Every April, I become profoundly tired.
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.