Each Minute Counts

Lori Stryker

© Copyright 2022 by Lori Stryker

Photo by Stas Knop at Pexels.
Photo by Stas Knop at Pexels.

When you’re a high school teacher, you are governed by the clock. Each minute counts. These minutes are units of time to visit the bathroom or grab those final photocopies before scurrying to your assigned classroom. One of the things I savored most when I retired was that I didn’t need to wake up to an annoying alarm, or have my day ruled by the watch perennially on my left wrist. I still wear that watch, but only because it’s my habit after so many years. I never use my alarm.

Teaching was a lifelong dream career for me, as I was enticed by the echoing sound of the chalk on the board, and the squeak of the markers on the chart paper when I was a child sitting on the carpet, looking with adoring eyes at my own teachers. My favorite teacher was Mrs. Miller, a beautiful Marilyn Monroe look alike, at least to my eight year old eyes. I was going to be just like her when I grew up.

This story begins, or rather ends, on a typical day for me at a neighborhood high school that I was working at. It was a regular school, in a nice neighborhood, filled with students from exotic parts of the world, and plenty from right here at home. Good kids, just trying to survive high school and maybe have a good time in the process.

On this day, I was inclined to not care so much about the minutes. I had a job promotion and this was my last day as a classroom teacher. Habits die hard, though, and I glanced at my watch. Five minutes until I had to be at the front of room 220, asking for the students’ attention to begin the lesson. At that moment, one of my students entered the office I shared with four other teachers, and asked to speak to me in private. This is an awkward situation that teachers face all the time: the conflict between a student's need for privacy versus my need as a professional to protect myself against accusations of misconduct. Something in his face told me, however, that this was serious. Over time, I learned to read human expressions. Some expressions betrayed guilt; some anger. Sometimes, it was this: emotional pain. The face looks different. The muscles tend downward, and the face has a grayish tone… but it’s the eyes that reveal it. Pain, confusion, hopelessness.

Four minutes.

No one else was in the office. I sat on one side of my desk and he on the other.

What’s going on?” I asked with a look of concern.

The tears streamed down his face. I handed him a bunch of tissues.

Three minutes.

I knew what I was supposed to do. Call the main office and ask for an administrator or teacher on call to open my classroom and let the students in until I can get there. But in that moment, it was just him, me, and whatever was moving this young man to tears. I didn’t feel I could disrupt the moment.

He told me that he was at the end of his rope. That he did not want to go on…the pressure was too great. Although he didn’t say it, I knew what he meant. This is a critical moment, and one that has to be handled with care. In my teaching career, I have had this moment, thankfully, only a couple of times.

Two minutes.

I asked him if I could direct him to a guidance counselor. He said no. I told him he should talk to his parents. He said no. Only me. Okay.

One minute.

The pressure to succeed and get into university was killing him. He was trying his best, but it never seemed to satisfy his parents, who came here from another country to have a better life. I understood completely, being the child of immigrants myself. He couldn’t take it anymore and was thinking about ending it.

No more minutes.

We talked about strategies to cope with the pressure, and to put things into perspective. That he didn't need a 99% average to get into university. Most were happy to accept him with a lower average. Life is long, and he had a great life to live…he just needed to hang on until graduation and let things work themselves out. That university was not the only way to live a successful life. That I understood, because I was under the same pressure once upon a time…and that often parents don’t see their impact because they are just human too.

A phone call.

Where are you? You’re supposed to be in class.” an irritated secretary asked.

Send someone for me- I will be there in about fifteen minutes.” I said and hung up.

We talked more, the student and I. He wiped his tears and said he felt better. I sent him off with a final request to please talk to his parents, even though he perceived them to be the source of his angst. Having my own teenagers, I pleaded with him to talk to them and that they loved him more than anyone in the world. He thanked me and I told him I was proud of him for seeking help in his moment of distress. I escorted him out of the office. I don’t know where he went, but it was supposed to be his next class once he felt ready.

I practically ran to the classroom and started my lesson. I ignored the questioning look of the Principal as he left the room and continued with my class.

That was my last day as a classroom teacher. I don’t know what happened to the student. I hope he felt better, and faced what was ahead with courage and support from other caring adults. A school board is a small community, so I think I would have heard if something terrible had happened.

Leaving my office that day, with my things in a box and heading for the parking lot, I felt like I had just abandoned my best friend. That feeling filled everything…even the satisfaction I had previously felt at being able to “move up”, something that is not easy to do in the field of education. Suddenly, as I sat in my car to go home, I was not as happy to leave this life, ruled by minutes.

Retired high school teacher. Currently teaches English online for a prep academy. Lives in a small town in British Columbia, Canada.

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