Words by Ashley Wall
With the warmth of the sun on our backs, my crop of adolescents and I set out from the Pennfield gymnasium after graduation practice. We climbed the winding staircase—a better fit for a fairytale castle than a primary school—on our journey back to homeroom to sign yearbooks. My colleague Blayney, walking by my side, gave me her daughter Zelda’s advice, “Just write H.A.G.S. (Have a good summer)” I laughed and thought, “Brilliant!”
As I rounded the corner to homeroom, two of my sixth grade students looked back at me and asked, “Ms. Wall, do you have to be an eighth grade teacher to have the yearbook dedicated to you?” The students were alluding to the annual eighth grade tradition of nominating an important teacher for their yearbook dedication. I smiled, unable to hide how flattered I felt. They continued, “Well, it’s just, you know how you love our class and...” Surprised that their class would nominate me, I felt like a Hollywood star whose name had unexpectedly been called at an award show. This moment of kindness made me think, “What would I actually say in an 80 second speech if my name were called at graduation?”
Maybe I would tell a story about one evening during Earth Week. Glancing at my phone at 9:45 PM on my way into Whole Foods, I saw an email with the subject line reading Environmental Club Emergency! May Day! May Day!! (i.e., S.O.S.). The school sustainability coordinator was in desperate need of a plastic kiddie pool for an Earth Day demonstration at our all-school assembly the next day. Forgetting about my groceries and anticipating the opportunity for a grand adventure, I messaged my colleague back, saying that I would try to save the day. It was a risky mission, because Walmart was closing at 10:00 PM. When I got there, the Lawn & Garden Center was already closed. The teenage employee standing guard at the door looked at me, doubtful and confused at the urgency of my request for a blue plastic kiddie pool. Determined, I pointed to the walkie-talkie and said, “It’s for the earth and the kids.” As if those were the magic words, he paged someone to reopen the Lawn & Garden Center. I purchased the blue plastic pool with one swipe of my credit card, saving Earth Day at our school. I’d probably close the story with a joke, “Though maybe not exactly doing anything to actually “save the earth” by purchasing a plastic pool.”
Or maybe I would attempt to inspire the audience with a quote from American geographer, James J. Parsons: “Should anyone of the younger generation ask my advice, it would be to pay attention to the world around you, perhaps get into another culture; get out there and get agitated about a place or an issue that interests or concerns you, and learn all about it.” I’d follow by saying to the students, “Perhaps it’s the people we meet along the way who are most important in our journey. Don’t stop dreaming big dreams. Life is too short to wait. Go out into the world and explore.”
Or maybe I’d share about how I came to Pennfield. Prior to accepting this teaching position, I had lived with my best friend Ellynn, her husband, and their son. In May of 2016, a few days before her 35th birthday, Ellynn was killed by a drunk driver.
Sometimes the things that we love are swept away.
The time following Ellynn’s death was devastating. I had been building this life that looked well-constructed and suddenly it was gone. Grief consumed me.
Shortly after this tragedy, I received a phone call from The Pennfield School about a teaching job that I had been dreaming of for decades. Pacing the concrete slab in my South Providence backyard, I shared my anxieties with Ellynn’s husband about returning the call. Unsure if I was going to muster up the courage, I turned to his five-year-old son and asked, “If you were going to talk to someone in charge of a school, what would you say to them on the phone first?” He paused, made his cute thinking face and said, “Um, hello?” Ellynn’s husband smiled and said, “Go make your call.”
So that’s what I did and it opened up an opportunity. I found myself moving on. Accepting this teaching job pushed me forward in my pain, and ultimately led me to a place of tremendous joy. This experience became a catalyst for me to truly come alive and be the person I was created to be. It gave me courage to continue to live through the pain of loss but also be transformed by it.
Accepting this teaching job pushed me forward in my pain, and ultimately led me to a place of tremendous joy.
Standing at that podium, I would tell my students that this is why the Pennfield class of 2020 will forever be dear to me. I will always look back and see the decision to accept this teaching job as an unexpected treasure that helped me get through grief. When life is falling apart, let's encourage each other to keep moving forward—there are joys ahead.
In the hallway, amid the bustle of yearbook signing, I felt as though a door was wide open. I turned to the students and smiled as I answered, “I don’t know if you can nominate a non-eighth grade teacher.” When they brought me their yearbooks, I wrote some heartfelt words of appreciation and encouragement, closing with “H.A.G.S.”
Ashley is a teacher, traveler, storyteller, and the official CityLove baker. She came to the Ocean State after teaching in Cairo, Egypt, and soon fell in love with the littlest state in the nation.