Sunday, June 14, 2015
I was traveling in this dream, toward an unknown destination, trying to find my way. It was dark, maybe raining. Vaguely familiar people were traveling with me. There was a sense of urgency. At some point I realized I had lost my wallet and spent the remainder of the dream considering the consequences of that.
When I awoke from that dream it took hours before I realized I hadn't really lost the wallet. Never mind that I don't use a wallet. I started my day thinking I was going to have to start making phone calls to cancel credit cards - the dream was that strong.
It didn't take long before I realized the startlingly clear message of the dream: this loss of identity as I prepare to retire from teaching is a much bigger deal than I want to believe or have given credit to.
Regular readers here will know how much I've struggled in the last three decades with my teacher identity. I never intended for teaching to be a long-term career. There was too much about the profession that frustrated me and pinched me like Cinderella's slipper on the wrong foot. And as the years passed, what I loved about teaching got harder and harder to claim.
Somehow I came to believe that because teaching was hard, and I struggled, and sometimes I failed, I couldn't really claim the title. I wasn't really sure I wanted to claim it. I wanted more for my life, and the older I got, the less I was able to claim any energy for more. So I became a teacher, a very tired teacher, and very little else. The ever elusive balance became harder and harder to achieve, and no matter how hard I tried, I could not do the job with only part of my heart and focus. Teaching is a profession that demands everything, and then some. I'm a person who has never been able to do anything in half measures.
It's only been these last few weeks, as the end of my career grows closer, that I have managed to embrace the whole package of my teacher identity. Just in time to release it.
I have been that teacher for a multitude of students - the one they'll never forget and the one who helped them discover a love of learning. The one who wore weird earrings and loved birds and books and writing. The one who was always ready with a hug and who cried with them over sad stories, whether from a book or from their lives. The one who told stories about her own childhood and her crazy pets. The one who promised to always be there if they needed anything.
I have been another kind of teacher for a handful of students - the one they remember as mean and too strict. If I could hug them all today and tell them I only wanted them to believe in themselves as much as I did, that I loved them, I would. If I could tell them I'm truly sorry for any pain I caused them, I would. I would tell them that the fear of hurting any child has stolen more hours of sleep from me than I care to count. And then I would encourage them to use their feelings and experiences with me to grow into kinder and more compassionate people, and move on.
The 1987-88 school year was my first as a teacher. I had 29 fifth grade students. One of them was a sweet and delightful girl named Mandi. Mandi was one of those students we'd love to fill our classes with: well-behaved, eager to learn and please, liked by her peers. She was someone I remembered clearly out of the nearly two thousand kids I've taught. At the beginning of this year, one of my girls, also a fifth grader, asked me if I remembered a student called Mandi (and she used her last name). I did. My new student was excited to tell me that former student is her Auntie Mandi.
Auntie Mandi came to the spring barbecue with my student's mom, her best friend. She came to see me. She's nearly 40 now, the short, dark, over-permed hair that embarrassed her so much in fifth grade replaced by longer lighter softer curls. But she was essentially the same Mandi I remembered. Light. Happy. Open. We laughed together over the album that contained pictures of her year, and she shared stories of some of her classmates she's still in contact with. We hugged like old friends. She said I was her favorite teacher, and whether it was a simple truth or a kindness, I accepted the gift of her words.
Yesterday Walt and I went to a soccer game. Several of my girls are on the same team and this was a much anticipated command appearance. I've gone to countless games and concerts and recitals over the years, and always loved seeing my kids out of the school context. I looked forward to this last one, knowing it was another last thing. Also knowing I'd get to see Bella. Bella who started the year with us, but moved midyear. One of those kids, like Mandi, who make the world a better place just with her easy presence.
As we stood on the sidelines in the late spring sunlight, watching girls I love play a game they love with power and intention, visiting with parents who were grateful for our attendance, I felt a deep sense of joy. When the game was over they made their way to me one by one until we were a rough circle. Bella was the first, so I had a few minutes to catch up with just her, to drink in her pretty face and lovely energy. Soon the space was filled with hard sweaty hugs and congratulations on hard play and goals shot. Smiles and laughter. Parting hugs. Parting waves.
Walking back to the car I realized this is what I'll miss most. Being a rock star. The spontaneous hugs. Seeing eyes light up when they see me. Feeling like a part of a hundred different families, and creating a nine-month family with 20 or 30 kids (or 100 like this year). Having a role in guiding another life toward their best path. Being a catalyst in the formation of a love of learning and books and words and birds and the whole large world that awaits each of my kids.
There is a movie trailer playing right now. It shows a man standing at the top of a skyscraper looking out over a city. He walks to the edge of the building, where a large metal beam extends out into the air. He steps onto the beam, looks down into nothingness with the ground so far away it's nearly invisible. The sense of vertigo is so strong I grip the arms of my chair. He extends his arms and one leg, a beautiful wingless bird on the verge of flight. That's what my life feels like right now as I prepare to create a new identity as a retired teacher (instead of a tired teacher). Leaving familiar ground, stepping joyfully into the air, trusting new ground to form as I go.