Arkansas – Days 1-2: Old Faces and Familiar Places

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My first day in Arkansas I drove to El Dorado (pronounced El Doe-ray-doe – which, though I know is wrong, is now what I say whenever I see El Dorado, even though I know it’s supposed to be El Doe-rah-doe…). I cannot even explain the level of excitement I had as I drove to El Dorado even though the plan was just to go sit at PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans and work on the blog/my travel plans. When I lived in Crossett, forty-five minute away El Dorado, was the closest thing we to a city, it was heaven. I mean, they have a coffee shop. A real coffee shop. And a bookstore. And a cute town square. What more could we ask for?!

PJ's Coffee of New Orleans, El Dorado, AR.

PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans, El Dorado, AR.

When I got to El Dorado it was weird. I hadn’t been there without Meghan (my Arkansas roommate – in case you forgot) in a long time. I quickly realized that the next few days were going to seem really strange without her. I tried to imagine how I’d feel going to Crossett the next day without being able to just go home and sleep in my own bed or find Megz and Olie hanging out in the living room, because I knew that bed, and that home, didn’t exist anymore. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. It just didn’t feel real.

My friends Patrick and Ella stayed in Arkansas to teach a third year so I was staying with them in El Dorado my first night in Arkansas. Ella and I met up and went to dinner at Laredo Grill, the Mexican place I went pretty much whenever I went to El Dorado. They have really good margaritas. I had a blast hanging out with Ella and catching up on her year. After dinner we went back to her place and met up with Patrick. I almost didn’t recognize Patrick because he’d let his hair grow out so much. Though I must say, later, after he showered, he totally rocked the man bun, which surprised me.

The following day I planned to go to Crossett and stop by and visit my former co-workers and students at Crossett Middle School at lunch time. In the meantime, I had a ton of other errands to run in Crossett. On the drive into Crossett I was beyond excited to see everyone and be in a familiar place again. Then I saw all the pollution coming from the Georgia Pacific paper mill and my heart sunk a little.

Air pollution from the Georgia Pacific paper mill in Crossett, AR.

Air pollution from the Georgia Pacific paper mill in Crossett, AR.

Driving in from West Crossett, the direction I was coming from El Dorado, is always the worst in terms of the air quality. Shortly after I saw the billowing smoke stacks in the distance my lungs started protesting. I could feel how hard they were working trying to filter out all the toxins and marveled at how I’d lived in this town for TWO YEARS! Then I got depressed when I thought of all the people who lived in this town for their whole lives. My first stop in Crossett was Daylight Donuts. I have since realized that this is a chain, but like PJ’s it was sort of a respite in the barren land of Crossett, so yeah, it made my day. Then I had an appointment at the doctor’s office.

I needed a few things so my next stop was across the street at Walmart. I was both nervous and excited to go to Walmart. I did pretty much all my shopping at Walmart while I lived in Crossett so it became sort of comforting to me when I stopped at a Walmart on my road-trip. They all look more or less the same so there was something familiar and home-y about being in a Walmart even if it was miles away from anyone or anything familiar. I was excited because finally I’d be at my Walmart and it would feel like being home. I was nervous because I expected to run into someone I knew. Crossett is a town of a little over 5,500 people so not running into someone you know is pretty rare.

Sure enough, as I was in the lotion aisle I turned around and there was one of my former students. I couldn’t think of her name right away so my immediate reaction was to run and hide as I pondered why she was at Walmart instead of at school on a Friday. I think I was afraid she wouldn’t recognize me, or wouldn’t be as excited to see me as I was to see her. That, and I couldn’t remember her name right away and when I did I second guessed myself. How awkward would it be if I said hi and got her name wrong?! So I didn’t say hi. Lame, I know, but still. Also, I’m pretty sure I was on the phone with Meghan when this happened which just makes the whole thing funnier.

Next I needed to go to the DMV to renew my vehicle registration. For the record, it’s incredibly complicated to do grown-up type things when you don’t actually live somewhere. For example, I send my mail multiple places hoping I get it before its too late to deal with it. When things like vehicle or voter registration come up I kind of go, well…I don’t really live anywhere, so I guess I can just pick somewhere…but then still have to deal with the whole getting mail thing, which is complicated since I’m constantly on the move. It’s probably one of the most annoying things about being intentionally “homeless.” Anyway, I decided to re-register my car in Arkansas since I wouldn’t be in Minnesota before my previous Arkansas registration expired. Plus, I didn’t want to have to go through all the trouble of getting a Minnesota license and whatnot when I planned to leave the country soon and wouldn’t need it anyway.

