12 October 2007

True North

When I was a little girl, if you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, you always got the same answer: "An apple tree." And yes, I was serious. Of course, I knew that I couldn't grow up to be an apple tree. Even at three or four, I knew the difference. Apple trees did not have to wear galoshes to stand out in the rain. Still, time after time this was the answer I gave. Maybe it was because it struck me as odd, that even at this early age, I knew I was a writer. I could see my future, just as clearly as I could see those yellow boots streaked with rainwater and the quiet man with the dark beard with whom I would share my house. I knew this sight was a gift; I knew not to question it; and above all, I knew not to say anything that might jinx it.

Thirty years and umpteen hat-changes later, I have finally found that writer, though it honestly never dawned on me that she would also be a teacher. When I graduated from my master's program, I basically had two options if I wanted to stay in my field: become a prolific poet immediately, or get used to teaching. Neither of those was an option. I knew that, even if I would one day have it, that steel-grey spark of brilliance that makes one a writer, at 23 I was too young to have handled it. And I also knew that teaching terrified the sweet crap out of me.

So I retreated back into the world of theatre, where I had foolishly spent most of my later teen years thinking I wanted to reside, before I remembered that I hated stay up all night, despised the feeling that other people were wasting my time, was eternally tired of living in t-shirts, flannel, black jeans and battered Doc Martens, and also honestly didn't really like heights--not a good trait for a lighting designer whose job it is to spend ten hours a day perched at the top of an eighteen-foot ladder.

Eventually my divorce with theatre became permanent, in part because of cancer. When my energy was at its absolute lowest in the summer of 1998, I realised that this was not how I wanted to be spending it. And so I jumped ship again, into the world of publishing. Finally, a place I could nitpick to my heart's content.

Sadly, I do not make a very good sheep. I don't respond well to being penned into a cubicle, or following the rules dictated by the sales department, or....let's face it, being told what to do. Baa. I was in and out of academia, library work, and publishing for the next several years. Bucking and straining against the harness the whole time. Then one day, quite by accident, I applied for an adjunct teaching position at the local community college. Yes, the thought still horrified me as much as it ever had, but I seriously needed to get out of my current job before my boss forced me to commit ritual seppuku in the library stacks. Totally to my surprise, I was hired to teach an evening class once a week.

Oh my God. Now what? I'd interned for a semester teaching at the prison out near Airway Heights, and then for a semester at a high school in downtown Spokane (the security was pretty much the same, actually) but I had no idea how to actually teach people, for god's sake. Still, after the first night, I knew that I had found true north. I knew that I was meant to spend the rest of my days on a campus. And I knew it four months later when I resigned to move to upstate New York for a new full-time job in publishing, when I lay in bed after accepting the position and cried until my ears filled with tears, because it meant I would have to stop teaching. I remember mouthing to myself over and over again, "What have I done?"

In retrospect, one wonders how much I might have actually been foreseeing, that night.

Three years and a marriage later, I am teaching again. More or less full-time, though you can't tell by looking at my checking account. I am an adjunct at no fewer than three colleges in the tri-state area. I teach more credits than a tenured faculty member, I have no office except the backseat of my Honda, and I receive no health benefits. I am lucky if I clear $22,000 a year, which is the other reason I live with my parents.

And I consider myself the most blessed woman in the world every time I stand up in front of a classroom. Without these kids, I would be sunk. I would be lost. I would have, indeed, no purpose. If I am not to be a wife, if I am not to be a mother, at least I have 85 charges in my care, who for the short months we are together are for all intents and purposes my family and my closest comrades. We learn all about each other. They tell me their secrets, their dreads, their dreams. And I? I share with them what it is that I love. It's not so much that we know all the answers to everything, but that we are continually engaged in seeking the questions we want to explore.

And that makes everything worth it.

10 comments:

tumblewords said...

I love your story and I'm dismayed that I can never remember you're kind of a Spokane girl. Great post!

paisley said...

this was a really lovely post... you have so many beautiful dreams,, and an equal amount of beautiful realities in your life....

Redness said...

Beautiful post and how fortunate the 85 are to have you teaching them ... you're a gem!

Stacy said...

I feel exactly the same way. Great post (and lucky students).

gautami tripathy said...

As a fello teacher, I identify. Those kids are my family too.

The Alchemist said...

this is a wonderful piece of writing. You really are an apple tree after all!

Sandie said...

I feel the same way and love how you phrased it.

Jo said...

Another wonderful write from you.

Robin said...

How beautiful. I wish all teachers felt as inspired as you obviously do.

Patois said...

Let me add to the chorus by saying it's wonderful that you have found your calling and are able to help so many charges.