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After 32 years, teacher closing book on a career


There was nothing unusual to mark this as Brenda Wright-Harris' final day of teaching.

The 54-year-old veteran teacher awoke at 4 a.m. and dressed in slacks, a scoop-necked shirt she could move around in, small hoop earrings and comfortable shoes. She kissed her husband goodbye and drove the 30 minutes from her Randallstown home to James McHenry Elementary School in West Baltimore.

In her classroom about 6 a.m., she flicked on the television to the local news and walked around, straightening books and pupils' desks and picking up the odd piece of trash. The day's lessons and objectives were already written on the chalkboard in a careful schoolteacher's script - it was a task she always completed a day in advance, before heading home.

Having adhered to the same routine for 32 years, Wright-Harris went through the motions of preparing for this school day without giving much thought to the fact that it would be her last.

"It's just not registering for me that this is it," she said.

Just before the morning bell rang at 8, Wright-Harris stepped outside the school to collect her class of fifth-graders.

As expected, only about half of her 22 pupils had arrived on time. She corralled the children upstairs to their third-floor classroom, which had begun to fill with warm, heavy air because the school's cooling system was once again out of commission.

As they waited for morning announcements from the main office, she and her pupils tried to keep cool by fanning themselves with booklets and pieces of folded paper. Several more children trickled in.

Then the loudspeaker crackled to life. A woman's voice announced that someone was working on the air conditioner and asked for everyone's patience. Wright-Harris used a wad of tissue paper to dab beads of sweat from her face.

Determined not to be defeated by the heat, Wright-Harris marched to the front of the room and began the day's work. The class wrote in journals, discussed newspapers, read a few chapters of a book, The Hundred Dresses, and took math and reading tests required by the school system.

Wright-Harris led the class in a commanding voice that brooked no disrespect. Though they squirmed in their seats a little because of the heat, the children did not get out of line.

"We know better," said Corey Weddington, 11.

Occasionally, the teacher announced a break and escorted the children to bathrooms down the hall and to get drinks of water. Some pupils wrapped wet paper towels around their necks or foreheads.

Wright-Harris spoke words of encouragement: "I know it's hot, but we have to do the best that we can. This is your last day of working really hard. Tomorrow, we have our trip."

The end-of-year trip to Patapsco Valley State Park on Friday was another ritual that Wright-Harris experienced for the last time. But as the trip and the final days of school passed in a blur of activity, Wright-Harris would be either too busy or too reluctant to stop and reflect.

After the fifth-graders' closing ceremony tomorrow, the teacher will start "undressing" her carefully decorated classroom with the help of a handful of children she has asked back. She will send some books home with the pupils and hold an open house for fellow teachers to look through her things and take what they can use.

She knows how these things are supposed to go, having seen many colleagues retire over the years. Some of the teachers were like her, a black woman who came of age in the 1960s and for whom teaching was one of the few possible career paths. Like her, they knew when it was time to leave.

Only once, about a week ago, has she sat down to give the end of her teaching years some thought. As she sat in her living room by an open door that looks out on a garden, she decided to write an essay about it.

Like those she has assigned to her pupils, this essay had a prompt: "How do I feel about wrapping up my career?"

It almost feels like wrapping up my life, Wright-Harris wrote in No. 2 pencil on a sheet of lined paper.

She thanked God for keeping her strong throughout her career and described the satisfaction she has gained from shaping young people's lives over the years. She remembered the many roles she has played besides teacher - parent, doctor, referee, counselor.

As her thoughts tumbled out, the lyrics of a Boys II Men song, "How Do I Say Goodbye to Yesterday" popped into her mind. She cried.

At the end of the essay, she tried to imagine how the final moments would be.

I close all books, turn off all music, look around the classroom one more time, cut out the lights, close the door, and very quietly walk away taking 32 years of memories with me.

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