As long as I can remember, I have prayed for a family of my own. I love children. I began teaching Bible school at the age of 12 and was simultaneously in the church youth choir, adult choir and director of the children's choir. I never prayed for a husband (!), but for a family. God evidently got tired of my asking and gave me what I wanted.
It occurred to me the other day that this is the first time in almost 21 years that I have not had a young child at home. Daughter Texys was 8 years old when we married; Bradford was 6. One of my cousins commented about the wedding ceremony that it sounded as though I was marrying the children, too. I replied that I did.
Children are easy to love. In fact, we joke that I fell in love with the children first, then my husband. When they came to live with us full time two years into our marriage, I was finally content. Three years later, William was born. He further cemented our little family. My prayers were truly answered.
Yet children leave. I wrote years ago of my love for country music, developed when Texys left for college. I listened to "her" music as I grieved. I soon became passionate about country music and the emotion it shares. Three years later, Bradford graduated from Gainesville High School and flew away to Duke University. Our family of five became a family of three, and we adjusted grudgingly.
A year later, one month after college graduation, Texys left for Africa and the Peace Corps. A dear friend of the family was devastated by the long distance between Texys and home and would send care packages to Africa religiously. To me, gone is gone. I had adjusted to missing Texys for four years. She still was not here, and I still missed her and turned the country music up louder.
If I had known then what I know now, my mourning periods would have been shorter. Children come back. These days, more and more, children are returning home for various reasons. Texys came back to Georgia to attend law school at UGA. She just moved to Washington, D.C., but the fellowship there is for two years. She'll be back.
Now Bradford is coming home after three years of teaching special education in New York City. I do not know how long he will be here, but it really does not matter. We will be here when he returns again.
My husband frequently quotes a book and movie, Goodbye Mr. Chips. The main character is a teacher in an all-boys public boarding school in early 20th century England. On his deathbed, he overhears someone pitying him for never having children, to which he replies, "I thought I heard you saying it was a pity ... pity I never had any children. But you're wrong. I have. Thousands of them. Thousands of them ... and all boys."
It occurs to me that I shall never run out of children. I have over a thousand so far and expect hundreds more. My children are not all boys. And they are African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Caucasian and mixed. They are rich, poor and in between. They are Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, agnostic and other. All of my children are in the eighth grade, and I hope all of them come to love literature while in my care.
Each year, I tell my students that they do not have to claim me but, once they are my students, I will always claim them. I will become not just their teacher, but their advocate. Once entrusted to me, I take their well-being to heart. They will always be my children.
These children also come back. They come for college recommendation letters, job recommendations and to update me on their lives. I see them at ballgames, the grocery store, and church. They leave me for great futures. I remain behind, still in eighth grade. And each August, I meet more of my children.
As long as I can remember, I have prayed for a family. I have two. My family of five is precious to me. We will soon celebrate our 21st wedding anniversary. I love caring for them, cooking their favorite foods, and allowing them a place to still be a "child." I will always welcome them home.
But I also have another family, and for 12 years this family has lived at Gainesville Middle School. I take the responsibility for both families most seriously.
William leaves for college in two years. He swears he will go to a school as far away from home as possible. This time, I will turn on my country music and smile. I hope he leaves with the knowledge that home is always here, no matter how far away he may roam. I have the wonderful knowledge that he, too, will come back home.
Renee Hand Morris is a teacher at Gainesville Middle School. Her columns appear occasionally and on gainesvilletimes.com.