For my thirty-fifth birthday, all I really wanted was time. Court her, cover her up, or ignore her; time is a fickle mistress. I remember in high school, a teacher in her mid-thirties quoted an Irish playwright: “Youth is wasted on the young.” I rolled my eyes, considered my straight A’s and myriad extracurricular accomplishments, and concluded neither he nor she saw insult in the irony. Bright and bold, I’d change the world by the time I was my teacher’s age.
That particular year, my English class was led by a woman with a solid reputation who was derailed for nearly a semester while she and her husband battled it out in the courts. Her last name changed mid-year, if memory serves. In the brazenness of blind ignorance, I pitied her. The divorce had altered more than her initials; her personality, her perspective, her personal goals probably all changed, too. I couldn’t have understood it then, sitting in her classroom. I’d never have fathomed that she felt the insult in the irony of Shaw’s rather accurate assessment of life’s greatest paradox.
If we could go back, would we? I joke that for my thirtieth birthday, I gave myself a divorce, but my sophomores recognize that bit for the comic relief that it is. Like the English teacher I’d pitied long ago, I experienced the tragic loss of what was promised to be a forever union, and it changed me, too.
The five years since have been an incredible journey of heartbreak, separation, healing, growth, change, and renewal. The progress was not simple graph of one line trending upward with a constant, positive slope, but rather we’d have to chart multiple lines tracking the various parts of me that were restored at different points, and those lines dip and rise like the Dow. And in the ebb and the flow, the dip and the rise, I grew. I continue to grow. Preparing for our data analysis meeting with the district today, searching for trends in the most recent district-wide assessment, I wasn’t surprised by the ebb and flow.
By now, I’ve experienced enough leadership meetings to realize that we grow – be it students, schools, or districts – as much by the isolation of areas of growth as those areas of weakness. Forward progress is possible where pacing is malleable, and assessments are effective as benchmarks only if the data yielded is analyzed. Instruction responds accordingly, adapting curriculum emphasis to target insufficient skills. One of our new teachers worries when he sees low scores for certain students in isolation, and when we look at the data together, he benefits from seeing the bigger picture, starting with areas where the whole class performed well. The challenge became plausible as he not only understood how to identify trends that meant something, but within a week, he had developed a plan for targeting areas of weakness he discovered as he waded through a sea of numbers.
This young teacher, fresh out of school, is beginning to understand that one test on its own tells us little about how much progress has been made and how much remains. When it comes to analyzing assessment data, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. There are hundreds of lines to chart, one for each of our students, and with experience, he’s learning what I’ve learned. Don’t allow data to discourage you. Instead, let it arm you and equip you for the battle ahead so that change can be possible, so that the overall trends are positive, so that your interventions can affect future outcomes.
Charming checks charts, too, on a smart phone app that tracks the value of a Bitcoin. I struggle to understand the alternate form of currency (like other intangible, abstract concepts previously explored: infinity, death, etc.). By slowly dragging his finger across the screen, Charming was able to show me how the value of Bitcoin started from $0 USD in 2010, then it made small steady gains marked by small peaks. After three years, one Bitcoin equated to nearly a thousand bucks. Value fell again, and after another few years, by December of 2017, its worth was nearly twenty thousand dollars.
While I’m writing on my front porch in Hampton, Charming’s probably checking his Android hoping the newest trend reverses. It hasn’t even been two months, and the value of the Bitcoin dropped to under $6,000 USD today. Though I’ve not bought one myself, I’m sympathetically browsing the web for articles on why people shouldn’t give up on Bitcoin yet. In the financial world, what I see revealed by one line on a bar graph represents a dozen variables that rise and dip even as we type.
We expect the ebb and flow, the ups and downs, the rises and dips in our professional spheres and in our bank accounts. Charming and I both enjoy the certainty and finality of concrete numbers, where data analysis yields greater potential for growth in the future. Unfortunately, time didn’t provide number value’s for life’s progress tracking spreadsheet. I can only look back at the five birthdays since I left my husband and know, most assuredly, that each year was collectively better than the one preceding it, and that while the journey was marked by highs and lows that mirrored my ever-changing circumstances and choice of partners, the general trend is positively sloped.
I pitied my English teacher back when I was sitting in her classroom, but I never thought to pray that I wouldn’t eventually become her. Her brokenness scared me, but she rebounded and I think she was a great teacher, and her last name changed again, hopefully for the last time. As a teen, I glimpsed a woman without children who was divorced without children and a fear was forged without my knowledge. Perhaps because I teach high school and more or less never left high school, it was difficult to look in the mirror yesterday and apply foundation to cover smile lines, choking down the dose of reality that I am that old, single, childless woman.
Mom teases that it’s silly to care about turning thirty-five, but now that the day itself is in the rear view mirror, I sense a rise is coming. Charming reminds me that we’re getting married and children aren’t far off now, but Bitcoin’s graph charts only the history of the value, not its potential future growth. Maybe they both see the big picture while I see just the current trial when coming-of-age stories simply make you nostalgic for your youth…
Bouncing between doctor’s appointments for my shoulder, back, ADHD, and insomnia is equivalent to a commitment to indoor track was back in my teens. I’d love for Charming to marry the girl he met as a college sophomore who lived in same dorm. That version of me was fit and fearless, unaffected by any need to interpret data. If we could go back, would we?
I look at the picture that my sister-in-law snapped before I blew out my candles. We celebrated early while Charming was in town, and Gabrielle baked me a yellow cake with chocolate frosting like they made all the girls on my floor in Smith my freshman year at Wheaton. Charming hadn’t met his first wife yet. If I was to go back to a moment, it would be that birthday, and Charming would be cutting into the cake with me at nineteen like he was now at thirty-five.
No, I wouldn’t go back. For my thirtieth, I gave myself a divorce and became the pitied high school English teacher I was most afraid of, and the five years since have been an incredible journey of heartbreak, separation, healing, growth, change, and renewal. When I pack up the moving truck this summer, I will have had four full years to live life with my brother’s family. My nieces and nephew are an ever-present joy even in the dips and valleys.
No, I wouldn’t go back. I can’t explain it with proper data analysis produced by numbers and formulas, but my overall progress from nineteen to thirty-five trends positively upwards, seemingly in direct correlation to the decline of my ego and pride. The woman Charming’s marrying might already have arthritis sneaking into her spine, but her heart is pure and only for him. I’ve had the chance to learn how to raise a family in my years here, and I don’t need numbers to see that despite the dips, there’s always a rise.
I can’t put confidence in my students’ state tests based on what should happen or what I want to happen. I can look at each test and intervene. The best promise for future success is isolating areas of weakness so growth is attainable. By whatever measure, be it standardized testing or the value of a Bitcoin over time or my own progress toward being a responsible grown-up, I know the bigger picture matters.
Lord willing, birthdays past have passed, and Charming will share every birthday cake with me for the rest of my years. He won’t sell his Bitcoin. I know him. He’ll wait because there is room for hope when you put the numbers down. He promised to love me forever when he put this stunning ring on my finger, and Charming won’t give up on me either.
When I opened my gift from my husband to be, it was a Citizen watch, delicate and dainty just like I didn’t know I always wanted. There is room for hope when you put the numbers down, blow out the candles, and realize the man you love gave you time for your thirty-fifth birthday, just what you didn’t know you needed.