When I went to my mother's doctor with her this morning, I recognized the nurse who called us back. I could tell by her face that she recognized me, too, but wasn't sure where, so I told her: I was her English teacher. I felt a surge of nearly-maternal pride to see her in her scrubs and know that I played some small part in her education. More, I felt proud of her for following through, getting an education, and making a career.
I thought of that moment later today, when in a round-about sort of way, a friend asked me what I was doing eight years ago. In the summer of 2003, I had just finished my student teaching. I had set myself the goal of enjoying every single drop of that summer, because I felt my role as a teacher bearing down on me, like a train I couldn't escape. I'd already had five or six interviews, and been offered one teaching job. I turned it down because it was at a junior high, and I'd thought, when I applied, that it was a part-time position. I couldn't bear the thought of working with seventh graders all day every day.
When my student-teaching adviser, a man whose very presence had the ability to make my blood pressure rise out of sheer anxiety, found out that I had turned down a job, he made sure to personally call me and let me know I had ruined my chances at ever finding a teaching job. Part of me didn't care, but the wiser part knew it didn't matter: I'd be given a teaching job. It was inescapable. In a way, it felt like my responsibility. Like it was a way to pay back a debt I owed the universe, which had made sure my dream of getting an English degree was fulfilled. (My junior and senior years of college were funded by a grant.) I knew I would teach.
But I didn't want to. I wanted to keep being a stay-at-home mom. My student teaching, which I'd done at a high school that was a 40-minute drive each way from home, had given me a taste of how hard it is to be a working mom with little kids. It felt like being constantly torn: if I was a good mother, I would fail at being a good teacher. The opposite was also true. No, what I wanted to do was live the fantasy. I wanted to stay home, and send Jake off to kindergarten at the school his sister had gone to, and Nathan to the preschool his brother had attended. I wanted to clean my house, to write and scrapbook and maybe learn how to quilt. I wanted to cook big meals every night. And, more than anything, I wanted desperately to have another baby.
Of course, none of that happened. I stumbled upon my teaching job, and even though I didn't want to take it, I did because I knew I needed to. Not just needed, but was supposed to. I took it, and I dedicated every bit of myself that I could to teaching. I continued feeling torn between being a mother and a teacher. I lived on caffeine and nachos and sheer willpower. Jacob, who had to go to daycare for part of the day and to kindergarten at a school by where I taught for the rest of the day, suffered. Haley, who had to get ready for school with her dad's help instead of mine, suffered. Or, at least, her hair did. Nathan, who loved and adored his daycare teacher, Miss Diane, thrived. But all the while I wondered: why, when staying home with my kids was a righteous desire, was it not granted?
Eight years later, I'm not sure I have the answer, fully, to that question. Financially, my teaching helped us fill back up the hole that Kendell's 16 months of unemployment made. We paid off our van and replenished our savings. It taught Jake at an early age that he could survive hard things like loneliness. It gave Nathan two blissful years with a teacher he loved. (He still talks about Diane.) It helped Haley develop some of her fierce independence. And I learned, as well, about the value of time, and how to be patient, and what is important. I learned that things like reading, writing, grammar, and poetry aren't important to most teenagers, even though they helped save me. I also made a sort of peace with my teenage self. I think I wanted to teach partly because subconsciously it felt like a way to reach out and connect with the angry adolescent girl I used to be in a way no teacher did. In fact, I learned an immense amount about myself and what is really, truly important to me during my teaching years. I mostly can't say that I regret them. While it was hard and exhausting and felt like it was tearing me away from my family, I loved teaching—loved having my classroom and sharing my knowledge and forming relationships with students. It held some good, shining moments.
Except, I still deeply miss the years that I didn't get to experience because I was experiencing teaching instead. I hate knowing that Nathan doesn't remember the years when he was little and I was a stay-at-home mom. I missed a lot of time with my kids because I couldn't figure out how to be a good mother and a good teacher. More than anything, I miss feeling like I deserved the blessing of being a stay-at-home mom. It became another thing I wasn't worthy of for a reason I don't understand. I am still trying to make peace with what I lost.
But I also know this: I paid my debt back. I was the best teacher I knew how to be. I answered the question "should I be an English teacher?" and I always have the answer with me: I can, but I don't have to. And being a teacher facilitated my future life in a way I couldn't have guessed at. If I hadn't been a high school English teacher, I wouldn't have gotten my current job as a librarian. I would have a different baby instead of Kaleb, and how I could I trade a dream baby for my real one? It gave me some knowledge about teenagers that has helped me with my own. And it gives me moments like I had today, when I see some young person I helped shape, and a knowledge that I had a small influence in many lives.
Eight years ago, I didn't know any of that. What did you not know eight years ago?