Of Blackboards and Rituals

My dear friend Leah, with whom I walked the halls of literature studies at Chatham, shares a lovely piece about finding rituals in unlikely places. This is the first in a weekly series; if you’d like to contribute, please let me know. Say hello to Leah. 

I had a difficult first year as a teacher.  I was drowning in paperwork, I had over-obligated myself with the supervision of extracurricular activities, and I felt like a failure.  Needless to say, I cried almost every week.  Halfway into the school year, I decided to stay in my classroom until it was time to go home and make dinner; I was single, so I had no family to rush home to care for, and I thought that perhaps a change of environment and routine would help me to be more organized.  During this second half of the year I discovered my ritual that kept me sane for the rest of my three-year tenure at that school.

In the late afternoon, the janitor came into my classroom, noiselessly.  He emptied the trash, dust mopped the floor, straightened the desk rows, and wiped down the black boards with a wet cloth.  He did all of these actions without speaking to me, probably because he did not want to disturb my grading, and left as quietly as he had come in.  He did not do anything miraculous, but for the rest of that year, and the two years after that, I had to stay in my classroom until the janitor had cleaned my room.  It was a calming event that I could not miss, and I was upset when I had to because of a faculty meeting or some other interruption.

There are obvious reasons why the janitor’s actions would restore peace to my hellish teacher’s life.  His cleaning and straightening of my room scream symbolism!  He cleared away the mistakes of the day and restored order.  The symbolic actions, however, were not the reason for my waiting for the janitor to do his job.  I waited something much better, something that tapped into a primal sense of my being.  Let me explain.

When the janitor would begin his routine, I would hear the whisper-swish-rattle of the dust mop, the gentle scraping drone of the desks as he scooted them into place, the crackle of the plastic trash bag and the soft clank of the trash can as he set it down, and the rasp of the wet cloth as he made long, swooping, glistening passes on the chalk board.  The acrid dusty smell of wet chalk dust and little drafts of air caused by his silent movement accompanied these soothing sounds.  This gentle affront to my senses immediately evoked a shivery, pleasurable, drowsy-limbed feeling in me.  It is the same feeling I get when I climb into a hot car after going swimming or when I have my hair washed at the salon.   In those moments, I feel serene, relaxed, and comforted.  The janitor’s actions evoked these feelings in me, and I had to have them.  They became essential to my day.

I reflected on this bizarre yet mundane ritual in my early teaching life and I thought at first that maybe it was situational — prompted by the stressful time that I was having — but I have since experienced and sought similar rituals.  When I was an assistant principal, I had to sit in the faculty lunch room until the last teacher left.  She was an older, somewhat eccentric woman who flitted about like a bird.  She insisted on pushing in the chairs and wiping down the tables before she went back to her classroom.  She did not perform the task quietly as the janitor had; her bangle bracelets clacked together as she quickly wiped the tables, this sound accompanied by her chattering about some student or family member.  Yet, I found her actions equally soothing and I sought them out.  They were a ritual in my day.

Not all of my rituals revolve around cleaning.  When I attend Mass and we celebrate a sacrament or a Holy Day where something out of normal pattern occurs – incense burns, a seldom-used symbolic object or vessel appears – I experience similar feelings of serenity, relaxation, and comfort.  Some actions that I perform create these feelings.  Putting on my makeup is a ritual for me.  My actions, the scent of mascara or lipstick, the sound of the slow breaths I take, all invoke a sense of calm.

I think that the key to my rituals, and to rituals for many people, lies in the sensory experiences that call us to dwell in the present moment.  A smell or sound or touch occurs and causes us to pause, to settle into ourselves and just be content with being.  What a wonderful gift we have been given in our ability to tap into tranquility in the midst of chaos.  Enjoy, and be at peace.