Closing One Of Life's Doors Can Be Painful


I'm willing to bet that you have stepped out of a room and closed the door behind you several thousand times. Who hasn't? It's something we do without a second thought. But there was a moment in my life when swinging a door closed behind me was so painful I have never forgotten how it felt.

I never will.

My first civilian teaching job was with a school district in Texas.

I signed on in early August, moved my family all the way down to Port Arthur, Texas, settled into a rented house, and drove over to the high school to begin getting my chemistry lab ready.

I am very much aware of what's going on around me where most things are concerned, but when it comes to people I'm downright naive.

So when I saw the mess in my chemistry lab, not to mention the condition of my two chemical storerooms, book storeroom and three preparation rooms, I gave it little thought.

Most people would have wondered why things were in such deplorable condition in one of the wealthiest school districts in Texas.

Not dumb old Tom. I just set to work.

It took me two weeks, working 10 to 12 hours a day, including weekends, to get that wreck ready to go. And it took all of another week to get lesson plans written and labs set up for my three chemistry classes and two physical science classes.

I just barely made it before school started.

The first day of school, my students arrived and I went to work. I had taught teaching methods classes for many years in the Air Force, so I knew what I was doing, but I hate to think of what a beginning teacher would have done with that batch of kids.

To begin with, I had two physical science "resource" classes. Not special ed classes, mind you. These were average kids who were: a) failing, b) determined to stay that way and c) hostile.

My three classes of chemistry students? Oh, my! Sweet kids, but obviously not headed for careers in rocket science.

Some of the resource kids were seniors forced to retake a freshman course for the fourth time to earn the lone science credit they needed to graduate. They were beyond hostile. I would class them as -- shall we say -- filled with murderous intent?

And, my chemistry kids? Hah! Braced for failure -- one and all!

Getting the chemistry kids to understand that chemistry is the easiest of the hard-core sciences, once you get the fundamental concepts down, was the easy part.

It took a bit more effort to tame my physical science Mafiosi.

Soon enough, though, all five classes were doing quite well, enjoying their lab work, completing their written assignments and even -- amazingly! -- passing their tests.

My female department head dropped in and watched what was going on two or three times a day for the first week, then just twice during the next week and then not at all.

At the end of the first six-week grading period, my department head called me down to her office.

Looking rather embarrassed, she told me, "Tom, I have a confession.

"The fellow who was here before you was a drunk, but we couldn't prove it. We wanted to get rid of him, but we just didn't dare to fire him without hardcore evidence.

"So we let his classroom go to pot, pulled all the good kids out of his chemistry classes, and gave him two resource classes, something which is never done."

She paused and blushed. "Then he went out and had a drunk driving accident, ended up in jail, and got fired. And you came along and inherited the mess we had set up in hopes that he would quit. I apologize."

Well, not surprisingly I guess, that was the start of a teaching career that got better with time. I ended up teaching nothing but chemistry, wrote my own course, created over a hundred new labs, and -- most importantly -- spent eight happy years turning my little six-room empire into a true "home away from home."

I worked on that place for eight long years and loved every minute of it. I wrote. I planned. I painted. I paneled. I built equipment. I ... oh heck, I did everything you can think of.

I had more fun doing it all than you can possibly imagine. I loved what I was doing. I loved my lab and my prep rooms. And I sure as heck loved the kids.

I was one happy puppy!

Then came a day my wife and I talked something over. You see, while we were stationed in England, we became very close to Betty and Peter, my wife's sister and her husband. They had moved to the United States from England and Peter had taken a job as the supervisor of Terminal 4 at Sky Harbor Airport.

That was great, of course, but we were still 1,300 miles apart. They may as well have been back in England as far as getting together was concerned. Peter, of course, couldn't very well move. His job was not exactly portable, but...

As I have mentioned before, I long ago set my mind on living up here in the Rim Country, but practical considerations had made it just about impossible.

Two teenagers to raise? The pay scale for teachers here? I kept the dream alive. The old "when I retire" thing. But truthfully I doubted it would ever have happened.

Well, the kids were out of high school, and being close to family was important, so we decided to move. I flew over and interviewed in Mesa because I still couldn't afford to live in the Rim Country. But I was a lot closer, just a mere hundred miles away. All in all, I was looking forward to my new life in Arizona.

I forgot one thing though. I forgot what it was going to be like the day I turned in my keys in the office, walked back over to my lab, picked up my briefcase and turned to leave.

Closing that door behind me? Hearing the lock click? Knowing that I would never again enter those six rooms, rooms that had been such a large part of my life for eight long years?

I stood there with that door in my hand for a long time. Then I gave it a tiny swing and started down the hallway.

I could not look back as that door clicked shut behind me.

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