Starting the year right: On teaching and writing

Today is my fourteenth Professional Day. Wait—thirteenth. The year I started teaching I was hired six weeks into the school year. This is the day before school starts, kids gathering up their fresh notebooks and pens and getting haircuts,  teachers vying to get their needs met: printers hooked up, furniture moved, copies made. A day full of hope and anxiety.

And yet, there is one feature about this professional day that stands out above all the rest: I am not simultaneously trying to prepare myself and my child for another school year. He has already started college and appears to be doing just fine without me.

When I started teaching in 2000, my son entered kindergarten.  His arrival in my life played a big part in my becoming a teacher at all. At sixteen, then still at eighteen and twenty, I believed full-heartedly that I did not need college to be a writer. One of the books that I carried on my short list of books you must read now if you want to change your life forever during those years happened to be The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. Here’s a quote:

“Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgements. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.”

Why the hell should I go to college when everything I needed could be found in the library? What I needed was to read A LOT more books and spend a lot more time sitting in coffee shops trying to get it right. There was also that fact that I was on my own in terms of how to apply and how to pay for school, and it was very hard for me to imagine that I deserved that kind of money. We were a poor family and a mostly poorly educated family.

Getting pregnant scared me into figuring out the money system whereby smart kids who don’t necessarily earn top grades during the most painful, vulnerable years of their lives can borrow money to go to school. I panicked.


The dream of being a starving writer fell apart with the prospect of motherhood.

Of course I chose teaching. I’ve been anxious and uncomfortable for much of my life, but the place I’ve felt most comfortable has always been a classroom. When my parents split and my mom married a raging predator,  I found gold stars and Good Jobs! pretty damn consoling.

It hasn’t always been easy, but even through the demands of motherhood and a  profession, I have not let my writing dream die. And every summer I get to pretend I’m just a writer again, set the teaching-bits aside.

So it is with every Professional Day a kind of conflict within. I love teaching students to be better readers and writers, to share my own passion for words with adolescents who range from couldn’t-care-less to kids like me who words are a kind of prayer for, an obsession. But I won’t be one of those teachers who sacrifices her own passions and interests in order to grade papers faster and have longer office hours. Every year there is a pull for teachers to do more and be more and I do believe in working hard and serving children, but I draw a firm line where I no longer have time or energy to read books of my own choosing and write my imaginations. I have fought hard to preserve my teaching and writing practice side-by-side, and now here I am, up at 5:30 on a Professional Day, more ready for the first day than maybe I’ve ever been in terms of planning and preparation. What am I doing?

Sitting in my writing room, writing. Now this is a good start to the year!

In honor of myself and all the years of struggle and practice, In honor of my son, who is eight hundred miles away learning to make the music he wants to make, In honor of all you out there pursuing your practice even when time seems small and the demands of others great: I commit to write every day this school year.

Join me?


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