Tuesday, September 4, 2018

First Day

I didn't go back to school today.

When I was in the sixth grade I developed my first lesson plan. I came from a family of teachers, and I was passionate about Shakespeare, and I imagined explaining iambic pentameter as a heartbeat, the iamb and the I am. I held that lesson plan close to me for a long time - as I got older I wanted to be an actress, a singer, even a housewife - but in my mind I felt the inevitable pull of education.

It seemed like destiny. It seemed the simplest answer to the question, "What do you do?"

I have been blessed with wonderful teachers, both those within my family and those at school. My fourth grade teacher - the inspiration for my Shakespearean lesson - gave me a passion for language, for storytelling, for literature. My middle school drama and music teachers recognized the value of me, the odd and angry girl in the corner, and my eighth grade English teacher encouraged my creative writing and made me feel like my imagination was worth something more than escapism and dreams.

My high school French teacher was probably the most gifted educator I have ever met. He taught in the guise of various characters, all identical brothers with vastly different personalities (one even on the run from the police) - and in between laughter and puzzlement and warm affection for this strange, strange man, I discovered I had learned French, almost effortlessly. 

I've had acting teachers who told their own fantastical stories, who required my vulnerability and who called me on my nonsense. I've had philosophy professors who taught me just how limited I am - challenging, demanding, thrilling. My writing professors stripped away my pretensions; my anthropology professors made me question what it means to be human. And as the child of teachers I've been keenly aware of this incredible gift - passing on knowledge. There is no higher calling.

And it is not for me.

That's probably the hardest lesson I've ever had to learn. In some ways it has broken my heart.

I didn't go back to school today. I know what that first day feels like - for about five minutes everything is fresh and new and exciting and terrifying, and then you settle in for the long haul, nine months of perseverance. Old behaviors crop up and new behaviors blossom, habits to be unlearned, home life hurts tucked away for a few hours, if at all. Each child is a knot of complexity; every kid has baggage. The teachers certainly do. And in all of that the goal - passing on not only knowledge but love and support and a capacity for survival - must be achieved.

I never was able to see it as a job. I think maybe there are some teachers who can go in and be unmoved - who have an impermeable membrane, a concrete-hard wall, a barricade against all of that childhood complexity. I didn't have that barrier - teaching seemed more like a spiritual calling than a way to make a paycheck. I was entrenched.

What the kids felt, I felt, too. Simply being around that many people every day was like being in a panicked crowd, each person wearing a different offensive perfume, jumping, shouting, crying; I overloaded. My sensitivity was what made me good at my job - I think teachers do need to understand their students, to respect their needs - and yet I had a surplus, my heart too tender.

It's hard to know where that tenderness intersects with my own fragility as someone with chronic illnesses. That's the tricky bit I'm still working on - in every aspect of my life. And having any illness throws into question what life might be like if one were entirely healthy. In other words - am I not meant to teach, or am I incapable of teaching?

Part of my daily work is coming to terms. I am in many ways entirely capable, and yet I know there are things which are a lot harder for me than for others. Being around people can be quite challenging - just as in a classroom setting, I pick up on the emotions of others wherever I go. It's like carrying a load of other people's suitcases, stuffed with the things they won't admit to themselves. And there have been in the past year many high pain days, pain being another invisible burden, something you can't and do not want to share with others.

I still think that teaching is probably the best thing a person can do, and I think there are probably more lesson plans in me, saved up and stored away. But in coming to terms with my life - not as I thought it would be, but as it truly is - I have realized that, perhaps, this higher calling is not meant for me.   

And there are lots of things I can do - from making killer crab cakes to playing the piano to hostessing and singing and telling the occasional joke. I love my family, take care of my husband, and if my life is altered by illness it isn't ruined. 

If there is anything I could teach, on this first day of school, it would be a lesson that we have all, at some point, needed to learn - which is that we are valid, valuable people, with paths we cannot predict. Lives shift and change, some dreams are dashed and some hopes fulfilled, and each step we take is a testament to our success, to our survival. We make mistakes and we get our hearts broken and nothing about our lives has to adhere to rules others have set for us or that we have imagined for ourselves. Your first job isn't your last. Your college major won't necessarily be your profession. Your twelve-year-old self doesn't get to dictate the rest of your life. And if there are bumps in the road - illness, tragedy, obligations - you must be gentle with yourself. You must know that every morning you wake up you have already won.

I hope that everybody out there on the front lines - the teachers, administrators, students, parents - had a great first day, and that it felt fresh and new and sparkling. I hope that it was a day full of promise. And I raise a mug of coffee to the tender-hearted teachers, the madcap geniuses, the literary nerds, the questioners, the dreamers, the people who make a difference. Thank you for all that you do.

My heart is with you. Rock on.    



  1. Excellent. I thoroughly enjoy your musings.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. At various times I have taught high school and college classes. They have been among the most intense, satisfying, frustrating, and exhausting episodes in my life. It absorbed me completely. I can't imagine doing it semester after semester.