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 ax 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 a 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.

Snap out of it

The world is at a fever pitch right now. Everything is heightened, stressed, tenuous, uncertain. Almost anything could be the straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were. Everyday I resist the urge to actively look for said straw. It’s tempting to fall into a feeling of hopelessness and live just for today.

I’ve had thoughts of “I can’t believe this is the world I’m living in” or “I don’t want to live in this particular world anymore.” Let me be clear: this is a thought of escapism that all humans are prone to, not one of suicidal ideation.

This thought usually comes to me at the strangest times while participating in the most mundane tasks: driving home from an uneventful grocery store trip. Sitting outside on the patio. During seriously normal things that I would be doing in any world at any time.

There are days that feel totally normal; at my school we’ve been back in the building for a week now. A week ago I was pretty nervous and unsure about it, and really having a moment saying goodbye to my home office and my furry work assistant (for now). As a person who is very easily distracted and needs a good solid block of quiet time to get good deep work done (Have you read Deep Work by Cal Newport?), I’ve curated a really cozy, quiet space at home.

It’s quite a change from when I began working from home in mid-March. I hated mixing work and home life. As soon as I walked in the door, the teacher persona came off and the regular Elizabeth returned, along with comfy clothes. But then I was Teacher and Regular Human Being in the same space. But as the time went on, it got easier and as it turns out, for me it was all a state of mind.

Being back in the building was actually nice. I was able to be in my classroom, making it quiet and cozy just like my office at home. I was able to interact with my students virtually and even get some really good deep work done.

Stepping out of my classroom after a long but good week of work, I looked at the blue sky and changing trees and realized that we have a little less than three full months left in 2020. There is a presidential election looming. Who knows what else could happen.

However, there was a salient moment when it all came together for me, and I return to this moment in my memory often. Usually I’m jolted awake by my alarm, but there was a day (probably a weekend morning) where I slowly woke up, first my mind woke up, then my eyes opened, and I found myself on one side of a very cozy Missy sandwich. She and Aaron were still fast asleep, and I just lay there, letting myself wake up, and realizing that this is what it’s all about – we’re healthy, safe, have curated a pretty nice life, actually, and we’re grateful for it.

An unfortunate rite of passage with an okay ending.

Infertility has been an unfortunate rite of passage. It’s something I didn’t know I’d have to go through, unlike other rites of passage, and until I did, there’s a lot I didn’t know or realize about life in general. Funny how specific life circumstances can teach us so much about just… life.

Fertility or the lack thereof is the grown-up version of ‘haves and have nots’. And just like when a boy teased me in fifth grade about having ‘Walmart brand’ shoes, it’s obvious now that I don’t have the latest and greatest, if that’s what our (excessively) child-reverent culture considers as the latest and greatest these days.

Life has taken an unexpected turn. I a year ago I signed a contract for a new job that involves me working at an elementary school. With kids. Young kids. Kids who could be my kids age-wise. I was originally hired as a middle school Spanish teacher, but an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) position opened up and so I was asked to move to that role. Of course I jumped on it since ESOL is my jam. My thing. The catch? I’d be working with grades K through 5.

The peace I have as I walked through my building, and even as I passed pregnant staff in all stages, can only come from God as I’ve walked through the grief and healing process. A year ago, even six months ago, I don’t know if I could go to work and come home still in a great mood, not even thinking about how I’d be sending my kids off to school, too, at some point.

I’m thankful. I’m fortunate. There are other people I’ve known of who have to quit their teaching jobs because it’s just too heartwrenching to be around children. But teaching is my heart. I’ve been doing it since I was 14, before I even knew I wanted to be a teacher, before deciding on a college major, before meeting who I thought would be the father of my kids. Before infertility. Teaching has been a constant, and I treasure the teacher-student relationship.

I had a fantastic year. I grew to love all 20 of the students on my caseload, and many many others from my students’ classrooms. I bid them goodbye on Tuesday afternoon, their little arms and hands hanging out of the bus windows, waving. “I love you! Have a good summer! Make good choices!” were my phrases of choice.

And teaching for me still comes back around to an old cliche, well known among those of us who ‘don’t go into teaching for the money’ that ‘if I impact just one life, it was all worth it.’ And that, my friends, is the truth, and you don’t have to be a parent to accomplish that.

Finding our voices

Every time I get the inspiration or urge to write, something stops me. It’s almost like a paralysis, but it’s completely intangible. I imagine it’s a bit like being under anesthesia, able to feel but unable to speak. Actually, that’s exactly what it is.

Two years of hopefulness followed by hopelessness ad nauseum can really render someone speechless. Screaming on the inside but unable to formulate shapes with the mouth and vibrations with the vocal chords.

There’s so much to say and nothing at all. Some days I feel like an old woman, content to sit in the silence, meditating or pondering the rays of light that come through the window. I move slow, think slower, and hours can go by with nothing more than a few sentences loosely parsed together.

I’m trying to find my place in the world. I feel like part of my soul is missing some of the time. At almost 31, I’m established in my career but not necessarily because this was my goal. I fell into career success. Great, right? Kind of.

Nevertheless, every day in my care are 20 children, ages 5 to 10, all learning English and finding their place in the world, too. They’ve been my focus of whatever maternal instinct has survived this descent. I cherish their smiles and hugs, and their insightful and goofy anecdotes about life. I help them write, putting the words on the page. And in helping them find their voices, I’m finding mine too.