As I indulge in these few moments of personal writing, hiding in an alcove of the English Office surrounded by a familiar landscape of battered Julius Caesars and Great Gatsbys, grammar texts, and abandoned photocopies of reading quizzes, I feel guilty. I should be looking for those two sets of in-class essays that I managed to misplace right before April vacation, or preparing instructions for the freshman final assessment project. This scatterbrained and apathetic sensation, and more specifically my surrender to it, is new to me. Not once in my twelve years of teaching have my students ever seen me flustered, digging through my backpack for a book that I accidentally left on my desk, or stammering through a lesson that I was inventing as the minutes ticked on. Once upon a time, my heart thunked anxiously at the casual musings of veteran teachers who lounged in their chairs in the mornings sipping coffee — “Hmm…what should I teach today?” — while I wrote down step-by-step instructions to myself in anal-retentive black print. Other rookie teachers struggled with stretching their activities to meet the end-of-class bell; I failed to finish them because I had prepared too many. My position as a 24-year-old woman who resembled the girlfriends and sisters of my all-male student body required that I learn how to build routine and structure, and therefore discipline, very quickly. I have worked fervently to lull my boys into sweet servitude, watching them think critically about canonized texts irrelevant to their modern lives against their better judgment. Until recently, the prospect of a class, or anyone, catching me off guard, ungraceful and incapable, was frightening enough to nearly cast me into seizures.
Now, I find that I am growing skilled at maintaining the illusion of organization and self-possession while the boredom of repetition and stability fissures my insides into fragments.
From the time we are born, our families, schools, and general human culture infuse us with the motivation to propel ourselves forward and upward. We advance from crawling to walking, from high school to college, from entry-level clerk to executive, from sexy single to spouse to parent of two. Wanting, wanting, wanting like I should, I trudged up the inclines that loomed before me, holding my sassy nine-year-old tongue long enough to earn a Cabbage Patch Kid, reciting the “Our Father” to achieve Confirmation, losing twelve pounds to make my dance studio’s touring company, composing brilliant essays on Shakespeare for Phi Beta Kappa honors, muddling through a publishing internship to a nannying stint to an MEd to arrive at my first real job and first real paycheck. As a young girl who dreamed of a future husband basking me in unconditional love despite my pimply face and muffin-top bulge, I designed pretend birth announcements that touted the newest additions to the family I imagined. I knew that standing somewhere in the hazy distance, my soulmate waited for me. So I advanced toward him, too, leaving the drama of adolescent heartache behind me on the trail. Together, he and I planned romantic weekend excursions, then a wedding, and finally the arrival of a beautifully strong-willed daughter and affectionate son. We amassed enough savings to buy our first house, and our second, a bigger, newer Colonial than the first, with a flat backyard and proximity to one of the most reputable elementary schools in the state.
My resume is full. My calendar is full. My character is full. My heart is not.
It seems to me that year thirty-five, or thereabouts, is where the grueling but invigorating ascension stops. We take the chance to hold ourselves still, to turn around and survey the land we have traversed. Our breathing evens. If we are truly lucky — and I am — we shake out the blanket and settle into the grooves of the earth to admire the scenery with the loved ones who have shared our journey and have nurtured us along the way. We feel that the backdrop to our lives will hold up in picturesque constancy. And it probably will, for the most part.
I have undoubtedly reached this pinnacle, with nothing else to seek. Then why, secured by the rock-hard stability of this identity as a wife, mother, and professional, do I feel like I’m falling apart?
As my mother has told me, there is nothing wrong with being ordinary. How many people would give up a limb to exist in totally benign regularity, to count on the consistency of a full-time job, takeout on Friday nights, dance lessons on Monday and swimming lessons on Thursday? When my daughter was diagnosed with an 11-centimeter esophageal duplication cyst just before three years old and underwent major surgery for its removal, I finally understood the import of my mother’s claim. No colors looked as vibrant as those in the Oriental rug in my living room, no sheets felt as cool as those in my own bed, no food tasted as savory as the leftover lasagna in my fridge after spending a week with her in the hospital. Most important, no sight moved me as strikingly as the vision of her reuniting with her eight-month-old brother in the front hallway in a flourish of hugs and kisses. After six weeks of witnessing my daughter gag through a soft-food diet of pudding and scrambled eggs while her stomach, having been crushed by the cyst, expanded to its original size, I thanked the universe profusely for her recovery and treated each day with renewed attention. I had learned a harsh lesson about the gift of normalcy.
In the fall of 2010, I noticed the first twinges of discontent. “Teach some new books,” suggested a friend’s father, a former teacher and journalist. “Take a class in photography or cooking to widen your interests,” offered a family pal. “Stop caring so much and make fun of yourself in front of your students — laugh a little,” urged a fellow instructor. “Isn’t it annoying when the kids make the same mistake with misplaced modifiers over and over again?” laughed my supervisor. No! I wanted to scream. These aren’t the solutions! I want out, don’t you get it?! I’m not this person anymore. I can’t be, or else I’m going to suffocate. And it’s not just about the teaching.
So I need some emotional and intellectual therapy. Here, I will write to sift through the confusing, yet inevitably revealing, rubble that is forming within me. I’m not accustomed to such a garbled, messy process — after all, it has taken me multiple hours to write this post because of my darned perfectionism. But I know I will discover gems of enlightenment buried in the wreckage. I can attempt to figure out my perspective on the world and establish new inclines to surmount. I can vent frustration and luxuriate in the details of my life that make me happy. Writing in itself, the art of manipulating the sounds, rhythms, and patterns of language to incite visceral response in readers, makes me happy, even if the only reader is me.
Why a public blog? Because I am held accountable to all other tasks by an audience that expects my services, whether it be parents paying almost $20,000 for a private school education or a child who needs a clean Pull-Up. If I don’t hold myself accountable for revitalizing my motivation to spur myself forward and upward, then I’ll have nobody else to blame when, twenty-five years from now, I find myself sitting in a small room on a pretty campus in suburbia, just one more element of a landscape of forgotten photocopies and stories that never change.