Beyond Room 119

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Sick Days

I woke up this morning feeling like Ariel from The Little Mermaid.

My feet hadn’t suddenly welded together to create a tail. I couldn’t breathe and live under the sea. And unfortunately, I didn’t have a posse of animals following me around, breaking into song and dance at any moment.

No. Instead, I woke up without a voice. Which is something else I can add to that list of firsts. Even in all my years playing sports, I have never completely lost my voice. It was an odd feeling – to try to speak, to know that I’m doing everything I should to be able to speak, and to hear only scratchy, non-decipherable sounds emerge from my mouth.

Being new to the whole trying-to-speak-and-failing phenomenon, I figured I could still somehow teach. I could whisper to one student and her “translate” to the rest of the class. It would work. Right?

Well, between that great idea and the fact that I had absolutely nothing planned for a sub, I got ready for a normal day and drove off into the dark morning sky to school.

Oh, the looks on their faces when I tried to talk this morning! One boy shot me the most confused look when I said something in a particularly hoarse voice. I think he thought I had traded my voice with a man.

Well, I only wound up teaching for about an hour and a half until I got sent home to rest. A teacher who can’t talk can’t really teach. Silly Jamie, trix are for kids.

But in that hour and a half, I witnessed some moments that reminded me why I do what I do, even though it’s easily the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

My student that I’ve had the most trouble with – constantly talking, talking back, not focusing, falling asleep, attitude – I made my translator. I whispered my instructions to her and she relayed them to the class. She showed such poise and self-confidence while talking to the rest of the class, and incredible care and concern for me during the morning.

Another one of my students raised his hand while the class was working independently on math. He had it raised (and was still working!) for a good three  or four minutes before I was able to get to him. I asked him what was up, expecting a question. Instead he looked at me and said with some emphasis, “Ms. Shea, you’re showing perseverance right now!”

Another girl passed this to me as I walked by her.


Is it incredibly frustrating to not be able to speak? Absolutely. (On an unrelated note, because I’ve had to be silent all day, I’ve realized exactly how much I talk to myself when I’m alone. It’s a bit scary.)

But at the same time, it’s been a tough couple of days in the classroom. Seeing the concern and compassion of my students this morning, their understanding of the situation and their self-control, reminded me that although I don’t have it all figured out, and some days are bigger struggles than others, there is a reason why I keep trying. Why I think about something to improve every single day. Why I don’t give up. Why I can’t give up.

The 23 kids in room 119 are some of the best kids in the school. They deserve my best. And I want to give it to them.

So tonight, I’m drinking hot tea by the gallon and crossing my fingers that tomorrow morning, that flighty voice decides to return. It’s time to get back to business.

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I’m not entirely sure why, but I’ve found myself drawn towards microfiction lately. Blame it on my wonderfully crazy ginger roommate from last year, on the lack of time in my life, or my inability to focus on one thing (maybe I’m picking up some of the attention deficits of my students) – whatever reason you choose, the fact remains unchanged.

One reason I’m liking it is the focus required of each piece. You have to know what you’re trying to say from before you begin, and because of that, every word has power and importance. There’s something to be said about saying something succinctly. It’s a lost skill in our society today.

I also love that the reader sees only a snapshot of the story. The more I’ve been exploring photography, I’ve realized that even one frame can tell such a complex story, even without that larger framework. There are so many shades of color, such depth, and incredible detail in even one frame. The essentials – and more – are there. The rest is a journey for the imagination to make.



The night sky blinked loudly. Focused as he was, he hadn’t even noticed the gradual emergence of darkness and constellations far above him. He continued to push through the water, one stroke after another. Unlike Moses, who needed to part the sea for his people, this water simply moved around him now, giving him the gift of passage, propelling him forward.

Running away as he swam back and forth, lap after lap, minute after excruciating minute. Hoping each new thrust of the arm, each kick of the leg, every stolen breath, would find a way to push the problem down to the depths of the dark pool.

Pause. The waters begin to calm. He has stopped. Looks around. You can see him processing each thought as he realizes the sun left the sky long ago. As he recognizes exactly how long he’s been trying to chase this away. He shakes his head in a failed attempt to provide clarity, drops of water flying from his drenched hair. His face, contorted with emotions he has ignored.

For the past hour, he’s been trying to drown those emotions.

He stops, wondering if he can express exactly why.

In less than a second, the answer flashes into his mind, unbidden and unwelcome.

Because the alternative would be to feel. To think about people and memories he’d long blocked.

To remember.


For the past hour, he’e been trying to forget it all again.

He failed.

And in failing, he has ultimately succeeded. Only now is he finally open to change. To witness the power of undeserved forgiveness. To play a starring role in an overdue story of redemption.

He failed.

And because of that, he is finally ready to live.

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She looked around accusingly. Felt the rain-drenched sand, coarse and rough beneath her feet, callused from too many barefoot midnight strolls on the boardwalk. Inhaled the salt-infused air, more potent than any drug her crazed, post-Woodstock neighbors had ever used. Heard the cackle of gulls off in the distance, fighting the violent gusts to stay in flight. She stared at the ocean, dark with all its majesty, and truly saw what was before her.

Looked at the white-capped waves, shoving each other for dominance. The grey-blue hues that fight for the right to appear after a forceful storm. The rushing of wave after wave, energetic enough to hear from the street. Waves crashing over each other, wayward, in all directions. Chaotic, but never purposeless.

