On the evening of Mother’s Day, I stood gazing proudly at my sixty-four square feet of raised garden.
I love each plant: the green leafy broccolini, the heart-leafed French radishes, the purple-veined Russian kale, the climbing sweet peas, the glossy spinach and butterhead lettuce, the flowering yellow blossoms of the slender mustard greens, the clustered tender beet shoots, the open palms of the purple cabbage. Every afternoon, after I battle teenagers and bureaucracy all day, I greet my wife and my daughter and then slip out into the backyard to tend these vegetables, some of which I planted in mid-March. Every afternoon, I water each square by hand; I examine each leaf. Meredith teases me that most of the time, when she glances out the window, I’m just standing back there and staring at the garden, not doing anything. It’s true. I’m successful here, in this perfect 4 x 16 rectangle of sixty-four squares. I plant seeds in perfect soil (one-third peat moss, one-third compost, one-third vermiculite); I water; I watch the plants emerge and grow. It’s quite different from teaching, where I have no control over the soil and cannot always provide the right kind of water or sunlight. In the garden, my labor has direct, predictable results. Not so in my classroom. All day at work, I clench my teeth, but in the afternoon, I begin to relax. I touch the sun-warmed soil, and I breathe.
But then, at noon on the day after Mother’s Day, I half-listened to student presentations in my classroom as thunder boomed in a black sky. The students, trying to remain polite, looked nervously out the windows, probably thinking of their exposed cars in the parking lot. This time of year, Colorado thunderstorms usually bring hail, and sometimes that hail is frighteningly destructive. At the front of the room, Stephanie was talking about advances in medical technology, and we all nodded encouragingly, but the students thought about their cars—and I worried about my beloved plants.
The weather person had warned me on the radio that morning when I was halfway to school: thunderstorms this afternoon, with possible hail. I considered turning around. In ten minutes, I could have rushed to the garden shed, grabbed the PVC pipe and the floating covers, protected those tender shoots. Or I could have grabbed mixing bowls and large plastic pots and set them upside down over as many plants as possible. I considered, nearly veering onto the next exit off of I-25, but the twenty-four papers waiting on my desk to be graded pulled me north. My plants would be fine. The chances that they would be hurt by hail were slim. After all, they had survived a few heavy snows, many nights of frost, a hungry baby rabbit, seed-searching Northern Flickers, and spring winds. A little hail couldn’t defeat them now.
I didn’t even think to worry again until Meredith texted me about the “crazy” hailstorm that day that had backed up traffic and caused accidents and actually forced the city to pull the snowplows out of the garages. She was glad to be home, she said. I couldn’t ask about the plants. Instead, I endured my seventh-period class, twenty-nine seniors as burned out with school as eighteen-year-olds can be, irritated that I am still making them do work this close to graduation day.
On the drive home, I remembered my first spring in Colorado, when Mitike was four. It was the first week of June, we had just fled Alaska, and I was desperate to find some tangible joy. I loaded Mitike into our new used Subaru, and we drove to the nearest greenhouse, where we bought the sweetest profusion of pansies and herbs and vegetables. All afternoon, we worked with our spades (Mitike’s was purple) to turn and amend and plant the raised boxes and the large garden in our new Fort Collins backyard. Finished, we stood back and admired the little green leaves waving in the breeze, transplanted like the two of us, ready to thrive.
The hail that day came unannounced, in a wild rush of freezing wind and black sky, while the two of us ate dinner at our little table. “Oh, no, Mommy! The little plants!” Mitike cried, and we ran to the back door just in time to watch marble-sized ice balls rip our transplants to tiny shreds and then flatten the pieces cruelly into the cultivated soil. Both of us stood and sobbed, our noses pressed against the back door’s cold glass window.
That was almost exactly seven years ago. Now, driving home in sunshine (Colorado’s weather changes that quickly) after the booming noontime storm, I told myself such hail destruction couldn’t possibly happen twice to the same gardener.
Meredith met me on the porch of our house and gestured toward the irises and black-eyed susans and coneflowers in the front bed. “They’re fine, aren’t they? They’ll bounce back.” I kissed her and surveyed the torn leaves, the battered look of the plants as if some large creature had laid down on them. These were plants native to Colorado, hardy enough to survive hail. They would be fine.
Together, Meredith and I walked through the house to the backyard, to the vegetable garden, Mitike and Fable close behind.
At the edge of the box, we stopped and gaped.
The damage was horrific, far worse than the hailstorm seven years ago. The plants I had been nurturing for two months had been flattened, beaten, stripped, broken—decimated. The hail, apparently the size of the peas I had so lovingly planted two months before, had pounded most of the leaf and stem fragments into the soil. A pea vine clung to its orange twine lead like some gruesome execution. The bared broccolini stalks pointed accusingly at the sky. No plant had escaped damage. The feathery tendrils of the asparagus lay listless beside a flattened and uprooted tomato plant. The sunflower shoots were ripped and torn, pieces hanging like severed limbs.
Meredith and Mitike watched me warily. The source of my calm destroyed, I could dissolve, or panic, or rage. They had seen all three. Mitike leaned toward the nearest broken, teetering red cabbage plant and murmured, “You’re okay. You’ll be okay! Just be strong.” Of course she was actually talking to me. That evening seven years ago, I said we were both sobbing, but that’s not true. I was sobbing about what (and whom) we’d left behind in Alaska, and she, only four, burst into tears because her mommy did not know what to do with all the grief. I’ve tried to be strong for her most of the time, but sometimes the hail damage has just been too egregious.
