The First Friday

The detritus of the day: my mess of massage therapy school supplies.
The detritus of the day: my mess of massage therapy school supplies.

Yes, I can read the calendar and know that it’s actually the last Friday of the month. In my center-of-the-universe view, though, it’s the first Friday of the first week back to work and school after a summer of no-watch-no-calendar-no-schedule.

Returning to work felt like slipping on a lovely and worn pair of hiking boots: comfortable, but with support and strength. Despite my visions of new horizons and new pastures that will probably come to be next year, I really like where I work, particularly our small and mighty education department. We have the unique pleasure of saying goodbye for three months each year and by the end of the summer, we’re eager to see each other and work together again. Three months of unemployment or under-employment can be stressful, but it’s also a pleasure to have the time and opportunity to try things new and different. I’ve been with this organization for nine years and on this team for seven years and there’s an old familiarity and comfort that comes with time.

Thanks to that length of time and a slow change of flexibility creeping in, my boss has given me some latitude with school that I cannot imagine even occurring a couple of years ago. I need to be able to leave work everyday by 5:45 so I have enough time to get to school, with classes running 7:00-10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday nights. I need that extra time to buffer against traffic and drive-time precipitation. I want the time to change from work to school clothes like Clark Kent without the sexy glasses or phone booth, time to be early so I can do last-minute hygienic adjustments, time to study, and time to breathe and enter class unhurried and ready. Most of my work days have a varying routine and schedule, based on start dates of the schools where I teach environmental education, or if it’s an office day. I might start the day at 9:00 a.m. at my neighborhood elementary school teaching pre-school and then working from home. Or I might start the day at 6:00 a.m. loading up my car with boxes and bags of education materials before driving across the county for a day of teaching middle school science classes, or I might have a day in the office working on reports and calling teachers to set up schedules for school visits. Everyone on my team has some of that same variability to the day, so usually our late afternoons are the only time we are available to get together for meetings and such. Sometimes those meetings are long and being able to squeak out at 5:45 every day seemed like an impossibility a year ago. That was until I got my ducks-in-a-row, figured out my evening class possibilities, and asked.

In May when I posed the question, my boss had assumed I would be working on my elementary teaching license (a future possibility), so she was a bit shocked when we met on Monday and I informed her of my enrollment in an evening-only-year-long-massage-therapy-school. To be fair most of my friends and family are shocked too. Just because it’s something I have thought about for years, doesn’t mean I’ve talked about it. Plus, I tend to be one of those people who talks about lots of things and does not necessarily do them. For me, talking about things and trying on ideas over a long period of time is how I come to make decisions.

Last night I completed my sixteenth night of classes. It was the end of my fourth week of school and almost end to first week back on the job. I felt lucky that I had three weeks before work to get used to the evening schedule and the flow of school that comes with new subjects, new classmates, new teachers, and new expectations. From the beginning, the only class I felt initially comfortable with was the anatomy class, as it reminds me of many of my college science classes. Now in my 30s, knowing how to study and learning all the bones, muscles, and systems seems exciting, not daunting. Giving a massage to a classmate (or anyone for that matter) or working on feet for a reflexology session seems way more scary. The discomfort and nervousness, though, is my opportunity and space for growth. It feels good to be nauseatingly nervous, scared, and excited (the kind of feeling I imagine I would have if I ever went skydiving). It’s all completely new and giving a massage doesn’t come naturally to me.

Massage therapy school is a strange and beautiful place. To break up the monotony of the all-black-uniform-dress-code, the school staff came up with a spirit week with the usual suspect dress themes like “comfy day”, Western day vs. 70s day, and athletic day. They gave it a tongue-in-cheek-massage-therapy-school-spin with psoriasis awareness day, giving us the option to dress in red and purple. On Wednesday, I overheard someone say “Nice bolster!” and thought, This is something only said in massage therapy school. A bolster is like a pillow to be used under a client’s legs on a massage table. Another classmate showed me how she had craftily taken an old beer-can-cozie and turned it into a lotion-holster. The reason for having a deep pocket or lotion-holster is so that you can put on lotion with one hand. Why one-handed? Because one hand should always be kept on the client, for comfort and confidence. If you are the client, face planted in the head nook of the massage table, only covered by a thin sheet, you want to be able to relax and you can’t do that if you don’t know where the therapist’s hands are. We have a very scientific and rational instructor for anatomy and then we have a free-wheeling-slightly-ethereal instructor for reflexology. I love the crashing and juxtaposition of science, healing, Eastern, and Western thought.

