on purpose & gratitude

This is my second year teaching at a school. It’s also the fifth school that I’ve worked at–not always as a teacher. There have been struggles with each and every job. Most of the struggles internal. For me, teaching is not just what I do. It’s who I am.

I’m a teacher. As much as I am a sister. And a daughter. And a writer.

And with all of those things, I have to do it right. Some of this means I have to do it on my terms, but a lot of it means that I need purpose.

And that’s been the greatest struggle for me in my current school. Admittedly, I was only there part-time last year at 10 hours per week. This year’s part-time status had my hours jump to about 30, but I still struggled. And this all came to a breaking point on a student retreat in which I broke down in front of the adult I was paired with for a reflection.

I just don’t know what my purpose here is.

More than any place I’ve been, I didn’t feel that my students wanted a teacher. They want grades. They want to pile up APs. They could care less what I have to say about being a citizen, a person, a friend. They don’t want lessons on expressing themselves or commanding their own voices. They just want to memorize and get an A.

In my first full-time teaching job, my mentor told me that my students would likely forget the subject I taught, but they would never forget what I taught them about being a person. And I’ve held onto that because I really believe it to be true.

The only thing that really matters to me is that my students learn to think for themselves, act with integrity and work to make the world a better place than it is. Yes, I harp about their writing skills and put them through a brutal semester-long curriculum in writing, but it’s not really about the writing. It’s about the discipline, the accomplishment, and the thought process behind it all.

Just as I had resigned myself to another a year of not understanding, the clues started to come in slowly.

Handing in a 14-page term paper, a student said, “I’ve never felt so accomplished in my life.” I didn’t know how to respond.

But the best was my course evaluations. Everyone warned me not to read them because the students would use them as a way to “get back at me”, but I had to merge the responses. And I realized that although I may not have seen it, my teaching was working. I was thrilled that in addition to “essay” and “writing”, the most common responses were “improved”, “learned”, “confident”, and “helped.”

And then I walked into my classroom on the last day and was greeted with a surprise white board full of thank yous, including this one:

Makes the ending of the year just a little bit easier.

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ALL IN

I hoped it last night.

I knew it Saturday evening with the words of Paulo Coelho.

I figured it on Monday with the first call.

Not what was going to happen. Exactly. But what I was going to do.

When I was 12, I wrote my first short story. It was 60 pages long. When I was 16, I wrote my second. 72 pages. All I ever wanted to do was write. So I studied journalism and I wrote and wrote and wrote for four years.

Then, it all slipped away in a flurry of bills and life and education and love and travel. Things that were all very fulfilling (except for the bills), but things that left me feeling grossly unfulfilled. Except that I never knew why.

Last year, I figured it was because I wasn’t teaching. So I went back to it. Teaching English this time. It’s been a disaster. Not the teaching, but the experience. And I figured that it was a disaster for a reason.

At this time last year, I was offered a part-time job, and I panicked. I didn’t want to chance it.

But I took such a pay cut this year anyways that I learned the extent of my frugality, willingness to sacrifice and personal discipline.

So, that fear was erased partly. It was further erased by the knowledge that this simply is not the right way to be living.

Then, after this terribly awful week at the beginning of February, I walked with my best friend down the street and drank and drank and drank. The night involved a purple traffic cone and a bartender.

A bartender who has become one of the most inspiring people I know. He planted an idea in my head to discipline my writing, and since that moment it has taken off. Between that and his suggestions for reading, my brain has been awakened. And I see now that I could possibly do this. At the very least, I can come up with a finished product.

Then, a couple of nights ago. My mother said to me that my father always wanted to be a writer, and he regretted that no one ever told him it was possible. When I presented him with this half-baked scheme to destroy myself financially to write a series of novels, he said one thing to me: “Don’t just give yourself a year. Give yourself time.”

So, today when the opportunity was presented again. I took it.

I took the part-time job. Teaching writing this time. And it’s amazingly part-time. Six and a half hours a week. It’s mind-blowing that I will be able to shape my days around writing in a few short months.

It might be perfect.

Or it might be a disaster.

But at least for this one year, I can definitely say that I went ALL IN.

passions vs. bliss

A couple of weeks ago, the question was “What is your passion?” My friend helped me answer it by saying that it was teaching. I was–for a reason I didn’t understand at that moment–hesitant to agree. I think I said something like, “I’m passionate about teaching, but it isn’t my passion.”

I spent the four years of undergrad working in a high school. I was a substitute teacher, and I moderated a yearbook staff. Three months before graduation, I remember telling my mom, “Whatever I do, please don’t let me be a teacher.”

Three months after graduation, I was hired as a math teacher. With no real experience and no training, my first boss said that I was a natural teacher and she could teach me everything else. I enjoyed it immensely.

After three years, I made my first attempt to “never work again.” That attempt devolved into panic as I realized that writing and photography would not pay my bills, at least not at that moment.

So, I took another job that involved both writing and photography that I thought would engage some of my other passions and allow me to cultivate a personal business. Both ideas failed. I wound up in a bigger mess than the one I had started in.

After four months of unemployment, I ended up teaching again. English this time. And I loved it for the exact same reason I did the first time. It doesn’t have much to do with the subject at all. It’s more about watching young people grow. I feel as though I learn so much from them. It’s almost not fair.

I have realized that I have many passions. There are many things that light up my soul and make me feel alive.

But for my bliss?

I’m not so sure. I don’t know that I know that “one” thing that will make me happy for the rest of my life. Then, I think is that the goal? Do I need it to be for the rest of my life? Or is it enough for it to be for today?

The one problem is that I realize that I have never fully explored some of my passions. Teaching was easy. It’s easy for me to do, and it’s easy for me to achieve. It comes with steady pay. And I think that frightens me.

My biggest fear has always been waking up at 50 and being in the exact same place I was at 22. And I hate to say that because some of the people who I love more than life itself have done that. And they have perfectly content lives. And then I wonder what is wrong with me?

I know a lot of people who are not content in what they do. I know a lot of people who dream of something else. But I don’t know a lot of people who try to find that something else.

Perhaps it is my personal arrogance. Or that damn invincibility complex that I have.

But I think that one of these days I’m going to find that Treasure. I also realize that when I find it, it’s going to be the sum total of all these experience and that without them, it wouldn’t be as beautiful or as rich.

So…my passions: writing, meditation, teaching, baseball, music, photography, sunshine, travel, the desert, reading, politics.

In that order.

My bliss: to be determined.