Carried Away by Cartography (and Control)

Updated: Jun 16, 2019

Part III in the "There But Not Back Again" Classroom Move Series

Bilbo Baggins loves maps. His twin interests in cartography and tales make him amenable to adventure. I hope they will do the same for me.

The Impetus for Mapmaking

On Tuesday, March 12, I learned Newman’s Essential Elements (EE) program would be moving to Parkview Elementary at the start of the 2019-2020 school year. I immediately inquired whether my new room had windows.

On Tuesday, March 19, I toured the school with my best friend and fellow EE teacher, Quist. I counted three windows on my future east wall above a row of eight cheery yellow cupboards. (Huge kudos to Jessica Lamb for answering my plea to see the rooms and being a gracious tour guide!)

On the afternoon of Tuesday, March 26, I savored a late lunch of split pea and ham soup after finishing two consecutive days of mapmaking— #bestwaytospendspringbreak.

To be accurate, I should say Mom made the map. She also purchased the graph paper and measured carefully to make the gridlines meaningful, none of which would’ve happened if I was the draftswoman. While Mom’s map doesn’t have runes revealed by midsummer moonlight (too much to ask?), she did ensure it came with a key clarifying that each box represents 6 square inches with one square foot indicated by a 2x2 array.

Once I’d tasked Mom with the big-picture floor layout, I shifted to the minutiae of managing the multitudinous built-in storage, notably absent in my Newman classroom. I applied my art degree to diagramming various cupboard arrangements of 6- and 17-quart Sterilite bins. Soon, my all-consuming interest was exactly how many Sure Fresh 2.06-cup capacity containers (from Dollar Tree) could fit into each of the five shallow drawers located on the west wall. Answer: 48 in each drawer for a total of 240. Investment cost of $60, plus tax.

My overall vision increasingly contracted as I sought to quantify every cabinet to optimize my unsought situation. Mapping out potential locations for cubbies was─at bottom─an attempt to assert a modicum of power over my powerlessness. The real question I secretly asked as I documented the depth of window sills was “Will I be okay?” As I vacate Room 172 on 1269 N. Colorado Street, I want assurance that Room 15 on 970 Emery Street will be an even worthier home.

The “Last Homely House”

For all his guests─Bilbo included─Elrond’s“house [in Rivendell] was perfect, whether you liked food, or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of all them all. Evil things did not come into that valley.” With a host “as kind as summer,” Bilbo “would gladly have stopped there for ever and ever─even supposing a wish would have taken him right back to his hobbit-hole without trouble.”

Starting Monday, August 19. 2019 my students and I will have a new home. It is inescapable, the control in our Essential Elements experiment. However, in my all-consuming obsession with storage space, I am neglecting the most important variable: me. Will I chose to embrace or abrogate my role as host? Will I spend my 10 uncontracted weeks recharging so I can be “as kind as summer” to my incoming students when late August arrives or will I be worn down by directing details only I notice? My hyperfocus on mapping the physical classroom arrangement misses the subtler magic of the classroom community I will get to co-create with my next set of students and staff. Friendship and followership are not as “observable and measurable” as my floor plan, but they are far more important to the emotional tenor of my room.

Store Launch versus Room Launch

During the summer between my junior and senior years of college, I worked as a team member to start a new store location for a nationally-known arts and crafts chain. I spent eight-hour days unloading trucks and stocking shelves companionably with my coworkers. I enjoyed the quiet of customer-free aisles as I meticulously followed headquarters’ diagrams indicating exactly where to place each shelf, peg, and product. The orderliness of everything perfectly homed to avoid wasted space soothed me. It was deeply satisfying to see immaculately arranged rows of crayons, colored pencils, markers, and paintbrushes─all clearly priced and labeled. I spent my lunch breaks roaming the empty store and listing aisle locations for washi tape, Fiskar trimmer blades, and extra photo album insert pages. Nearly a decade later, I still hold a mental map of the store in my memory.

My store manager, always incredibly upbeat, practically crackled with excitement as the grand opening approached. She enthusiastically confided it didn’t really feel like a store without customers. Conversely, I secretly bewailed their impending arrival. Items carelessly reshelved. Increased noise volume. Awkward encounters. Dreaded barcode debacles. No.

When I interviewed for the position, the manager asked me where I saw myself in five years. I answered simply, “Teaching.” This, despite double majoring in English and fine art with only one elective education course on giftedness from a favorite professor. Still, five years later, I was in my Newman classroom. What I stated in my interview (disbelieving even as I spoke the words) turned into reality after earning my master’s degree in elementary and special education.

There’s a joke among educators that teaching would be a great profession minus the children. But unlike retail─a potentially great profession minus the customers─I already miss my students one week into summer. They wreak havoc on my color-coded scissor supply, and I love them. They are occasionally loud, and I love them. They cause me to rearrange my floor plan to preempt behavior, and I love them. Their chaos makes my room alive rather than sterile. Teaching is a great profession because of the wonderfully frustrating and simultaneously gratifying humans I get to help grow even if they don’t come pre-packaged with diagrams for proper assembly.

Preparing for the Back-to-School Grand Opening

Future posts will continue to explore my relocating process, both mental and physical. After all, the blueprint my mother built in March is only the beginning. Meanwhile, I pledge to become the best host possible. I will doubtlessly devote much of my summer to readying my “house” with labeled bins and well-placed tables. Yet, even more, I commit to the more important work of tending my soul, relinquishing control, and perhaps taking time to sit outside in midsummer moonlight. No map required.

© 2019 by Amy Firestone