Fooling myself

For a good chunk of my life I had no idea how to relax. I would be so excited for what seemed like endless amounts of time on the weekends or school breaks, and then it would feel like I squandered it by doing… I don’t even know what, exactly.

By the time I reached high school, I simultaneously was excited for and dreaded breaks or time off. Through high school and college, I suffered from depression during those times, especially summers. The lack of routine and set schedule really got me down.

Since then, there’s been a push and pull of priorities, some due to the privileges I enjoy now and some due to many years of creating healthy boundaries and “work-life balance.”

In talking with my therapist the other day, I discovered that in the times I felt depressed on winter [or insert whatever holiday] break, I didn’t trust myself. During the week or times of routine, I relied heavily on my schedule to determine the appropriate times for all my activities. I hadn’t quite learned self-regulation of my own schedule.

For instance, I have a history of starting a project and either getting so carried away with that I can’t stop until it’s finished, or I leave it to collect dust for a number of months until I remember my fondness for it and dig it out of the pile of Misfit Projects. I think many times I would abandon a project because I would get too much into my own head about “wasting” time on something that I actually did enjoy instead of engaging in something more “productive.”

This practice of never penciling in unscheduled activities came to a fever pitch when Aaron was out and about (either in the field or deployed) with the military. Whether it was for two weeks, a month, or our longest separation of 10 months, I found myself jumping at every last opportunity to be busy or spend time away from the house. It was just too hard to be there alone.

There’s a long path of steps up to my current level of self-actualization that could not have occurred without those trying times and bouts of depression, however. I needed to go through the tough things to appreciate the good ones. To appreciate myself for who I am – independent, worthy of relaxation.

These days I still have a list of projects, some that are completed with a feverish pace, and others that sit for months until I pick them up again. I always am caught in a flurry of hobbies and love immersing myself in creative things when I’m not working. But no longer do I feel guilty or weird if I spend, for example, two hours on a Sunday afternoon napping, or watching football, or cooking food for the week.

I think the key is that I can’t have so many boundaries for myself during my time off. I need to allow myself a large swath of time to ponder, explore, and create. It keeps me mentally healthy. I inwardly rejoice even upon waking up early on a weekend morning, or especially upon waking up early on a weekend morning. I see nothing but potential for the day, be it through a cup (or entire French press) of coffee, reading, cross-stitching, napping, cooking, whatever. The joy in the day is not derived by the activity necessarily, but in the agency involved in choosing the activity. And having no regrets for how I spent my time.

Life right now is not at all what we planned it would look like. Humans are kind of programmed to predict events, so this pandemic really threw a wrench into everything. Nonetheless, it gives us a perfect opportunity to see our habits and actions for what they really bring to our lives – either how they serve us or how they manipulate or cause destruction.

In the view of the finite breaths we all have left, it’s imperative that we take the time to reflect on how we spend our time and if it’s all “worth it.” We can take everything out of our pockets, lay it out on the table, and really examine every piece in an objective light.

For me, hemming and hawing about the way I spend an hour or two, or even an entire day, doesn’t serve me well. If I complete an activity and then spend time regretting it, that is a waste to me, my friends.

In fact, I guess you could say I’d be fooling myself….

Plan A is Plan A

In a one-on-one session with a student today, these literal words came out of my mouth: “Bear with me with biology; it’s been 20 years since I’ve had this class.” (For the record, I teach ESOL but a student came to me for language help with her bio class.)

I became a teacher long before now. Professionally, I’ve been at it for about 15 years. But before that I taught piano lessons at my local music shop. Before that, I was giving my sisters lessons using a chalkboard mounted on the wall behind the Laz-E-Boy in the living room.

I thought teaching was a great aspiration, but for me it was always a placeholder until I could do the thing I really wanted to do: take care of my own children.

When I learned that having my own children probably wasn’t in the cards for me (for many reasons.. check out those posts here, here, and here), I had a major identity crisis. Yes, I was a teacher still, but in my heart of hearts I was also a mother. I was a wife and a mother before anything else. Besides “teacher,” it was probably the first identity that emerged when I was a little girl. I’ve always been very maternal, be it with dolls, stuffed animals, my sisters, the younger siblings of my friends. I always knew I would be very suited for a long-term relationship as someone’s wife. And even then, becoming a wife was an avenue for becoming a mother. (Yes, I’m very traditional about some things. But only for myself. You do you.)

It’s taken now many years and dozens of therapy sessions, plus a whole lot of mental bandwidth, to disengage from my identity as a mother. During that identity crisis, I was still serving as a teacher but refused to accept that it was now (or still?) my life’s work. Another one for the record: I do believe in callings, in God’s will. As such, teaching has always been my life’s work.

It hasn’t been until this school year that I’ve finally felt liberated from my dormant and unfulfilled “mother” identity. It could be that I’m more comfortable in my own skin. Or that I’m back teaching in a high school as I spent four years in elementary, which has a role of its own in my healing from the hurt of infertility. I spent a lot of time and energy exploring other potential life paths in the past few years.

I started my professional career in high school, first in student teaching at a school in a very small town in the middle of cornfields, and then in my very own (windowless) classroom of wide-eyed Spanish students in another school surrounded by cornfields. I even started my (amateur) teaching career while I was a high school student. So many positive formative experiences happened to me while I was that age.

There’s a type of magic for me of being in a high school building. There’s not only nostalgia, but a feeling of “home,” and if you lead me to the band room, that feeling is only amplified.

School in post-COVID-closure 2020 may look very strange to my 14-year-old self who once sat in freshman biology class thinking about what 34-year-old Elizabeth would be like, or do with her life. But there’s something about imparting knowledge on others, about creating a classroom community, about leaning into the hard days and frustrations that makes me feel like I belong.

I don’t communicate these words lightly. In the five weeks since school has been back in session I have considered quitting my job at least five times. I could write many many posts about the difficulties of teaching these days, and a treatise on the inequities and bureaucratic bloat of the American public education system.

But late last week I had a realization. Me di cuenta… I realized that now is a good time to lean in. To embrace my chosen profession. To receive my new students, whom I have known for all of a month. To welcome new families, immigrants or not. To keep creating lessons that are fun to teach and hopefully to learn. To call on my creative brain to step up. To take advantage of the wealth of pedagogical knowledge I’ve amassed in the 13 years since I was a teacher candidate.

In our society that says that having a plan will make you successful, “they” are awfully silent about the plans that emerge from the shadows, or a child’s dreams that want to be Plan A when they grow up. I have come full circle, where my Plan A is still my Plan A.