On this day, though, in the sunshine, a wiser Sarah than the one seven years ago, I felt not grief but acceptance. This happens. Hail. Wind. Death. Heartbreak. In the garden, the fragments of lettuce leaf and broccolini bud become compost for the next seeds. Maybe the beets will revive themselves from this flattened state, and maybe the pea shoots will climb out of this, or maybe not. In a week, I’ll pull out browning stems and replant. In three weeks, I’ll have a lush garden again, just in time for another hailstorm. And then I’ll replant again. I can be as stubborn as I am tender.
Later that night, I retrieved my scissors from the garden shed and began to chop away at the battered lettuce heads, the torn spinach, the shredded kale. They might grow new leaves, and pruning gives them the energy to try.
If only I could learn to approach a failed lesson plan or a rejected manuscript in the same way. Start over, start over. There are many more days of sun than hail.
Stacks of research papers teeter on my desk; my colleagues and I slog through hours and hours of standardized testing proctoring; the students are irritable and restless, and so am I. Every April, my mind hums with the same old question: What else could I be? What else am I qualified to do? I search the internet for job postings, but drift toward all the ones that sound quite a bit like teaching. Could I get paid to garden? Would someone employ me to hike mountains? Is it possible to work as a professional reader of books?
Yes, I could be a writer. Since I was nine, when I wrote rambling stories about a girl named Zoe who lived on a farm oddly like mine, I have yearned to be a writer. Not just someone who writes every once in a while, not just someone who writes in the precious early hour before work, but someone who, for a living, writes. My secret love has always been words and sentences and paragraphs. Stories.
But at twenty-six, drifting through Central America with a piece of paper that proclaimed me a college graduate and trumpeted the profoundly useful double major in English and religion (majors to which I had switched my sophomore year, romanced away from chemistry and math), I sighed, and became a teacher. The old adage mocked me: Those who can’t do, teach. I pulled the first stack of student essays toward me and began to read.
“Teacher” is the identity with which I am most uncomfortable. For fifteen years, I have viewed it as temporary. Someday, I say to whomever is listening, I’ll quit this job and write full time. I try to wake early to keep my writing discipline. I try to attend writing workshops, where a surprising number of people seem to have hours each day to write. I try to learn from others: at a “local author” book signing for Grief Map recently, I talked to two other local authors and grilled them on how they have made the jump into a full-time writing life. One woman told me: You just do it. You just jump. Right. Except jumping requires the confidence that the stories I’m trying to tell will translate to a living wage somehow, that we’ll be able to continue to do all the other things I love and value: travel, buy plants for my garden, eat out at restaurants, save for Mitike’s college education. Better to keep teaching.
A colleague told me recently, in response to my “Someday, I’ll be a writer full-time,” that someday I’ll admit that I’m actually a teacher at my core, and I bristled. He laughed. We stood in the echoing hallway, both of us holding armloads of papers to grade. Too often, I feel like a character in a Stephen King or a Kent Haruf novel—the jaded English teacher, correcting papers late at night, staring back at disengaged students by day, her own half-finished novel in a drawer because she has to plan lessons for this week and attend professional development and call the parents of every student who is failing and beg the district to give me adequate health care.
On PSAT testing day this April, I walked in circles around and around a room full of sophomores. In my monotone voice, I read the script: “You will only receive credit for answers recorded on your answer sheet . . . If you have any questions about testing procedures, please ask them now. I cannot answer questions during the timed sections of the test. . . .” I looked up. The sophomores held their number two pencils politely, but they were hearing nothing I was saying. They had heard all of these instructions before. Outside, a tree blossomed white, and the robins and chickadees announced spring. I thought, We are all trapped here. I told the students to just begin the test.
There are days when my job feels like one of the best possible jobs in the world. After all, I am free to plan my own time, to teach whatever texts I deem relevant, to engage roomfuls of teenagers in meaningful conversations about their lives. And every year, I reach a few students who needed to be reached.
This job, teaching, is cyclical. As soon as I sink to my nadir, in the first weeks of April, the end of the school year begins to shimmer in the near distance. At home, my plants begin to sprout in the garden: the peas and kale and broccolini and radishes I planted on St. Patrick’s Day, the perennial native flowers I planted three years ago. I store the skis and the winter coats; I spend an entire weekend digging in the dirt, carefully pushing mulch around greening plants. The delicate soft green leaves of the sage plant reminds me to have more empathy for my students, who are trying to thrive in soil and air that is not their native habitat. The delicate butter lettuce leaves tell me I need to bring those students more water, more peat moss and compost. On a Monday after gardening, I am always a better, more devoted teacher.
But I still don’t believe I will be a teacher forever. It’s a stop along my way, no matter what anyone says. On the first weekend of April, as I sank my fingers into the newly friable soil I had created for my new herb garden, I made a mental to-do list of the writing projects I intend to finish this summer, while these plants are growing: the Anna Dickinson manuscript (finished, but needing major editing), the Colorado women place names project, the new collection of hybrid essays I want to begin on the wilderness and nature, the short story about the lockdown. Someday, someday, someday. The word is the rhythm of my spade in the Colorado clay. Every morning I make myself write is a little more amendment to the soil; someday, the writing life I imagine will thrive here.
For now, I’ll drive to work at a huge Denver high school, where I’ll grade two more papers before the bell rings, and then I’ll stand in front of thirty teenagers and tell them, “Okay, let’s start by writing a little.” It’s always about that, about beginning. And then, as the morning sun streams through the tall windows onto thirty heads bent earnestly over notebooks, pens scratching, then, for a moment—just before I take attendance—this is the perfect job for me, after all.