Twenty minutes for lunch is a joke in any setting but a teacher's lounge. In this case, on this day, it's actually five minutes more than usual. Five extra minutes for a small group of teachers to celebrate my sister Molly's last day of teaching after 33 years at Coleridge Taylor Elementary in Louisville.
Cans of Diet Pepsi drop out of the soda machine with loud clunks. White cardboard boxes appear, filled with deli sandwiches including a Louisville specialty, the Benedictine. Molly and I grew up eating Benedictine sandwiches: a mint-green spread made of cucumber and cream cheese.
Our mother hoped that Molly would become a nurse. Instead, she got her teaching degree from the University of Kentucky and began teaching kindergarten at Coleridge Taylor right out of college. Working in any job at the same place for three decades is unusual these days. But working in the same school all that time is quite rare.
After lunch we head back to the classroom. About a quarter of Molly's students are 4-year-olds. Babies, really, and yet they behave with an odd sophistication that has to be the product of Molly's skills. The students sit on the floor for a story. I take a seat on a little worktable just outside the circle. A boy gazes up at me with a disapproving look. He points at my seat. "That's a table," he says. "Oh, yup," I say, and get up to find one of the things that are made for people to sit in.
Actually I get to know those things pretty well after story time. Molly assigns me the task of overseeing the washing of the classroom's 30 tiny chairs, like dollhouse chairs. I create four rows of them on a patio outside her room. Buckets of soapy water come out with the first shift of four kids, one bucket per child. As foreman I assign each worker a row, and they commence to lather up the chairs.
Their work styles are all over the map. One girl barely touches her sponge to the chair before she's on to the next one. "Can I boss you up?" says another girl. "I'm sorry?" I ask. "Can I boss you up?" she repeats. "You want to boss me around?" I say. "Go for it!"
"Get me some more soap! Wash the back of that chair! Now that one!" Molly comes out with four new workers just as the novelty of our power shift is wearing off.
The chairs get clean but only as a result of being washed over and over again with new teams coming and going until everyone in the class has had a turn with the buckets. Molly is everywhere at once, talking in code to her aide, giving instructions to a small group in an art project, getting a birthday party ready for one of her students.
The party happens out on the playground during afternoon recess. Coleridge Taylor school is in the heart of downtown Louisville, and the modest but elegant skyline towers over the property. Taking a quick break, Molly walks me over to a side yard and points out a newly planted dogwood with a plaque that dedicates the tree in honor of her service. We place our arms around each other's shoulders and admire it, no talking, with just the downtown noise of buses and car horns and little children's voices.
An all-school assembly is scheduled for the end of the day. We file out and intertwine with the lines of other classes on a march to the gymnasium. It's a big school, 650 students. The gym fills up fast, with kids carpeted across the floor from one end to the other.
The principal takes the stage and goes on the microphone. "You children may wonder why we're gathered today," she says. "We're here to say thank you to Ms. Rapp!" That would be Molly Rapp, and she's completely surprised. A video is shown on a giant screen, testimonials from former students. There are lots of parents in the audience, too. One family has had four children in Molly's class over the years. They come to the front to talk about why she's made a difference in their house.
I've known the pride that comes with being a father, but I realize that up to this point I've never felt a sense of sibling pride quite like this. When it comes time for Molly to speak she's brief but eloquent. I can't believe she's holding it together. A newspaper reporter catches up to her when the assembly is dismissed. "May I ask you a few questions?" she says.
Molly looks over her shoulder. "Sure, but you're gonna have to ask them while we walk," she says. "I've got to get 25 kids out the door in less than 10 minutes." And then, with the grace and skill that can only come with three decades of practice, that's exactly what she does.