It was so different from her normal ocean. The ocean that welcomed her home every night after a long day of work. The water that soothed her agitated mind with its transparent cerulean shades. That brought her peace – on most nights, at least.

But not tonight. Tonight, that peace was missing. Why, she wasn’t sure. Today had been an ordinary day, but tonight was anything but ordinary.

For those watching, it would have seemed normal. She had driven home along the same route, hit traffic in all the spots she normally did, walked her beagle down the same streets she always did, microwaved leftovers for dinner, just as she had done every other day that week – all the everyday trappings of her life were there.

And yet for all the pieces of her life that were present, something was not. She didn’t know what was missing. She didn’t even know something was missing. To her, it was just a normal day. Almost.

But somehow, the ocean knew. It felt her on a level that no one else ever had, or could. It knew her in a way that, if she was completely honest, she didn’t even know herself. It fueled her strengths, sensed her weaknesses.

To what end, she wasn’t sure. But tonight, it was there. Present. Aware.

In that moment, at this time, that was enough.

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“Do you remember how much I love you, Hunter?”

His little voice comes through my phone, 2,594 miles away yet so bright and confident. “This much!”

There’s a laugh from my sister-in-law as she narrates. “He’s holding his hands out as wide as he can.”

I can picture my nephew’s kid-sized arms, spread open like an eagle soaring high above, his mischievous grin reaching all the way to those sky blue eyes. His dirty blond hair, sticking out in all directions. His cheeks smeared with white frosting from the vanilla cake that they enjoyed for dessert.  His face flushed from playing lightsabers outside with his brother.

And for a moment after I hang up, it hurts. It hurts that I can’t be there to actually see this vibrant image in person. That I can’t show him my wide-open arms right back, and then use them to envelop him in a gigantic hug. That I can’t rumple his hair or laugh when I ask him what the magic word is and hear the response, nearly muffled by his giggles, “Potato!” (Don’t worry, we both know that’s not the normal response. It’s a Jamie/Hunter thing.)

But then I think about it. What a crazy, bizarre world we live in where I can live on the opposite coast and still stay connected to a four year old child. That even though I haven’t seen him since June, he remembers me. More than maintaining some image of a person, though, he remembers our relationship. Who we are when we’re together. He remembers that every time before I left his house or before I tucked him in at night, I would ask him that same question.

“Do you know how much I love you, Hunter?”

And every time, he would open up his arms just like I had shown him and he would say, “This much!”

So while I don’t get to see the little dude nearly as often as I’d like, I know that he knows me. More importantly, I know that he knows how much I love him. When I think about it, that’s all that really matters.

Well, that, and the fact that the next time I see him, he’s going to get the biggest hug of his life.


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A Quarter of Firsts

The past two months have been full of firsts.

The first time I picked up and moved to the other side of the continent.

My first real job.

My first big paycheck (“big” being relative).

The first time I ventured away from home without a clear ending date.

My first experiences as a teacher.

My first classroom.

My first thank you note from a student – colorful, simple, and heartfelt.

The first student who made me realize, “This is why I’m here.”

My first bout with poison ivy (definitely could have lived just fine without that one).

The first time I’ve had a sense of purpose and a realization that every single day, I have the ability to change lives.

The first time I’ve really, truly, indisputably been on my own.

And there’s been the darker side of the firsts.

The first time I wondered, “What made me think I could do this?”

My first tears in my classroom, stemming from my frustration at being unable to control my class.

The first time I asked myself if I was doing more harm than good.

The first time I really doubted myself.

It’s been four months and a day since I left California. Since the last time I saw my Pacific, silently waving goodbye to it as my plane soared out of LAX and towards a different life. Since the last time I saw the sun set over the ocean, instead of over the houses in my neighborhood. Four months since I’ve seen my sister, since I’ve hugged my little tow-headed and rambunctious nephews.

It’ll be another two and a half months until I return there. But as much as it is, and always will be, my home state, right now, it’s not home. The concept of “home” is something I’ve explored for years – during my time in Florence, at school in San Diego, and now here, amidst rural life in North Carolina. My understanding of it will always be in flux. It began with the cliche, “Home is where the heart is,” and eventually evolved into home being where the people you love are. Right now, though, my concept of home is much more purposeful, more direct.

Home is where you are meant to be. Nothing more, nothing less. This makes the concept of home pretty fluid, which goes against the popular definition of it. But when I think about it, this makes more sense. If home is where you are meant to be, then “home” is adaptive. It moves with you. Not before you, not behind you. Instead, it is where you are. Your constant companion.

Which means that, as much as I love California, as much I will always be connected to it, right now, is it home?


At this moment, strange as it may be, North Carolina is home. Here, right now, is where I am meant to be. Has it been hard? Hell, yes. Have there been moments where I wished I was back on the West Coast, taking in those sunsets and rhythmic waves? Absolutely.

Would I be happy there right now? Debatable.

Am I happy here every day? Definitely not. But even on those darker days, during those moments of doubt, there is always something I can hold onto. Some sort of life preserver, keeping me afloat. Whether it’s something a student said, one small adjustment I made that actually worked, even a student stopping before running to the bus to suddenly hug me – every day, if I look hard enough, there is a ray of sunshine.

Those rays of sunshine energize me. They overpower the darker firsts and strengthen my conviction. They remind me that as hard as it may be, the best way to move forward is to simply put one step in front of the other, and keep going.

Venturing Onward