I lost myself in teaching just as I lost myself in the miles of Highway 64 and Highway 41. At one point I could not differentiate between Illinois and Indiana, between sanity and insanity. I’d pull into my driveway and stop, confused. What am I if not in constant motion? Who am I if not Mrs. Kiefer, teacher? What good am I doing if I’m not in a classroom from seven until at least seven? Why do I have conversations with myself before I fall asleep? I’m a woman with fire in my veins. I’m cursed with too much adrenaline, too much momentum. I have tunnel vision, both on the road and in the classroom. When I slam on the brakes, no seatbelt can restrain my heart from catapulting and crashing into the next group of students, the next project, the next novel, the next speech meet, the next batch of essays, the next pile of journals waiting to be read. I continue to gulp that Memorial Kool-Aid so fast that it dribbles down my chin. I am punch-drunk and reckless. I don’t know how to keep my heart still. I don’t know how not to be passionate. The price is significant. The body exhausts itself. The mind spirals dangerously. I am highly sensitive, nervous and restless, a hater of conflict, an introvert with social anxiety who must sometimes deal with conflict and must always deal with people. I care too much. I chose a profession that requires a much thicker shell than my translucent baby skin. Was it worth the wear on the body and the heart and the nerves? Was it worth the money in fuel, three destroyed tires and a dent from a deer?
Was it worth the fights with my husband? He has either worked third shift or been in the Illinois State Police Academy since we have been married. But work is always with me even when he is not. Work has always needed me. Work has always given me something to do and an excuse not to come home to an empty house. Work was my lover, my idol, my excitement, my comfort, my addictive cycle of love and hate. I got to be a teacher five days a week. I only got the chance to be a weekend wife. I gave work my attention and expected it to love me back. And it hurt so good. But the accusations from my husband that I’m always grading and don’t get paid enough for it just hurt.
“Why can’t you leave work at work? Why did you have to go to your expensive private college which put us in a great deal of debt if all you got at the end of hard work was a teaching degree that does not pay the bills? Why can’t you work at a place with a better retirement?” Sometimes the twisted encouragement felt like ultimatums: “Wouldn’t you get the same joy out of teaching at a public school? Don’t you think you can make an even bigger difference in average or struggling kids’ lives? An education is an education.” So I’d scream, “of course you have that opinion. If the only high school you’ve ever been inside is Edwards County High School, then you have no damn idea what else is in this world.” And so my obsession with private schools and my belief that they are better therefore makes me conceited and selfish and high maintenance. Was it worth fearing that after a decade together, he doesn’t understand me? Was it worth defending my Memorial?
Would I choose it again if I knew I would spend the first three years under an unappreciative principal who wickedly played the education game, who shrugged off my soul-teaching, who merely checked boxes on a form and picked at desk arrangements and my messy binder of lesson plans and missed the lesson in my lesson? Was it worth the handful of rich and powerful parents with their egos and emails who raise dishonest, manipulative children with that same expectation of entitlement?
Was it worth the Class X Felony I should have filed? Was it worth feeling helpless and violated? Was it worth having no voice, being abruptly hushed so that no bad press could possibly leak out and taint our spotless Memorial. For at M-E-M-O-R-I-A-L, the students wore oxfords and ties and had “the look” and attended silent masses and went back to classes where they sometimes cheated and gave scripted answers and offered scripted foreign prayers. Was it worth facing my classes of students who’d seen everything under my skirt thanks to a boy who snapped the infamous shot and sent picture messages to his buddies who knew more buddies while I obliviously (with my tunnel vision) helped a group of students understand T. S Elliott and passionately explained why they, too, should dare disturb the universe.
They disturbed my universe. Shook me. Took a big chunk out of me and scraped the core of me. But so did the good ones, the ones who wrote me notes I tacked on my “I Will Not Quit” board, the faces that flood my memory with light. They are the students who have long forgotten me, who don’t need me anymore which is painful proof that I did something right. They are the chosen ones who humbled me and taught me more than I taught them. Jeanine, Mitch, Morgan, Nick, Ben, Lelia, Laura, Ryan, Rachel, Danielle, Hadley, Eric, Kevin, MJ, Megan, Aaron, Sam, Elle, Bailey, Nicci, Brenna, Cynthia, Marcus, William, Joshua, Emily– my spring sunshine air-dried laundry list of students who understood that dreaming and creating and becoming were more important than grades. They shook me and they steadied me. They hauntingly reached back in time and healed my high school girl self and proved that I was not the only one who felt the way I felt at sixteen. Their words of affirmation filled up all of the cracks in my heart. And helping them embrace the ways they are different healed so many of my ancient wounds.