Why am I so nervous?!

Why am I so nervous?!

When it was finally time for me to head to Crossett Middle School for lunch I got really nervous. As I pulled in the parking lot I was like, what am I doing here?! This is SO WEIRD! Seriously, I don’t know why I was freaking out so badly. I guess part of me felt bad for not staying and felt like, I don’t know, I was somehow rubbing it in that I no longer worked there by showing up in the middle of the day while in the middle of my around the country adventure. I don’t know. Regardless, eventually I sucked it up and got out of the car and went to the office where I received a very warm welcome. It felt like going home. Like I was in college and came home for the summer and everyone was really excited to see me. It was nice. Really really nice.

I chatted for a bit with Whitney and Beth and Stacey, the school secretaries, and then went and said hello to Mrs. Spradlin and Mr. G., the Assistant Principal and Principal, respectively. Then I made myself a visitor pass and went to say hello to the kids in D(etention)-Hall before they had to sit silently during lunch. I couldn’t have been in the hall more than three minutes before students were literally running up the hall to come say hi to me. I can’t tell you how great that felt, even if I did feel slightly guilty that they weren’t where they were supposed to be because of me. I assured them I’d come to the lunchroom in a minute and sent them on their way.

When I made it to the cafeteria it was seventh and eighth grade lunch. These seventh and eighth graders were my first group of fifth and sixth graders. I wove my way around the lunchroom saying hello and checking in and giving out more hugs than I can count. My favorite hug was from Ty, an eighth grader who had been in my full year art class my first year of teaching when he was a sixth grader. He strutted over to me from across the lunchroom and when I caught sight of him I got this big grin on my face and walked over to meet him. I asked him about life and school and couldn’t believe he was taller than me now and sporting a little mustache too! As we hugged I noticed a lady I’d seen before, probably a sub/someone’s parent, giving us a strange look. I don’t think she recognized me. I laughed and was like, yeah I guess this does look a little strange…a random lady just walks into the cafeteria and students start leaving their seats to come say hi and hug me. I laughed a little. Ty is a really sweet kid. When I was a teacher he could always bring a smile to my face by stopping by my room to say hello and see how I was doing. He continued to do so even after I was no longer his teacher. So thoughtful.

After I made the rounds in the lunchroom I went outside to catch anyone I’d missed who went straight out to recess. There I found Kantrell, another boy from my first year’s full year art class and one who really pulled at my heart. He frequently used to get upset at recess and then would come to my art class right after mad as all get out. Eventually, I started doing this thing, where when I noticed Kantrell was mad after lunch I would send everyone else into the classroom to get started on bell work and would make him stay in the hall with me and tell me what was wrong or if he didn’t want to I’d tell him jokes or make funny faces until he laughed or smiled at which point I knew he was ready to join his classmates. I don’t know why but those moments in the hall with Kantrell made me believe in myself as a teacher. He was the if-only-I-can-just-get-through-to-one-student kid for me, so whenever I managed to turn his frown upside down it just pumped me up. Even after he was no longer my student I’d still seek him out in the hallway to check in on him and make sure he was good. So, I was really pleased to see him and he seemed pleasantly surprised to see me too.

There were so many kids I just loved seeing: Quinton and Lamonte; Sonny and Jalen; Keyshawn and Keoddrick and Bradley and Seth; and the girls: Asia, Anastasia; Ashlynn and Daisy; Makayla and Alexis and Meghan; Jada and Ever Rose. So many really. I could keep listing them forever. (So, dear students, if you happen to be reading this and don’t see your name, it’s not because I don’t love you and think you’re awesome, it’s only because I think I might lose my readers if I listed all of you. But you are awesome and I do love you and it was really great to see you!)

When I was a teacher my students used to ask if I had any kids. Often I would reply, yeah I have like ninety and it usually took them a minute but eventually someone would be like, “ahh, man, she doesn’t have ninety kids, she means us!” and I’d smile and laugh and say, “well, you’re certainly enough for me.” And they were. And they are. I love those kids and care about them and wish each and every one of them the very best in their futures and cannot wait to see what they accomplish and where they go in life.

After seventh and eighth grade lunch it was time for fifth and sixth grade lunch and recess. It blew my mind how small the fifth graders were after hanging out with the eighth graders. I don’t remember them being that small when I taught fifth grade. Maybe they were and I just forgot. Seeing the sixth graders was a little weird. The seventh and eighth graders I’ve known for two and a half years. Some I’d taught a whole year and knew really well, others I’d taught for two nine week periods over two years and still knew pretty well, but the sixth graders I’d only had for one nine week period, I barely knew most of them, unless they were in tutoring. I recognized all of them but didn’t remember all of their names which made me feel bad.

