The sun sets earlier now. All the restful trips and staycations hopefully prepared Virginia teachers for the decathlon of pre-service: a week and a half long obstacle course where we juggle meetings, classroom prep, and curricular planning amidst a sea of welcomed interruptions and uninvited distractions. We’re in it together until the final bell; then, we take on our personal challenges as solo mission, like me alone on my porch again, writing again, vexed by nagging imbalances that find peace illusive tonight.
For three and a half years, I’ve been writing my way to revelation in a public forum. I ended a long distance relationship that had stalled out like my evening glories lackadaisically meandering up the side of the porch, all green vine potential but perhaps too late to see any white blossoms this year. That break up worked its way out in the soil of the garden beds I built. As I labored in the mulch, my brain toiled in the dirty, forsaken corners of my mind. I wrote through my gardening reality and unearthed analogies with figurative significance and unexpected insight.
Spring gave way to summer three years back, and the gardening analogies extended beyond broken heart to chronicle online dating disappointments and disasters. I’d typed my way toward an epiphany resulting in cancellation of my eHarmony account, committing to dive into my career; Charming was reading about my journey from half a state away – he wasn’t my ex-fiancé then, just an old friend from college who’d caught my blog on his newsfeed a few times and reached out to suggest we meet.
It wasn’t quite three years ago. I’m still holding on to summer. He entered in the fall when I didn’t know how many seasons we’d share, that there would be a limit, that I’d truly believe he was my forever and always and so firmly reject that in this soft, Autumn eve with a cool breeze that soothes my aching brain muscles. For two and a half years of manufactured, weekend-long dates traded along I-95, I wrote through the joys of the honeymoon phase, the frustration of the waiting room, the anxiety of getting older, the fear of missing out on the miracle of motherhood.
When my readers had already fallen for him, too, I reenacted Charming’s epic proposal with my words. This blue cushion is worn with nearing two-hundred consecutive Tuesday nights of my growth. It happens in the garden, in the kitchen, in my classroom, but like the evening glories or a water kettle or a kid writing better, I don’t see the fruit or the inspiration in the moment. This writing perch is anointed by a weekly willingness to expose my faults and failures. How can I be embarrassed when I see only the moment I am in, this truth, this attached perspective? When I trust the authenticity of my voice enough to return to my favorite spot in the house and go to the least favorite places in my mind, I equally trust the tenacity with which I once believed I would spend the rest of my life with Charming.
Even when doing so lost me the support of some friends, when my immediate world was shaming me into silence, I wrote about it while trying to respect prescribed and logical limitations. I broke his heart, mine, our families. I I didn’t get married this summer, so I didn’t move away, and Tuesday still hold the same order of events. My sister-in-law and I are just completing our decathlons in different districts. Despite geographic changes, we settled swiftly into our family dinner night after my typical workout, and it pleased me to lend a hand and know the routine without asking too many questions; with both feet in Hampton, at night anyway, I feel more present in the kids’ lives like before weekend-long dates.
I don’t have it all figured out, and that might worry people who encountered my professional persona. My former students form a love-hate relationship with the order and structure, receiving a calendar for the first quarter the first week of school along with a packet of prepared pages numbered chronologically for the first nine weeks, noted in the calendar and daily PowerPoint presentation. I’m yawning. I’ve done this for eleven-plus years. I spent enough summers cross-training by preparing the entire year’s curriculum before the first day to realize that teacher burn-out doesn’t feel like I thought it would.
No, teacher burn out is more like overtraining, where in well-intended dedication, you give everything you have for too long. My high school track coaches taught me to push my body beyond its limit, or I wouldn’t have made it to state qualifiers in my second year; I pulled my hamstring in that race, when it counted. Do I regret the counsel, favoring knowledge of a singular injury that I’d hurdle past amidst two more seasons, indoor and outdoor, where I would be a healthy competitor? I meant well in all my passion and zeal, and there were people like Mama Melissa who gently (not subtly) tried to help save me from myself.
It happened when I left Nashville the year I turned thirty. I stopped writing poetry or prose. I couldn’t compose since I hadn’t touched a piano since I left mine behind in my ex-husband’s rented home. A year working in virtual school administration out of a cubicle both equipped me with out of classroom work experience and served to remind me why I became a teacher in the first place. Investing in the next generation of leaders and teachers and workers and thinkers… it’s a privilege I don’t take lightly. This past year, I knew I’d turn in the key to the classroom with the yearbook tree and hope the next teacher doesn’t paint over the handprints. I put off submitting the letter of resignation even when my fiancé was scheduling our household moves to Germany. I was immobilized by what was coming because this time I knew how painful it would be.
