Things That You Love Should Be Things That You Do

I am right smack in the middle of my thirtieth year. Which is to say I’m 29. Which is to say my legs look different, somehow, around the knees. Which is to say I paint my nails bold colors and wear sensible shoes. Which is to say I’ve made some decisions.

I began teaching when I was 22. I was pregnant. I needed a job. My husband at the time was cutting grass. We needed health insurance that would not consider pregnancy a “pre-existing condition.” I was an emergency hire and thankful.

Cut to eight years later. I’ve been writing off and on throughout my teaching career. What brought me to teaching was the writing, the stories, the humanity. I am no hero–I’ve never had any grand notions of sacrificing myself for students who need saving. And yet. There are times when what we do within these four cinder-block walls drives a child to put words on a page that move me to tears. Visceral. Language you can smell, language you can walk around inside of.

I’ve always been driven by story. Always. When I was a little girl, I lived in my grandmother’s stories. She told beautiful stories about her twin sisters, Marie and Larue, born so small you could put a tea cup over their heads, slept side-by-side with a heated brick between them, tucked into my great-grandmother’s dresser drawer in the dead of a Tennessee winter. I listened to sermons for the stories that started them. I watched my father tell stories with his hands, loud-laughing at his own words to patients, to relatives, to the dinner table, who laughed along with him. My whole life.

In many ways, quitting teaching and starting a whole new career feels a lot like getting divorced. It’s a loss, but there’s a sense of rightness about it. There’s things I’ll miss, sure. My colleagues, my students, people. I’ll miss the people. It’s hard to miss any institution.

There was this moment. Right after my ex-husband moved out. When I found myself at home alone on, say, a Tuesday. And it was so peaceful. I vacuumed. The sun was pouring through the leaves beyond my windows. Choices: a cup of coffee, a load of laundry, a phone call.

In moments like this, I can do with my life what writers do with words to a page: world building, shaping a story, making & learning characters. In order to do this, you have to know what you want. It should come as no surprise that what I want is a life full of people and stories. All kinds of people. All kinds of stories. I want a life full.

Already I’ve been surprised by the places we’ve found stories in our new work. There’s so much beauty in people. In truth. I’ve fallen in love with everything local. I’ve fallen in love with hands that make things, with people who stop living one dream to pursue another, truer one. My favorite stories are the ones where people become successful doing something you never dreamed a person could be successful at. The videos we’ve made in my new life’s work, Room Eleven Media, tell these kinds of stories.

This, my thirtieth year, is the year of jumping off a cliff and building my wings on the way down. It’s a year of risk, a year of choice.

I have ten weeks left of teaching. A balancing act. I’m finding myself loving my students so much. I’m loving my colleagues for the coffee mugs they drink from, for their words of encouragement, for their voices coming through my wall, “You can do this. You can. Try. Come on.”

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The Fall

[This is the third in a series of posts about my first year of teaching. If you would like to read more, please click on “Becoming Ms. Reed” under Categories. Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the people in this story.]

In the mornings, students waited outside for the bell to ring. Feet hanging over a brick wall, loud-talking, and smacking on “breakfast pizza,” yesterday’s left-overs from lunch. It made me nervous to walk through them from the car to the school. So much laughing and fondling. Their breath hung in the air between them, collecting in the chill of morning. Everything about these students–their language, their postures–grated against my raising of restraint, respect, and privilege. The students’ catcalls that followed me into the building left me speechless, any retort or Smart Words that might stop them had been pre-conditioned to stop short in my throat where they stuck like glue dripping down into my gut. Powerless. Defenseless. Victim. These are the words I knew. These are the words I spoke when I came home from work each evening to ears that couldn’t possibly understand.

The days melted together. First block broke my spirit and my teaching and energy waned from that class on, decaying into each day’s end. Favorite excuse for getting out of class? “I need to step out. Gotta break wind. You know.” What was I supposed to say? No? I found myself desperately clinging to lessons about grammar and literature so stale I could hardly suffer them myself. Curriculum. Worksheets. Coverage. Maybe do some art to make the room look pretty. (My colleagues were fond of poking fun at how colorful and bright my room was with all the stuff on the walls. They always walked in with their hands shielding their eyes, feigning blindness.)

I quickly discovered that class was much more bearable if it was held outside. This was true for me and for the students. The fresh air was enough to put off the snickering and gossip of the fight that broke out at the Piggly Wiggly between two of the girls in my fourth block class; enough to make me forget the rumor I had heard that each girl had armed herself with a razor in her mouth; enough to fill my lungs, which were being encroached upon by my breeched baby’s head more and more everyday; enough to remind me that these were people I was teaching. Bringing the class outside felt more humane than anything else I did as a teacher that semester.

