Our youngest, Laine, left for college in the fall of 2007. Over the previous months, I’d become adept at eliciting pity from anyone who didn’t run the other way when they saw me. Laine’s going off to college; I’m so sad; say you’re sorry; tell me it’ll be okay even though I know it won’t. After 21 years, I don’t know how to live without children.
Kim Mertle did not run fast enough, which allowed me to capture her in The Purity. She suggested I might find comfort through volunteering in her first grade class.
What a great idea! Since my own kids were leaving me, I’d replace them with other people’s kids. I did not have to surrender to the desolation of Empty Nest Syndrome.
Initially, I think Kim worried about how my fragile state might affect her classroom. She assigned me to a corner and sent individual kids to read to me.
A darling, cherub-faced child would read with a halting cadence. I remembered when my own children first learned to read, how Gary and I would sit next to them and marvel at their recognition of the written word. They were all grown up now, in college, far away.
When confronted—“Are you crying?”—I’d tell the child, “Me on a Map is such a sad story.”
Eventually, Kim released me to the class at large and let me assist students with their worksheets. I was given a purple Awesome stamp and had the power to brand papers with my approval. It was purple-ly awesome. Sometimes I would use a colorful felt-tipped pen to draw a star on a finished paper. My unparalleled, star-drawing talent never ceased to impress.
I went on every field trip and attended every class party. I was their once-a-week angel and they were my darling babies. I fell in love with every one of them. On the last day of school, I cried.
The following year, I was given the additional responsibilities of checking in homework and presiding over work stations. I was a bit annoyed by this class at the beginning. We’d gone through this material last year and these new kids weren’t getting it. What was wrong with them? Even though these were freshly minted kindergarteners, I found the repetition of last year’s lessons rather boring.
Again, I participated in field trips and parties. Again, I cried at the end of the year.
I carried each year’s child in my heart, missing them. I wondered if they thought about me and how I helped and encouraged them. Every now and then I’d run into a former student and was delighted to see them.
They’d look at me like I was stranger danger. “You remember me from Mrs. Mertle’s class don’t you?” Without fail, none of them did.
I was stunned. I gave these kids the best two hours of my week, every week for an entire school year. I cried when they read to me. I cried.
This was a humbling experience. However, I relearned that children are creatures of the moment. At that moment in their lives, I was important; afterwards, not so much (actually, not at all).
I began volunteering to fill a void in myself. I evolved into recognizing that my role was to be of service—to the teacher and the students. I carried on, still enjoying it, but with less emotional attachment.
Over the following three years, I attended fewer field trips and parties until I attended none at all. I stopped crying at year-end and looked forward to summer break. This past year, I had an inkling of burnout when a girl handed me a snotty tissue and I said, “Why are you trying to give this to me?”
“So you can throw it away.”
“Do I look like your mother?” Even though my tone was lighthearted, she looked puzzled by the sarcasm and reluctantly threw the tissue away. I was ashamed.
In April, Kim announced she would teach at the middle school in the fall.
What about me? How was I going to get my kid fix? A couple of hours passed and I realized I no longer need a kid fix. I had raised kids for 21 years: volunteering in classrooms, going to sporting events, organizing parties, and helping other children. My addiction has run its course.
I am content with my empty nest.