only the second time in the four years I went there, and for the first time in my memory I didn’t hear planes overhead coming in or out of Boston. I started a perfect day with a good class and ended in a changed world. It’s the only world my son and countless others will ever know. It wasn’t well with my soul, and it still isn’t.

I don’t know if it will ever be.

August, and Everything After

I have a strange relationship with August.

For most of my adult life I was a high school English teacher. From the age of five until age 36, I’d never not had a first day of school. As a kid I liked school; September was my new year, a time of promise and resolution and new beginnings. New clothes. New school supplies, in the era before classroom lists. The anticipation of what I’d be learning, and who would be in my classes.

August meant anticipation. While June brought the relief of being finished with another year, August brought the anticipation of something new, even as impending autumn signaled the end of the year.

I think August really started having meaning for me when I entered high school. I was in band, so August meant band camp. It meant the stale smell of old floor wax, dust and sweat, and the stuffy heat of practice rooms when it was raining out; or the beating sun and sweat running down my face while making sure my flute was parallel to the ground… while walking from one precise point on a field to another. It meant seeing old friends and making new ones, and feeling eased in when school started in earnest, and the floor wax was fresh and some of the stuffiness had abated.

When I graduated I headed off to Gordon College for my undergraduate studies, and August took on a whole new meaning: moving, shopping, buying books, groaning over prices, using AIM to talk with my out of state friends about what we were taking, and when we’d meet up at Lane Student Center for dinner when everyone got back. It meant the initial room set up: stickytacking pictures and posters in just the right places, making sure I didn’t have an 8am class after first semester freshman year (I did manage it!) and the sad reality that was the geese taking up residence on the quad and leaving behind evidence of their presence.

I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but somehow teaching found me after I graduated from college, and held onto me for twelve years. I didn’t exactly let go; teaching was a big part of my life and I learned a lot about myself. Resilience. Creativity. Endurance. Strength. Joy. August brought a different sort of anticipation, a sense of excitement combined with fear of the unknown. While my job description never changed (I was certified English 5-12 throughout my career), every year was different. No two classes were the same, even if they were duplicate sections of the same course. The personality makeups made it different. The time of day made a difference. Whether it was raining or snowing, or sunny and 90 degrees made a difference.

Book in library with open textbook,education learning concept

I left teaching because a different career opportunity came up and honestly, I was in the right place at the right time. I still teach, but I’m an adjunct at a college that goes year round, so there’s never that particular sense of beginning, of anticipation, at this time of year. I love what I do now; I love that I have the option of choosing to pick up an adjunct position, and love my full time work. I honestly don’t miss the summers off.

When I started considering a career change people asked me how I felt about giving up the summers off. I started this job literally the day after my final school year ended, so I didn’t even have the break between the end of one school year and the start of something new. I didn’t have the build up of anticipation. But I don’t miss it the way I thought I would.

Still, August holds residual senses of anticipation for me. On hot days when the sun beats down and the cicadas get going and the sweet smell of cut grass is in the humid air, I wake up suddenly thinking I have to get ready for band camp. Sometimes I’ll catch a whiff of stale floor wax and think about going back into my classroom to get it ready for the new school year. As I write this I have a fan going that has RAINVILLE 318 on it: a relic from my classroom, a fan bought to beat the heat the best I could. Yesterday I went to Target to pick up some school supplies to donate; our local comic shop is partnering with a church for an Operation Backpack event, gathering school supplies for kids who need it. When I go to bed at night, the crickets are suddenly out, chirping in the sweet night air; I don’t remember when I started hearing them, but when I do, I know without a doubt it’s August.

And then there’s the fact that my Smol Human is almost 4, and only has one more year until he starts school. And I know that once those days come, August will be back to holding active anticipation. The cycle ended for me, but it will begin for him, and I’ll be part of it. Maybe someday he’ll go to band camp; maybe he’ll be on a fall sports team. Maybe he’ll go away to school, and he’ll have his own connections to August.

August will always hold these sensations for me, though the more removed I am from my full time teaching days, the more I realize that August was just the precursor to everything after: dreams dashed, hopes realized, strength gained, joy found. And all of those things can happen at any time, no need to wait for August.

Though crickets and cut grass will always go right through me. That will never change.