I defended my Memorial when it treated me well. I defended it when it treated me poorly and unfairly. Why? Because I pulled up to the beautiful edifice every morning in my dented car with its empty fuel tank and felt lucky. Because I stepped into those pep assemblies and saw pride on the students’ faces. And I was a part of that spirit, that unity. Working there for four years was worth moving to three different classrooms. Two of those rooms had no windows and no temperature control and one had a crumbling ceiling every time it rained. They became three classrooms I made into worlds, homes, and sanctuaries for learning, for magic, for after school chats on the floor. They were imperfect, a reflection of me. My worlds were colorful, beautiful, joyful, messy, gritty, holy, wholly mine.
I love my husband and am thankful he gets the chance to do what makes him feel alive. He asked me. He said he wouldn’t pursue this job that would take us away if I didn’t want him to. But my whole purpose is to inspire journeys, expand and encourage dreams. I will go where he goes. His people will be my people. I will move and I will grow, but oh, the growing pains! I fear I will hate the person who replaces me, and I know my attitude is jealous and immature. I never asked another teacher to come into my world. Though I look younger than most of my students, I am the fierce and crazy biological mama of hundreds of kids about to get a new mother or father who might not understand them or love them as well as I do, who might win their affection by allowing them to slack or remain safe in their desks of candy comfort and ordinary. What if she is a worksheet-giver? I cannot leave them with a worksheet-giver. I cannot leave them in the hands of someone who won’t feel the material and make it her art. I can’t leave them with someone whose job is an afterthought of her other life. How dare she allow herself to even have a life?
What if she doesn’t keep up with our prayer journals and proof of God’s faithfulness? What if she throws out the spiral notebook with their requests of comfort for sick grandpas and fighting parents and loved ones with cancer—precious pages of prayers for broken legs and broken hearts and birthday blessings and praises for roses and healing from thorns. What if she thinks daily inspiration is stupid? What if she only scratches the surface of Lord of the Flies and Antigone and Fahrenheit? What if a story is just a story and not the opportunity to embrace life or change?
What if she’s more organized and enjoys primly checking off standards? What if she looks good and wears heels like I used to before I realized I’d rather play vocabulary games that required racing across the room and spin cartwheels to demonstrate action verbs? What if she easily and instantly fits in when it took me four years to push my way into this league made up of both pitiful and extraordinary educators? Or what if she is simply a better teacher with more experience who is strong in all of the places I am weak, someone who reaches more or different students, or someone who is smarter. I’ll hate her if she’s smarter.
She’ll probably be Catholic. She’ll probably call the bread “the Host” instead of communion like she’s supposed to. She’ll probably agree with penance and confession. She’ll know the Lord’s Prayer ends with “deliver us from evil” instead of “for thine is the kingdom…” She’ll know that offering each other the sign of peace does not mean flashing the peace sign/ throwing up deuces. She’ll probably know not to have homeroom parties during Lent, know never to lift her hands in worship during mass because she’ll look like a fool, and never, ever use the Advent candles as pretend swords when acting out the stabbing scene of “Julius Caesar.”
This year, perhaps because they knew I was leaving or perhaps because my teacher-friend put the idea in their heads, they remembered my birthday. They made me feel so honored, so celebrated. Complete with princess crown and birthday sash, I was queen of the school—me, the girl who couldn’t even get on the homecoming court of her own high school. I opened my classroom door to find hundreds of handwritten messages, dozens of balloons, streamers, and gifts piled high on my desk. I was living the Norman Rockwell painting, “Happy Birthday, Miss Jones,” except in his painting the poised teacher smiles with gratitude whereas this Mama K squealed with delight and then immediately cried delicious tears. Yes, it was worth it. Yes, I would choose it again. I would make my same mistakes. I would lose myself again because they helped me find myself. I would lift my hands in joy and praise and thanksgiving. Why? Because they created me, and a small part of their lives are forever holy, wholly mine.
|credit: (via pinterest) inspiredbycharm.com|