Five minutes is enough time to eat a lunchtime Clif Bar when I’m too tired to pack a lunch, enough time to run to the bathroom, enough time to respond to two emails, enough time to text another teacher about something funny that happened that day, and enough time to run and grab something from the printer. It is not enough time, however, to get from my upstairs classroom to my downstairs classroom, connect my computer to the projector, and have a moment to breathe and drink some water before I start teaching fifth period.
On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays I teach five back-to-back classes in three different classrooms. I teach first, second, and third period in room 330, a small and narrow room with no windows on the third floor. This room feels like a fortress, its darkness ideal for when we watch videos in class. Students beg me to keep the lights off as often as possible, feeling soothed by the absence of light, especially during first period when they are all still waking up. Room 330 has office-style gray tables pushed together in different sized rectangular formations; two mega-rectangles made of three tables, and four smaller rectangles made of two tables. Students sit around these tables in mismatched chairs of blue, red, and green, some of which are big and have holes like Swiss cheese. Students often switch out the Swiss-cheese style chairs because they are wide, ugly, and unstable, and try and claim a more regular chair before other students arrive to class. There always seems to be one or two chairs missing if I teach on a day where no students are absent, which is a rare occasion during pandemic-era teaching.
My fourth period class is in room 339, which only became available for me to teach in after one of our English teachers left unexpectedly mid-year. We found out later she was actually very ill and had died soon after she didn’t come back for second semester, a surprise none of us were expecting or had adequate time to process during the school year. My fourth period is my Mock Trial elective which consists of mostly juniors and seniors, and when room 339 opened up for us to use, they insisted we take it so we could get off the second floor, which is where all the middle school classes take place. Room 339 is objectively the nicest classroom I teach in, but I like it the least. It feels the least my own, the least full of memories with students, the least full of character. Even though it has two perfectly nice whiteboards, desks in my ideal table-group formation nicely spaced out, and beautiful natural light, it’s missing anything that’s associated with me as a teacher. My two other rooms are decorated with radical history posters and a “wall of wonder” (where students put questions on post-its that I am unable to answer), but room 339 has nothing of my own creation.
I teach my final period of the day in room 256, a room on the second floor across from the copy room. Room 256 is a weird, short and wide shape. We had to arrange all of the desks (which have their chairs permanently screwed to them) in two sets of perpendicular rows in order for them to fit sensibly in the room. The room is full of 8th grade history textbooks, English composition notebooks, and young adult novels stacked on all shelves and available surfaces, and there are often crumbs and some trash on the floor. The second half of the school year the teacher I share the room with replaced his speakers with a bass amplifier, and then brought out his bass for students to play during lunch. On days when the weather is warm and the sun is out, the heat floods the room ruthlessly through the giant wall of sun-facing windows until we all have wet armpit spots on our shirts before lunch. I sometimes have to turn two fans on while I teach, only to turn one of them off momentarily because they are too loud for me to speak over. Room 256 also gets a generous amount of street noise, from tricked out cars blasting hip hop while doing loops around downtown Oakland, to police and ambulance sirens, to those living on the streets yelling out the thoughts that might only make sense only to the voice in their head. One time a student yelled back out the window, “HEY! Be quiet! We are having CLASS here, we are trying to LEARN.” Another time, Niall Horan (formerly of One Direction), was playing a show at the Fox Theater, which our building is attached to the back of. His fans began lining up around our building before the sun rose, caked with eyeliner and mascara, stocked with camping chairs, and full of hand-drawn signs illustrating their fandom. By fifth period, the line of fans had fully encircled the building, an impressive feat for a group of young people who theoretically should have also been in school that day. While trying to teach about the industrial revolution, Niall’s tour bus arrived at the Fox Theater and the sidewalk outside the classroom erupted into screaming and clapping. Sometimes teaching in room 256 feels like you are teaching in the middle of the street, the noises always feeling so much closer than they actually are.
To get from my third floor rooms to my second floor room, I have to walk all the way down the hall, down two sets of stairs, and down the hall again. This was a route I was jogging and racewalking my first few weeks of school. I felt like I was logging hundreds, maybe thousands of steps between my upstairs and downstairs rooms daily. I went back and forth not just while teaching, but while grading during my prep periods, if I forgot something, and if I needed to bring supplies from one room to the other outside of class. When I walked or jogged from one room to the next, I usually carried my laptop, my backpack, and sometimes a stack of papers, and my coffee cup. I often felt like a new teacher that is depicted in movies, clumsily clutching my papers and laptop frantically running from one room to the next, at times dropping something and struggling to pick it up with everything else in my hands. Hustling from fourth period upstairs to fifth period downstairs is when I felt the most stretched for time. Usually, by the time I got to my fifth period class and set up my laptop, class was already five to ten minutes underway.
After three weeks of this exhausting routine, I was venting to my coworker and she said to me “you know there’s a middle stairwell, right?” The discovery of the middle stairwell was a portal through time and space. It hid behind two big grey doors near my classroom that I barely even realized were there during my first few weeks teaching. The middle stairwell was cool, still, and far less full of people than the halls were. It was a moment of respite in an otherwise chaotic five hours of back-to-back teaching. When I enter the middle stairwell, the two minutes of time I save feel like a lifetime. I can start 5th period a few minutes late instead of ten minutes late. Whenever I go down the middle stairwell, students always hold the doors for me if my arms are full of stuff, a gesture that reminds me of just how kind my students are at a point in the day where I am exhausted. When my hands are free, I like to return the favor and open it for them, even if I am in a rush. The exchange of door holding feels like it briefly dissolves hierarchy between student and teacher and makes me feel like we are colleagues for a moment. Another one of my favorite things about the usage of the middle stairwell is the amount of time that passes when I send a student on an errand from my downstairs classrooms to one of my upstairs classrooms. I am always astonished by how quickly the student leaves and reappears; it’s like teleportation. Occasionally, they will leave and return and I will have thought they never left. I’ll turn to them and ask “did you go already?” and they will smile and hand me a stack of colorful paper or my keys or whatever else that needed to be transported from one room to the other that day.