After another round around the cafeteria I headed to the playground for recess. Earlier, I’d met the new 5-6th Grade Art Teacher (the new me) in the hallway and asked if I could stop by to see my old classroom and he said sure. So on my way out to recess I poked my head in and stopped and chatted with my replacement for a bit. Mr. Scott (the new me) is actually the fourth new me since school started in August. Seeing the current state of the classroom made me feel really bad, I left it very neat and organized last June, and its current state of chaos was barely recognizable. I couldn’t imagine inheriting this room mid-school year and apologized to Mr. Scott for its state, even though it wasn’t my fault and wished him luck.

Finding out that my students were on their fourth art teacher of the year in January made me really want to find one of those articles about the turnover rate of Teach for America teachers so I could comment on it. I’d say something like, hey, two years with one teacher is a heck of a lot better than having four teachers in a little over a semester. I’m just saying, two years is sixteen times longer than the first three of my non-TFA replacements stayed…

After chatting with the new me, I went out to recess for a bit and then went in search of my former fellow teachers. I started with Mrs. Jones, the Computer teacher and my former co-sponsor of Student Council. We chatted for a bit and she caught me up on what I’d missed and gave me a run down of the new teachers. She filled me in on how much turn over they’d had in the school as a whole and not just in my position. Apparently the eighth graders had different teachers in all of their core subjects so far this year. Crazy.

I went down the fifth and sixth grade hallway and found the fifth grade teachers – two of whom had been my duty buddies that I had chatted with at least once a week when I taught there. They continued filling me in on the goings on around school catching me up on the things Mrs. Jones had missed. I ran in to Mrs. Elsie, one of our facilities ladies, in the hallway and we hugged and chatted for a minute. I ran into Ms. Gina one of our regular substitute teachers in the teacher’s lounge where I discovered we got TWO NEW COPY MACHINES! I was so excited I took a video of them. If you’d taught at CMS prior to this year you’d understand why this was such a big deal. If we had one working copier on any given day it was a good day. Hardly a day went by where the copy repair man wasn’t sitting in the lounge working on one of them. And I’m not exaggerating.

While I was in the lounge Mrs. Dupree, a Para Pro, and one of my favorite people of all time, came in and we hugged and chatted for a minute before she had to go back to her students. I went and said hi to Mrs. Neel and the rest of the Special Ed department and then sat and chatted with Mrs. White, the librarian, for quite a while. The only people I missed were Mr. Mullenax, the band teacher, who was gone that day, Mrs. Parker, Mr. Williams, and Mrs. Nancy, the other facilities people I used to talk to a lot, and the other Mrs. Parker another one of my favorite people ever, who used to teach eighth grade English and was my tutoring supervisor last year. I was so bummed I missed Mrs. Parker, the former English teacher, that I texted her to make sure she wasn’t hiding somewhere in the school. It turned out she was away at a conference in Little Rock! I was beyond disappointed.

Mrs. Dupree and me! Love this lady! Crossett Middle School, Crossett, AR.

Mrs. Dupree and me! Love this lady! Crossett Middle School, Crossett, AR.

Having stayed at school much longer than I intended, and not wanting to hit traffic in Crossett, which only happens at the end of the school day. I headed to my friend Katie’s apartment where I was staying for the night. Katie was chaperoning her high schoolers at a BETA convention, so I wouldn’t actually see her while I was in town, but she was kind enough to let me stay at her place anyway. I made myself some mac and cheese for lunch and took a quick cat nap before I got a text from Julie saying the middle school BETA bus was almost back from their convention.

A significant number of students were off at a middle school BETA convention when I visited school during the day on Friday. One of them, Julie, a girl I’ve stayed in pretty regular contact with since I left, asked me to come meet the bus when they got back to school so she could see me. I definitely wanted to see Julie and the other BETA kids, so I agreed to drive back to the school and meet the BETA bus and say hi to those kids. I beat the bus back to the school and noticed a group of some of my boys hanging out by the gym. Rather than sit in the car in the parking lot like a creeper I got out and went to talk to them. They were waiting for a basketball game that night. In small towns the most exciting thing is usually whatever sport is happening that night. Football. Basketball. Base/Softball. Its the (only) thing to do.

