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Creative Nonfiction

Cicadas

By Sally Toner

 

I was born with the cicadas. Each generation, I have greeted my bug brethren, buried my dreams with them in the dirt, and waited. My ideas burst through, invade the sky, whine with their alien laser legs scratching against themselves. When I was seventeen, I remember my questions about the world, the insects’ din, was drowned by gossip with friends by the pool. I put off important thoughts, eating frozen Snickers bars and trying to get the attention of the senior in the lifeguard chair. The noise in the trees was a marker, a reminder that next year we would be going to college, moving to the next phase of our education. It was coming time to make plans. I didn’t feel ready. 

The nymphs and my future possibilities moved the earth, bubbled up from the ground and trudged to the ancient oak in my yard, craving height. They frightened me because I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave. I was one of the few who felt comfortable in my classroom chair. I was short, and my legs swung under my chair as I listened and learned. I read Fitzgerald and Hurston for the first time. I fell in love with the U.S. Constitution. I performed on stage and edited the paper. My plans outside of high school walls were like the cicadas—clumsy fliers, ideas drying out in the early heat, in constant danger of having their heads bitten off before they even had the chance to molt.

When the cicadas returned, my own child was beginning school, and I was in the middle of my teaching career. My contact with the creatures was more direct this time. They crawled up and down my kindergartener’s arm, their red eyes glowing. She was fascinated, not frightened by them. She wanted to be a paleontologist, so all of nature fascinated her. I had to admit I was a little jealous of her confidence—the boldness with which she expressed her own cicada dreams. For my part, my exhaustion was real, as I planned and graded, waded through stacks of papers at night and stared at teenage faces during the day. Weekends were for the outside, gathering snake skins for lessons on sensory imagery, stealing moments by the manmade lake beside our house to write in my journal. We dragged our child and her younger sister away from the bugs in our neighborhood to visit new ones in the mountains, wanting to share our love of hiking with them. For one, it stuck. For the other, she tolerated the uphill exertion. I only hope that’s another interest buried that will find its way from the earth when she has children of her own. 

In the classroom, in 2004, while the cicadas circled the clouds, I sorted their noise with all of my other responsibilities. Larger possibilities were there, sometimes squashed to yellow goo on the sidewalk as I walked into the building. But I knew they’d return. I would do great things when I had more time. Besides, I had found my groove. I had been in my building for five years, and I had found a comfortable routine in everything from the copier to my seventh period. There’s a reputation one builds in a school family, for good and for bad, that follows them through the years. By the time the cicadas emerged, I had had multiple siblings in some of my classes. I dug through a stack of CDs on my shelf for lesson plans, documents. I should have known I was a little too comfortable, maybe even complacent, when one kid remarked she remembered her brother doing that same assignment three years before. At least she recalled him liking it. 

My student journalists offered surprises, though. One day, I returned from lunch to see one on the phone with a state senator discussing an editorial on LGBTQ rights. There was a play being performed at another school. The community was divided, students were protesting, and our publication was supporting them. That’s when I heard the cicadas again, above the complacency. That’s when I remembered my own activism, when the bugs were here last, and my fingers flew across the Memorex as editor of my own high school paper. I wanted to write with purpose. I wanted to fight ignorance. I wanted to challenge authority. Watching my students those years later, I realized the possibility of teaching others to do the same.

At the beginning of this past summer, my husband and I wondered aloud when the cicadas would return.

“I thought it was supposed to be this year,” I said one day on our afternoon walk. The trees around our lake were neon green, but they stood silent. So had the streets through most of the spring, as another visitor, a virus, spread through the state. The masks on our faces, the fog on our glasses, wrapped us in this odd kind of gauze as we considered the schedules of insects.

 

“No, I read somewhere it’s next summer. So there’s that,” he said.

There’s that--the spring of seventeen years ago buried beneath our feet. In the neighborhood where I teach, there weren’t bunches of mature trees at that time. Construction had dug out many of the cicada babies, so it was a quieter place, even then, than where I lived. But now the trees have grown, and I am certain the stubborn bugs have left their vestiges to explode into the suburban atmosphere this week. 

I cannot wait. As this school year has progressed, the fog has grown thicker, and so has the silence. I stare at a computer screen instead of faces, and the icons greet me. I can get them to pulse with life at times, in breakout rooms and other discussions, as they enter, student by student, and I pretend they are physically walking through my door. Sometimes they even turn their cameras on. I wonder how often, even in person, they would have worn that cloak of electronic invisibility if they could have. I’ve always known it’s possible to sleep with our eyes open. There is much in a school day that doesn’t engage. This was the case even in the Beforetimes. The barriers of an icon and muted mic have only illuminated this truth.  I have wondered so many times this year how many students were actually tuned in the last time the cicadas were here. Were their own insect dreams allowed to breathe air, climb, and sing? How many were sitting in their desks, moving room to room between the bells, going through the motions? 

As the cicadas come this spring, I am finishing my 28th year of teaching. Our oldest is finishing her first year of graduate school, our youngest her first year of university. In the fall, I will be preparing to enter the penultimate year of my career, if I choose to retire at 30 years. 

If I choose to. I have asked myself a lot this year what dreams I buried that last spring when the sound pulsed through the neighborhood, our chipmunks grew fat, and the sky turned black. Everything was alive as our children and I plucked the visitors from the bush outside and launched them to the sky. What will that look like in 2038—the next time they’re here? Everyone says education will be transformed. Everyone says that this is an opportunity to fix what has been wrong all along. That sleeping with eyes wide open. An opportunity for growth. In the fog of this pandemic, I have found myself returning to the reason I started teaching in the first place. I have tried to relate to others with purpose. I’ve done my best to fight ignorance and challenge authority. I have looked back at all of my former selves--the kid in the chair swinging her legs and looking ahead, the young mother energized by watching other children do the same thing, and now, the older mother, older teacher, maybe wiser person looking forward to the spring. 

Spring is here, and those stubborn dreams are burrowing from the earth to make themselves known, once again. I’m here, waiting. 

Sally Toner is a High School English teacher who has lived in the Washington,

D.C. area for over 20 years.  Her poetry, fiction, and non-fiction have appeared

in Northern Virginia Magazine, Gargoyle Magazine, District Lit, Watershed

Review, and other publications.  She lives in Reston, Virginia with her husband

and two daughters. Her first chapbook, Anansi and Friends, from Finishing Line

Press, is a mixed genre work focusing on diagnosis, treatment, and recovery

from breast cancer. She can be found at SallyToner.com and on Twitter

@SallyToner.