A couple of months ago a writer friend forwarded an email call for submissions to an ebook collection of stories from expat teachers. Such a specific author call! I thought of what essays I might rework or draft. I wrote around a couple of ideas, let the work drift. Then a few weeks ago, my friend and I decided let’s do it, set up workshop via Google docs and drafted, commented and revised to hit today’s submission deadline. The whole collection will support the Children of Haiti Project.
I’ll let you know if my essay is published and where to purchase the collection when it’s released. Meantime, here is the essay I submitted. I can’t get away posting much of my finished work but think it’s okay to post this here.
On the writer side of things: titles. What do I call this? I titled the piece “Choosing Heartbreak” and then “We Choose Heartbreak.” Both titles are dumb, to me. “Growing Into Who I Am” fits but also sounds dumb. I suck at titles. Read the piece and if you have a title idea, please please please leave a comment.
As Yet Untitled, In My Mind
For years I held my profession at arms’ length, uncertain I really was a teacher until a decade passed and I couldn’t pretend I was actually a writer anymore. Instead, all those semesters of practice made me a good teacher. I have joy in the classroom. I wake up tired, run my treadmill miles, negotiate traffic with kids in the backseat, order a coffee I pick up from gate two on campus and walk back to my classroom, open the door to first period.
We aren’t always ready for first period. Students trail in five or ten minutes into class, find a desk. We roll our bodies and minds into the school day. A few years ago I started asking students to “be present” in my class and I do the same. We enjoy the people nearest us for fifty-five minutes. We learn what we can in fifty-five minutes. The joy I have in my classroom stems from affection for people as they are and belief those fifty-five minute classes matter to more than academic growth.
Still, last year was a wrestle with identity: am I more teacher or writer?
I had a group of seniors preparing for college: essay, applications, college visits and fairs, acceptances and rejections. These young men and women were making such big decisions. Sometimes they asked about my experience or opinion. Everything matters: small liberal arts college, Ivy League school, state university; declared or undecided major; visa issues in UK or US. I assured a few students they would be okay, wherever they landed, eventually, maybe. I went to a university that promised a scholarship, supposing I’d transfer after a year or two but instead I studied English which led to me choosing a teaching certification which wandered me from Wisconsin to Colombia to Kuwait. No choice is inconsequential and that’s a terrifying thought for an eighteen year old. It’s a terrifying thought for a thirty-five year old. I saw parallels between my seniors learning who they were, what they wanted next, and my own questions about why I was in the Middle East and what I was doing with my piles of notebooks and files of finished poetry and narrative pieces.
In the classroom, I wondered if I was doing enough. I scrape that worry once a semester. And then I remind myself: students go on. They learn from peers, teachers, professors, colleagues and supervisors after me. My class is not the most important thing in their world. I am not the most important person in their world.
But teachers are relevant. We see character forged. We nudge or push or direct through discussions and assignments in our classroom, through texts we introduce, the listening respect we give. We confront or challenge to sharpen a student’s idea, to help him or her find their answer. So much happens in a single room in a single semester.
Before teaching seniors again, I was used to semester classes. Introduce my class to writing practice, get the group comfortable putting words on paper, wowed by the fun of finding just what you want to say, frustrated by the repetition finding just what you want to say but pushing through. Each semester I am part of new writing lives. It’s like having a toddler and seeing sand or waves or shells in a new way, when my writing students remind me how fun it is to figure out the sestina or write a poem that can be read from the last line first or tell a story set in a place you’ve never been. So I would go through this wow part with a class and then dig into the work of rewriting and revising, along the way learning a lot about some students and some about a lot of students. When the semester ended I wasn’t ready to be done working with my group. There was more to do. But I’d take a big breath and start over with a new group of writers.
We cultivate such lovely routine and atmosphere in our classrooms. We enjoy the work we do. We pour out. We like our students. And what happens is emotion entwines with our work. Nothing is totally objective. But we can’t hang on to a single great group past the semester or year’s end. They were great kids but they go on. For years I was totally fine with this set up. And then last year, I was not.
Last June my seniors graduated and I was sad to say goodbye. This wasn’t a happy summer break wave or a call across the courtyard to see you next year. This wasn’t trust that a great student would do greater work. This was sorrow. At the senior night and again at the senior breakfast and finally at the commencement ceremony, I kept thinking of things I wanted to say or wish or hope for my students. I wasn’t ready for goodbye.
I was over heartbreak. To be a teacher and an expat is to say goodbye a thousand times. More. My dear Kuwait friends scatter. My husband taped a map to the wall and sometimes I look at the pastel colors of countries and think of my friends there and there and there. There isn’t a way to get back the combination of friends I had here six years ago or three years ago or even one year ago because the space between all of us is thousands of miles. And the Kuwait we shared six or three or one year ago isn’t the Kuwait I have now. Last year spring came and I just didn’t want to say goodbye. I remembered the first few years in Kuwait when close friends left, how I cried, looking out my apartment window at the Gulf, already knowing the greater loss, that we wouldn’t keep in touch past occasional email or Facebook likes, that our witness to one another’s growth in faith or motherhood wouldn’t continue over a coffee or on a walk. Then for a few years after I didn’t cry very much, perhaps accepting the greater loss. But last year my heart cut on the understanding I can’t keep any of this and while I was sad to see my students leave, I was sadder at the many future goodbyes I choose as a teacher and expat.
Why do we choose this heartbreak?
I also think watching my seniors sort their future pointed me to mine. So I lump that group with my acceptance: I am a teacher and writer. More than that, though. Last year I sensed the culmination of half a dozen years fighting to enjoy who I am, where I am. The prayers and affirmations, as a woman, wife, mother. My daughter and son came to my classroom after school and I’d pull them to me, breathe their shampoo and sweat, kiss their foreheads, cheeks. And I’d ask, please don’t take this away from me. I felt my body settle into its shape. I worked my writing with a trust that one day it lands for you to read. When I pray for my kids, I ask God that they grow into who they are. That was the gift of last year, that I grew more into who I am.
Knowing better who I am is in part knowing who I am not. Last year as my seniors were dreaming new dreams I was letting go old dreams. We have to do this. Our needs and wants and hopes change shape like sandstone taking the scoops and ridges of wind. Looking at my seniors I realized I measured so much of myself against my first fantasies of adulthood, those high school dreams. But I am not a photojournalist covering conflict. I am not occupying a cot in a refugee camp where I document humanity and hardship. I am not fashionable. I am not an Olympic distance runner. I am not rich. I am not single or given to a month in Ireland each summer. I wondered what my seniors thought their adulthood would look like. They talked of engineering, business, medicine and law. They talked of London, Dubai, Boston and LA. They talked of returning to Kuwait. But they cannot do all the things in their minds and they know it but they don’t really know it yet.
One day though, my seniors will wake to letting go the corporation or property or body. They will look and walk more like who they are. They will be new in unexpected ways, discovering a language or partner in their twenties, finding a paintbrush or cello in their thirties. They will wear marriage, parenthood, singleness. One day they will feel the weight of loss. But one day let them also wear their body heart mind spirit like it fits.
I have a new group of seniors who are as lovely as the last. We learn together. Sometimes I think of one of my seniors from last year, wonder how they are doing in winter weather or if they are still writing, but I don’t feel the deep sorrow of June. Maybe I get to see who they are in another decade or two. Maybe they get to see who I am. Maybe we walk in lines that don’t cross again. But that class matters to me. They were with me as I decided I can be this.
For my ASK 2016 seniors