The BETA bus arrived a short while later and I made the rounds saying hello to those kids. Ashlynn and Julie had asked what I was doing for dinner and if I wanted to go out to eat with them. I said sure and Julie’s mom gave her permission to ride with me to dinner but we still had some time before we were going to meet Ashlynn so I asked Julie if she’d like to go to the Zoo first. When I first found out I was moving to Crossett, Arkansas my New York roommates Googled Crossett and we discovered the two neat things about Crossett were the rodeo and the Zoo (one of only two in the state, the other is in Little Rock). Apparently, the city of Crossett had recently voted to shut down the zoo but the people of Crossett had rallied together to save it. Unfortunately, we got to the zoo just after it closed for the day. I wasn’t too disappointed. It’s a pretty depressing zoo. Not a lot of space for the animals to roam and wander. Instead we took a walk around the pond at the neighboring park.

On a good day, when the air is clean I really love Lucas Pond at Crossett City Park, Crossett, AR. It's so beautiful.

On a good day, when the air is clean I really love Lucas Pond at Crossett City Park, Crossett, AR. It’s so beautiful.

We decided to go to Chen Chen’s, the Chinese restaurant in town, for dinner. Julie and Ashlynn’s friend Katie also joined us for dinner. Dinner was hilarious. I still think of myself as a kid sometimes, but actually hanging out with kids made me realize how much I’ve grown up. It was a little strange to find myself hanging out with eighth graders and laughing at their jokes and being the old person who didn’t understand what “Netflix and chill” meant… But I had fun nonetheless.

Ashlynn's creeper pic of me that made me Instagram famous at CMS once upon a time, Crossett, AR.

Ashlynn’s creeper pic of me that made me Instagram famous at CMS once upon a time, Crossett, AR.

That was the first time I’d ever had the buffet, which Ashlynn couldn’t believe. Megz and I had Chen Chen’s often enough but we always got take-out and ate it at home. In fact, one time we ran into Ashlynn at Chen Chen’s and she took a creeper photo of me where I look super ticked off as I’m waiting for our food. I think I was just getting hangry. In true 2014 fashion I found out about the picture the next day when students kept telling me they saw me on Instagram… I made Ashlynn show me the picture, and then asked if she still had it when we returned to Chen Chen’s for dinner. She did.

Not wanting to end our evening of fun when we finished eating, Ashlynn suggested we go wander around Walmart. Not wanting to be accused of abducting anyone’s children, I insisted everyone call their parents first to make sure it was ok. Permission secured, I chauffeured my three young friends across the street to Walmart. In a true miracle of small town awesomeness who did we happen to see walking with her husband to her car in the Walmart parking lot?! Mrs. Parker, the former English teacher I was so bummed I missed earlier, of course! She was about to get in her car as I parked mine and the girls really wanted to say hi to her too, so as soon as I parked they jumped out of the car and ran at her yelling her name. I kind of felt bad, but I was glad they stopped her so I could say hello. The girls took a picture with Mrs. Parker and then we left her to be on her way.

In Walmart a game of Truth or Dare transpired. One dare involved giving a fake flower to a stranger. Harmless, but amusing. My dare, though I immediately regretted it, was to take a magazine with something about weight loss cheating on the cover and hold it up to someone and yell “CHEATERS!” Which I did, again, only to immediately regret. I regretted it even more a minute or so later when Julie informed me through tears of laughter that the person I chose was the parent of a student I knew pretty well. I insisted we leave immediately and begged them not to tell the parent or the student. I was mortified. Not that it matters, I was just being silly, and I really have no need to be professional there anymore, but still. Mortifying. I suppose that’s what I get for hanging out with teenage girls.

Katie’s mom came to get her at Walmart and then I drove Julie and Ashlynn home. Ashlynn was so cute; she had started a The Wimpy Kid Do-It-Yourself Book, one of those fill in the blank books about your life based on the Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and gave it to me half filled out and asked me to finish filling it out with my answers and return it to her when I came back for her high school graduation. I thought that was really sweet.

I went back to my friend Katie’s apartment where I met my friend Austin, who also used to live and teach in Crossett but now lives in the next town over. We had a chill night catching up over some wine and then he went home. I woke up the next morning and went to ZUMBA. Probably one of the things I’ve been looking forward to the most on the trip was getting to go to ZUMBA in Crossett again. I used to go to ZUMBA four times a week when I lived there and I loved it! It always made my day. The people were so much fun and it was a great workout. I didn’t tell anyone I was coming so it was fun watching everyone’s faces as they realized who I was when I walked in the door on Saturday morning. We had a great class and then I went back to Katie’s and showered and headed to Little Rock.