The summer of 1990 had drawn to a close and as always the morning and evening air felt and smelled different. Nature, like the smell of a new pair of shoes or the feel of a new shirt, has its own way of letting everybody know that school is about to begin. It doesn't really matter how old you are, the impact is the same. It's almost Pavlovian. The smell of early-morning dew on the grass signals the stomach to churn, telling the brain to expect a steady diet of textbooks, ditto sheets, and homework assignments. I've always felt that the New Year really begins in September and that "Auld Lang Syne" should be sung on Labor Day, not on December 31. Our new year was about to begin and it seemed more full of promise than ever before. My mother, known to the rest of the world as Jean, was beginning a job, teaching some of the most difficult high school kids in a neighboring district. She had gone back to school three years earlier to get her teaching certificate and had just graduated in June. She wanted to help kids. September 4 was going to be her first day on the job and my first day starting the seventh grade at Murphy Junior High School.
My father, who works for Social Security, had taken the day off. He didn't want to miss either of our first days and felt the uncertainty that always goes along with new experiences. My mother seemed unusually apprehensive and distracted. It was not only her first day of work but also the first day of leaving us to fend for ourselves. My parents were a team, but with this new situation, more of the home responsibilities were beginning to shift to my father.
"Wardo?" I heard my mother call my father from the upstairs hallway in one of those breathy whisper yells that people use when they want to be heard by only one person and nobody else. She always calls him Wardo, or honey, or sweetheart, Wardo is a derivative of Eduardo, which is the Spanish or Italian translation of his given name, Edward. It was early in the morning and my younger brother, Reed, and older sister, Kysten, were still sleeping.
"Wardo," she said again.
"Yes," he said from the kitchen table where both he and I were sitting.
"What time is Brooke's bus coming and where is it picking her up?" my mother asked. She has a way of asking questions to which she already knows the answer. It's her subtle way of making sure that everybody else knows, too.
My father walked to the refrigerator and grabbed a schedule that my mother had stuck there with one of those refrigerator magnets. Anything important got stuck on the refrigerator: doctor's appointment cards, telephone messages, interesting newspaper articles, and reminders from my mother on how we were supposed to live our lives.
"She gets picked up at nine and dropped off at one, at the corner of Shetland and Sheppard," my father said as if it was something that he knew right off the top of his head.
My father and I looked at each other and smiled. We both understood that we were going to have to go through the itinerary of the day as many times as was necessary for my mother to feel secure that we knew exactly what we were supposed to do. My mother is a stickler for details and possibly the most organized and prepared person I know. She can plan a meal two weeks in advance, and if she could have her way, she'' have the table set, too. We always had to know what we were doing ,why we were doing it, and when it was going to be done -–and be prepared for a pop quiz. She had just finished getting ready and had come down to sit with us for a few minutes before she had to leave.
"Your clothes are laid out on your bed," she said.
"Don't forget your loose-leaf and new class schedule."
"I won't, Mom."
"Are you nervous?"
"A little bit, but don't worry, Ma, I'll be fine. How about you?" I said, trying to redirect her attention. She had enough to think about with her own new schedule without having to worry about mine.
"I'm fine, I just want to make sure that you guys know exactly what you're doing. It's hard for me to believe that you're starting the seventh grade, and look at you."
She stopped, put her hand on my shoulder and kissed me on the cheek.
"Don't forget to find out about orchestra and cello lessons," she continued as if never having lapsed from her mental checklist, "and dancing school starts this week so you'll have to work out how and when you're going to get your homework done."
"I know, Mom, I'll take care of it." There was a pause, one long enough to let us know that she had to go but really wanted to stay. She is an enigma, a beautiful enigma. She can be as tough as a marine drill instructor yet be reduced to tears over a simple act of kindness or a poignant song lyric. She got up from the table.
"Where's my clip? It's time for me to go," she said.
My mother is always losing her clip, the metal barrette she uses to hold up her long chestnut brown hair. She scanned the kitchen, checking all the likely hiding places – the sink top, the kitchen table, the counters – before spotting it on the strap of her pocketbook. She grabbed it and instinctively put it between he lips, twirled her hair, and completed the ritual by snapping the barrette into place. It was a maneuver I'd seen her do a thousand times.
"How do I look?" she said as she wrapped a lacy sash around her hips and tied it off just below her waist.
My mother's dark green pumps matched the light green floral print in her dress and accentuated her natural olive complexion. There were tears in her eyes that she was obviously fighting back.
"Wow, you look great, honey," my father said, shaking his head and smiling.
When he looked at her, I could tell that he knew how lucky he was. My mother and father met when they were sixteen years old. They were high school sweethearts. They were married at twenty-one and started the family at twenty-five. My brother and sister and I are all two years apart. My mother was even able to plan that, too.
"Brooke," my mother said, "I want you to remember everything that happens to you today so that when I come home we can talk about all of it. Don't forget anything, even the little things. Promise?"
I got the feeling that she was saying that not only because she was really interested, but also to try and compensate for some guilt she felt for leaving.
"I promise," I said, "and you do the same thing because I want to hear about your first day, too. Why don't you hurry up and get going and don't worry about us. You don't want to be late on your first day, do you?" I said. "Oh, Mom, don't forget that you have to pick out what you want for your birthday dinner tomorrow. Dad's cooking, so that means you have to figure out what kind of takeout you want!"
I was trying to get my mother off the hook. I could sense her dilemma, and as much as I wanted her to stay home, I also wanted her to go and know that everything would be all right. We were both starting out on new adventures, but neither one of us had any idea about the real journey on which we were both about to embark.
I left for work that morning in our 1978 green Chevy Nova, fondly known in our neighborhood as "the mean green machine." Ed and I hoped that with my new job we would be able to replace it. We didn't want anything extravagant, just a car with heat, air-conditioning, and a radio that worked. Ed and I were having trouble making ends meet. His job at Social Security was steady and dependable, but the paychecks barely covered the essentials. We were a family of five living on one salary on Long Island, where it takes at least two salaries just to turn the key to the front door of the house.
The seven-minute drive to work was a mental tug-of-war. I was beginning a new life and a new career, but I was also leaving my family. I was still a wife and a mother, this was most important, but now I was a teacher, too. I had to keep reminding myself that working was a necessity. I knew that I had to leave, but I also knew that I wanted to go. I felt that where I was going, I could possibly make a difference. My job wasn't going to be easy, I was going to be teaching kids that the mainstream had given up on. I wanted to have an impact on the lives of other children, as well as my own, especially the ones who didn't seem to get a fair shake in life. If I could do that, all of my hard work getting through college would have been worth it.
It was about 7:30 A.M. when I pulled into the parking lot at Unity Drive School. I checked myself in the rearview mirror. Like soot on a rain-soaked window, streaks of mascara and eyeliner had run down my cheeks. I had lost the battle to keep back my tears.
Although it was my first day on the job, the school and the staff were not unfamiliar to me. I had done my student teaching at Unity Drive and had made some good friends there. I had spent much of the summer preparing my new classroom, and Kysten, Brooke, and Reed had tagged along. I wanted my children to know what I was doing and for them to be a part of my new experience. They came armed with scissors, stencils, and staplers to help me out. Most of their time, however, was spent running in the empty halls and stairwells, looking for a soda machine that didn't exist.
I freshened my makeup, took a deep breath, and got out of the car. I was starting my new journey. I walked into the building and wondered how everything was at home.
Excerpted from THE BROOKE ELLISON STORY by Brooke Ellison and Jean Ellison © Copyright 2002 by Brooke Ellison and Jean Ellison. Reprinted with permission by Hyperion. All rights reserved.