When I left Nashville School of the Arts during my divorce to try and start over near family, I lost a community of friends, like Mama Melissa, and students who are starting their own families now and occasionally messaging me updates after reading a recent post of mine. I think I’d spent my whole life in schools, but each one preceding that had a max term of four years served. I never planned to leave my husband. I never planned to leave NSA. I’d retire in that room with no windows and Mama Melissa just up the hallway. Educators who love what they do can’t help but respond to the infinite need of teaching a whole child; unfortunately, there’s no divorcing my type A perfectionism.
The irony of our tragic fairy tale’s timeline has humbled me. A summer of facing a different future than the one Charming and I had planned and accepting that the inevitable goodbye to the yearbook tree ultimately came, discovering the hope in the realization that I was still here, because that means I’m living the advice I give. What message would I send to my graduated blogging club members if I stopped writing when my life got messy?
After a weekend of squeezing the company of imperfect people into never-ending handouts for the copy room pinned between two days in training sessions, our principal piled us into some buses for a field trip at Camp Arrowhead. The activities, aimed at providing faculty and staff with an opportunity to develop rapport, connect, and boost morale… well, they did. Mine, at least.
This morning felt more like I’d gotten a bye and saw a break in the competition against Thursday’s open house school bell. My favorite exercise was a team task to create a parachute out of some provided materials. My principal would have liked the dialogue as four assorted women navigated through balanced determination and respect, courtesy and suggestion, trying and failing, trying again. Our parachute had good air time inside, but we hadn’t accounted for the wind variable at the outdoor launch location. We failed in that we didn’t have the best time, but we’d bonded and invested so much that after the competition was over, we returned to the drawing board, made alterations through the break, and found our second parachute was flight ready. The wind didn’t capsize our craft this time.
It would have won, and to these four random women, forced to get to know one another in a the best attempt I’ve experienced yet, we did win. The best strategy to avoid teacher burn out isn’t to love less or give less, it’s to invest jointly. Every tweak we made to our parachute affected its flight course. When I was watching it fly down to a new teammate, it was impossible to tell which of our contributions had worked. All of our ideas were wound up in coffee filters, string, and paper clips, a final product that would not have existed were it not for the cumulative individual contributions spawning further changes and development.
The football games have already started at Darling Stadium, but they don’t have me waxing nostalgic to grab a camera and snap shots for the yearbook. I’d prepared for that. Few things in my life have actually been for forever and always, even when I thought they were going to be – not men, not teaching posts, not even whole states. My world got bigger with this school re-alliance though, not smaller. I still live in Hampton, still bump into students and former colleagues at the gym or grocery store, still smile when they don’t recognize the blonde me at first. Now, I believe I have a true gift in my new job. Starting over is always hard, but as I’m trying to get my room to function how it used to, I can picture her shuffling around in the other side of the wall, moving here after a summer playing Cruela de Vil in Disney, trying to imagine what she wants to create inside these four walls, envisioning what it will be like to teach her first set of students. Create, not re-create, like I’ve been trying to do. It’s helped me adapt and make my space new, too.
That was a role she played at Disney, but there isn’t a mean bone in this girl’s slender, dance frame… she’s more like a Dalmatian, sweet and loyal, but I know she can bite if provoked by a threat. It’s reassuring seeing the start of school through her eyes. This year, I want to work smarter and avoid burn out, give what I have and take the resources provided to do more than just survive a year while your students thrive. Whatever parachute Dalmatian and I make, hopefully soaring SOL scores, I know it is going to be better and stronger if we tweak together, try and fail together, try again together.
I write alone on my front porch tonight, like every Tuesday night, because I didn’t get married and move away. That wasn’t forever, and Nashville wasn’t, and this might not be either. Mama Melissa still encourages me emails and letters, across so many thousands of days and miles. She reminded me that I’m right where I’m supposed to be. I don’t have everything figured out, but I’m not going to give up. I’m not going to stop writing, even if I already lost the competition.
When I write, I grow, and I post my sentiments so that perhaps they might be one among many contributions that help another on Team Human get their parachutes safely soaring.