The Last Walk to the Parking Lot

Sandy Merz Uncategorized

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In August 1987, I drove into the parking lot at Naylor Middle School for my first day ever as a professional teacher. Chances are that  I’ve had the time of my life with you blasted from my radio, because it was pretty much blasting from everyone’s radio back then, all day long.

My first memory as a real teacher came fast. Taking attendance in first period, I heard a sneezing sound, followed by a class wide chorus of “EWWWWW!” A girl in the second seat of the middle row had hurled pink and green magically delicious Lucky Charms all over the boy sitting in front of her.

A couple of weeks after that, my principal told me that Naylor hadn’t met the district’s enrollment projection, and they had to lose a teacher. As the newest staff member with no seniority, that meant me. So, the district transferred me to Safford K8. With my background in science, math, and engineering, Safford was good fit because they were developing a magnet focus in engineering and technology. I bonded quickly with her staff, students, and community and have stayed on to take attendance in over 30,000 periods since.


Safford is a beautiful school, over 100 years old, and I love her. The main building has bell towers, big windows, a tile roof, and a frieze over the main doors with an owl, saguaros, horny toads, and a woman reading to a child. She even has a ghost who roams her hallways at night.

Screen Shot 2019-05-13 at 7.43.27 PMAfter open house one evening in one of my early years, I was walking to the car and appreciating the look of my school under the night sky. A voice inside me said that one day would be my last day at Safford and that I should make my time there count. The thought of that day made me very sad, and it can be fairly said that I’ve spent three decades avoiding the last walk to the parking lot.

But now that day has come –

-sooner than planned, in a way I never imagined.

I’m the longest serving staff member at Safford, but back in January, I made a decision that brought me a lot more money but cost me my seniority. So, as enrollment declines, Safford has to lose teachers, and once again, I’m the first to go.

You have to love the symmetry. You have to love the irony. It’s almost poetic: I came to Safford naked of seniority, lived an entire professional life here, and now I leave as I came, naked of seniority.

I’m not at all bitter because now I won’t have to face the agony of deciding for myself when the time was right to leave. In fact, on the ride home the day my principal brought me the news, I felt free more than I felt anything else.

Events quickly conspired to find a new professional home, teaching math at  Esperero Canyon Middle School in the Catalina Foothills School District, and opposites abound. I’m leaving a low socio-economic, inner-city school, in downtown Tucson, with few students performing at grade level for a high income neighborhood, on the very edge of town, where more than 90% of students perform at or above their grade.

I hope I’ve made my years at Safford count. My resume, which I’ll spare you, suggests the answer is yes. But deep down I alone know the load of compromisin’ on the road to my horizon and the attendant lost opportunities. So, I’ll qualify that yes, and happily quote Somerset Maugham:  “Only a mediocre person is always at his best.”

What I will never qualify is my gratitude to my entire Safford family for their love and for teaching me to master the art of living as described by James Michener:

The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he’s always doing both.

Now, all that remains is to thank God for putting Safford in my life’s path.

And to say good bye, Old Friend. I’ve had the time of my life with you.




I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I've moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I'm a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

Comments 10

  1. Amethyst Hinton Sainz

    Sandy, that is quite a story! Seniority, compensation, performance pay, retirement benefits, and so many other ways in which a teachers’ experience and expertise could be compensated seem to be administered in such a bureaucratic way that although everything appears fair at first glance, so often certain experienced teachers seem to be set back several steps in the implementation. I agree with you, the irony of your particular journey is poignant. Safford students have been lucky to have you all these years. Enjoy Esperero Canyon!

  2. Brianna Crowley

    Sandy, Thank you so much for always sharing about your teaching experiences and how they affect and intersect with you personally. I hope this next step offers you so much as I know you will be such a great asset to the students in your classroom. Keep writing and sharing–your voice is important.

  3. Treva Jenkins

    Wow. Sandy. Thank you for sharing this. Your blogs are always so thoughtful and telling!!! I know Esperero Canyon Middle school is lucky to have you. I know you will continue to inspire and encourage all those around you. The education community is so blessed to have you. Thank you for making a difference in the lives of our young people. We need more Sandy’s in this world!! Best wishes!!

  4. Jen Robinson

    Thanks for sharing this post. I love how you put it, “I’m not at all bitter because now I won’t have to face the agony of deciding for myself when the time was right to leave.” Safford was fortunate to have you and your years of wisdom, experience and passion. I am certain there are many scholars who may not realize how fortunate they were to have crossed paths with you. Thank you for your years of service.

  5. Beth Maloney

    Sandy, what a powerful personal post (sorry for the alliteration). They were fortunate to have you for so many years. Your legacy will stand. Best of luck in your new home away from home. They are lucky now!

  6. Jaime Festa-Daigle

    Thank you for showing me your beautiful history of serving in schools. More importantly, thank you for reminding me about people. They are the core of what makes a school. PREO, RIF, declining enrollment are things we make decisions about all the time. And there are people behind each of those decisions. Your new school is lucky to have you.

  7. Mike Vargas

    Sandy you are without question one of my favorite writers … I hope someday I too can walk to the parking lot with that kind of swagger

  8. Caitlin Corrigan

    I can relate to your post a lot since I, too, am leaving a low socioeconomic school for a high(er) socioeconomic school this year. It is bittersweet leaving somewhere you’ve been for so long, and I wish you the best of luck in the next step on your professional journey!

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