By Susan Scofield
I could feel the wet rims slipping through my fingers as the chair slid slowly down the rain-soaked, grassy knoll. Leslie was beside me carrying our travel mugs, visibly concerned about my predicament. She was trying to buffer my decent even as the impatient UVA employee was trying to hasten our progress.“Perhaps we ought not to go so quickly,” Leslie advised the young leader of our team building seminar without pointing any fingers.
I was more direct. “If you are not careful, I will slide out of the chair, and we’ll have more to worry about than just traversing this mess.”
Leslie remained worried and alert and constantly checked to make sure I was okay as we made our way across the grass. We made it to the picnic tables in the middle of the field, but now I saw that was not to be our destination. A white, canvas tent stood out among a canopy of trees in the distance, uphill now, positioned next to a rock-studded gravel path. For most, an easy five-minute jog, but for me another story entirely.
It was raining steadily now, and I was finding it almost impossible to get a solid grip on my slippery wheels. Leslie, guiding my casters and offering moral support, suggested that Tara help push now that we were on the rock-strewn path—she had stopped trying to propel me forward at Leslie’s insistence down the slope. The three of us made slow progress, but we were gradually inching closer to our shelter. As we ascended, the ground on either side the road sloped steeply off and Leslie was getting alarmed again. It was difficult to maneuver my three-inch casters over the huge rocks on the trail, and I had to stop and rest more than once. Leslie kept checking in. “I think you are too close to the edge, Susan. Move to the right just a bit. How are you doing? We called and were assured this was accessible [much eye rolling].”
“Accessible for whom?” I thought to myself.
Finally, we reached the tent, only it was not on the path. It was now angled several feet down a pine needle-laden decline. Straight down. I sighed.
“How do we do this, Susan?” Leslie questioned cautiously. I’m pretty sure she already knew the answer and wasn’t too excited about the prospects.
“I’ll have to go down backwards, and you two will have to break my decent.” I didn’t see how this would end well knowing how difficult it would be for them to keep their footing in the shifting pine needles. I was really going out on the thin limb of faith here. I suppose they were, as well.
A few seconds and a several grunts later, I was on solid ground under the tent. The ladies prevailed and all three of us felt relieved and accomplished, and I put the return trip out of my mind for now.
Thus my ‘aha!’ moment—even before the team-building session began: we were already a team. A working, viable team that produced visible, measurable results inside the classroom and out. The session that morning concentrated on games that brought us together—young and old, new and not, with different abilities and background knowledge—to complete tasks as a group. Each person was a vibrant, essential member, appreciated and respected, and we were challenged to pool our talents to get the assignments done quickly. We did not blame or point fingers (as we knew our kids would do). We did not banish members from the tasks. We refused to give up, and instead inquired and considered, using trial and error until the desired results had been obtained. Had Leslie and I not already done this getting to the venue?
I have loved this group of people at Jackson P. Burley Middle School from the first day I rolled into the main office. No, before I walked in. In 2005, I was newly retired on disability from the U.S. Postal Service, and I was looking for part-time work. I had always been interested in teaching and decided to try my hand at substitute teaching. I filled out all the paperwork, passed all the background checks, and got my name on a list. I waited. The phone didn’t ring. After a few weeks I was venting my frustration to Julia Weed at church. I can still hear her response. “You are on the list? Great! You will be subbing for me this Thursday at Burley Middle School on Rose Hill Drive. I teach 7th grade science.” She vacated, I subbed, and fell in love. I started carrying Jolly Ranchers for clout and motivation. Diane Bressan worked the front desk and scheduled the subs. We formed a mutual admiration society right off the bat, and she let me have first pick of all of the sub positions from then on. Other schools began to call and I visited them off and on, but Burley was my first love. It was home. I subbed for three years while I worked as a bookkeeper for a couple of CPA’s in town, and enrolled in the state’s Career Switcher’s program in 2008 to snag my teaching certificate. To complete my student teaching, the acting AP, Doug Granger, set me up with Joy Tanksley, the only full-time 8th grade LA teacher at Burley at the time. It was a perfect match, and she became my mentor, colleague, and my best friend. Keith Ellen provided the opportunity for me to join the teaching staff when he took a year-long position at Western Albemarle that same year.
It is incredibly disheartening to see such negativity about teaching from the press as of late. My Burley family is extremely important to me, and keeps me grounded and focused on what is truly important: the kids. You are professional, yet caring, relaxed, yet accountable, and understanding while being firm. The 8th grade team knows my physical limitations and absorbs them without complaint. Our setup is not perfect (don’t get me started about the 7th grade workroom or the extra set of doors), but every day we go to school, do the dance, and our kids benefit. And I benefit. My life is better from knowing you. Anne Lamott, a favorite author of mine, told this story in a recent Facebook post, about a girl who couldn’t fall asleep even after her mother tells her that Jesus will be there with her in the dark, and the child haltingly responds with, “I need someone with skin on.” You, my fellow teachers, are God with skin on, and it is a pleasure to work with you.