Last night, we had our first evaluation giving a classmate a 50-minute massage. Yes, some tests are different in massage therapy school. Our instructor kindly informed us, he would be evaluating us based on what we know so far, so no penalties for not knowing new techniques. He reminded us that we are all coming from different backgrounds and different fonts of knowledge and experience. The technique and flow will come, with practice and with time. I had been nervous about this evaluation all week. Wednesday night’s reflexology class didn’t go that well. I was too hesitant, too unsure of my hands, too eager to look over at what my classmates were doing.

During lunch on Thursday, I pulled out one of my massage textbooks, studying the strokes while the crumbs of my sandwich littered the pages. I tried to practice one-handed massage on my forearm and then I had to get back to calling teachers and finishing an article. I put away thoughts of the evaluation until the drive from work to school. I decided that I would have to tackle this by focusing on what I could do: not paying attention to others, just concentrating on my own movements, strokes, and the person who would be on the table before me. We had lecture first and then we got into the now-familiar routine of transforming from traditional classroom with rows of desks to the student massage therapy clinic with a short  line of massage tables, our sheets and towels at the ready. We divided into pairs and I worked with a new partner. One pair of women are like new best friends and have paired with each other the entire time, but I have happily and willingly worked with multiple people. We are encouraged to switch up our partners, as we will learn more from our classmates’ techniques and strokes. We will also gain good experience by working with different bodies and shapes. I am shy, but sometimes it’s actually easier to work with someone new rather than someone with whom I am more familiar.

I got to be the massage client first. I tried to identify the movements and noted the technique of my partner. After a while, though, I just relaxed. He did a great job, I thought. Plus, I was mellow instead of anxious when it was my turn to give the massage. In other massage classes in the last three weeks, I have been apologetic and hesitant, too light and unsure in my practice sessions. Needless apologies and personal hesitancy have littered my language, relationships, behavior, and self over the years. I love (and hate) that my personal flaws are now showing up in my practice. There’s an endless opportunity to learn and grow. During the session, I noted my mistakes and lamented the lack of variety in my strokes, but kept going. I kept my eyes on my student-client, only watching the clock occasionally to make sure I had time to get to the arms and legs and then start again with my student-client in supine position. It still feels awkward and difficult, but I was proud of myself for staying in the moment. I felt good about that, no matter the outcome of the evaluation. At the end of the practice session, we then transformed the student-massage-clinic back into the classroom. This time, our bulging bags of sheets, towels, lotion, and books stood ready at the door for a long weekend. Our instructor let us read over our evaluations and I held my breath and then slowly exhaled as I mentally added up the points, 46 out of 50. He wrote nice things and basically focused on what I did right. Our teacher is like a really good coach, encouraging but firm about expectations. I hope we will have him more often as the year goes by. There wasn’t much time to compare notes with my classmates as we were all eager to explode into the hot August night to head home.

I really like our little group of 13 in school. We all come from our lives and years of hopes, heartaches, and adventures, and join in the intimate experience of massage therapy school. We wear the identical uniform of black shirts, black pants, and black shoes, but the personalities shine through. We giggle uncomfortably at the strangeness of undressing under sheets, but we share and participate and encourage. I feel lucky to have joined the group. There is a friendship coming together as we tackle anatomy and learn the strange and beautiful practice of massage therapy. We are all going through the same experience. We juggle work and school and families and deadlines. We are meeting on Sunday for a study party and making plans for drinks next week after a rare Friday night of classes.

Work is good. School is good. Most mornings, I leave the apartment by  seven. I return after work and school by 11:30, feeling like Cinderella scraping in before midnight. I am still trying to figure out which healthy meals I can pack and eat on the run between work and school. I hope my aging car is up for the miles. I hope I will be healthy and able to sleep and study. I strive for more fitness. Despite the driving and extra gas, I relish the quiet nights alone in the car. Sometimes I listen to a magical evening music show on my local public radio station. Sometimes I talk to myself. Sometimes I talk out loud to God. Sometimes I turn off my voice and radio and listen to the hum and whir of tires on pavement. Sometimes I recite anatomy terms from head to toe or try to remember the reflexology areas of the feet.

All the time, though, I’m happy and exhausted and ready for more.

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