Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Aftermath

The morning after the banquet, I ran along the Kanawha in the pre-dawn breeze. I saw geese, a heron, and no other people. The realization of my new, more public identity began to sink in. So my fifteen minutes had arrived.

I returned to the hotel, showered, and met my parents for breakfast. They told me they had seen my interview on television, and they picked up two copies of the local paper, my face staring out from the page. The photographer caught me in the middle of speaking, mouth open. As we boarded the elevator to return to our room, a guy getting off it grabbed me by the arm: “Hey!” he shouted, “I just saw you on TV!” The drive to my parents’ house consisted of my father fiddling incessantly with the radio dial, searching for news coverage of the announcement. I finally gave up listening and crashed out on the backseat.

Immediately following the banquet, my principal had set the phone tree in motion, so everyone at my school would receive the news before morning. It was nice to see the lines of communication used for something besides weather emergencies and cancellations. As a result of this and the press coverage, there was a barrage of new messages in my e-mail congratulating me. I spent about forty minutes replying to them all. My voicemail was full of messages too, some from people whom I didn’t even know had my number. My ex left a message: he had heard my voice on the radio while he was sleeping, thought he was dreaming, and had gone back to sleep, only to wake up to the same voice speaking the same words an hour later. “Guess you answered the Miss America questions better than you thought,” he concluded.

When I arrived at school the next day, my colleagues had filled my classroom with confetti, balloons, and flowers. There was a huge candy bar on my desk—dark chocolate, my favorite—and a card from the rest of the English department. Inexplicably, I sat down at my desk and cried; I felt frightened and thankful, eager and afraid, all at the same time. I barely realized the kind of year that lay ahead; I had some serious learning to do.

My students posted a photograph from the local daily paper on the whiteboard. It was a photo that had been taken for an interview that covered the county announcement of Teacher of the Year and my selection as a finalist for state. It was an acceptable photo the first time it had been in the paper. The problem this time, as it was recycled for the state TOY coverage, was that it had been cropped to show only my face. No hair, no neck. I was not smiling; my face was shiny in the fluorescent lighting. Instead of looking serious, as I had in the complete picture, I looked like I was about to hit someone with a brick. My English 12 class thought it was hilarious: “Look!” they screamed, “you got arrested for DUI!” It was at that point that I knew I had to learn two things I hadn’t expected: to wear makeup, and to smile. I remembered learning that majorettes and models put Vaseline on their teeth to keep their smiles intact. Yuck. I didn’t want lubricated teeth, but I also didn’t want to become the poster child for the cranky English teacher stereotype. How much more did I not know?

The couple of weeks that followed the announcement were full of interviews, invitations, congratulations, impromptu conferences in the grocery store. One man jumped in front of my car so that he could congratulate me as I pulled out of the school parking lot. Once, while I was on a date, people kept stopping to congratulate me (my date knew I was a teacher, but didn’t know about the award); it was an awkward explanation. Two huge banners were hung on the front and back of the school building, and my students started calling me “state teacher of the universe.” I received cards, flowers, and candy from students, my peers, and from retired teachers. The president of my bank sent me a note, as did other community figures. I also received letters from my union representatives, from professional organizations, and from state senators and congress people. I had extensive interviews with reporters from different newspapers, and a significant amount of press coverage on the county and state websites.

My state support team promised me a work session in about a month, once the excitement had ebbed a little. I tried not to panic as I began to realize that I needed their help immediately—once things settled down, it might be too late; I might have already made a complete fool of myself. My life had changed, and I had to adapt in ways I had never anticipated.

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