Unspoken: Here, see the sun? See the grass? This is what we were made for. This is what the poets are writing about. We can all enjoy this. This is what makes us human. Me. And you. This is what we have in common.

There was a homeless pit bull with ribs sharp and jutting out at weird angles. Hollow. Fur matted. Its face was scary despite its weakness. Slack-jawed, tongue hanging dry, its walk was slow, always careening toward me it seemed. The dog elicited all sorts of jeering and laughing from the kids. My fear of the dog was transparent. Some days the students played to my fear, taunting the dog to come over. Other days, they shooed it away. I never knew the kind of day it would be.

What I knew for sure, everyday, was that the drive would be a kind of relief–a sweet purgatory between two worlds, two institutions, I struggled to fit into: school and marriage. School is the one that remains.

Today, it’s spring outside of my classroom window where I’m writing and the kids are at lunch. When they come back, we’re headed outside to read The Odyssey. I’ve taught this story every year since that first fall. It’s my favorite thing to teach because it’s about being human. Today we’re reading my favorite part: when the Cyclops gets his eye gouged out by Nohbdy. “Now comes the weird upon me,” he roars. I love the Greeks and their deep respect for fate.

Belated: Xamp Xmas

Xamp Xmas began as a kind of reclusive, experimental approach to the holidays that grew from my dread of spending the holidays without Ruthie. Without my little buddy, Christmas just felt ridiculous. She spent ten days with her father, and I decided to spend those ten days quietly and without all the bustle and hustle–no presents, no parties, no long trips home, no big family dinners. I allowed my days to be enveloped by a growing entropy that made time pass in strange, unmarked ways. The experience was relaxing, like living in the eye of a storm.

Armed with documentaries I’d been wanting to see and books I’d been meaning to read, Xamp Xmas was a generally cozy experience, though there were parts of it that were hard. Since I would get Ruthie back on the 26th, her dad decided to “do Christmas” a few days early so she’d have time to play with her toys and stuff. So Ruthie called me on December 22 to wish me a Merry Christmas. When Ruthie called on “Christmas morning,” I was up in Atlanta hiding out during the days while David worked. Something about that phone call made me feel sad deep down in my marrow. I hated that I didn’t get to set out her presents, that I didn’t get to wake her up and see that sleepy, swollen excitement leap into her eyes, that I didn’t know until I spoke to her on the phone that Santa was bringing her a guinea pig (which would be a lovely pet for her to keep at her father’s house). I hung up the phone with her and was overwhelmed by the desire to be a part of the holidays. So I jumped in the shower and headed to the MECCA of Christmas: Lenox Mall.

Traffic was a mess. I had to valet park. Ten freaking dollars. Clusters of people were waiting for their cars with their hands full of bags bloated with the “perfect presents.” Inside, the mall was positively vibrating with “Christmas spirit,” which felt manic. I walked from one end of the mall to the other, found a restaurant and had a mojito while I read a book. I felt ridiculous. The mayhem, the bright lights, the noise, the energy all felt so arbitrary. All of these people were fighting to cram in their shopping ahead of time while my baby girl was having her Christmas day NOW. The hype, the energy, the mania–all of it was disorienting.

That night, I picked up David from work and told him about my day–how I’d talked to Ruthie, how she’d gotten a guinea pig, how I’d gone to Lenox Mall, how I’d drunk a mojito next to a woman at the bar who didn’t speak English, how terribly cliche the experience of being a single parent without her child on Christmas had felt. I perked up when he affirmed that indeed, that did sound depressing and suggested we do take out for dinner. So we watched the Banksy film and ate a quiet dinner of Pad Thai, the unopened fortune cookies between us holding some kind of promise that felt warm and comforting to me. My cookie reminded me not to rush into things, his promised wealth and opportunity. A good night.

Christmas Eve, we made white-chocolate-covered pretzels with sprinkles and watched half a dozen movies that weren’t “Christmas” movies, but that were set during the holiday season: Die Hard, Ghostbusters 2, Batman Returns. We walked across the street and had dinner, and declared this a most excellent Christmas Eve. My family was in Colorado skiing, and, though I missed them, I was perfectly content to be sitting next to my favorite guy eating a white truffle chicken salad sandwich and sipping on a “Ruby Slipper” (a drink with rosemary syrup that tastes like Christmas). And herein lies the paradoxical emotional experience of the single parent: that you can miss your kid so completely, so deeply, that it settles like a stone caught in the bottom of your gut; and that you can, at the very same time, enjoy (down to the tips of your toes) the quiet adult time you are granted because of her absence. It’s a complicated, confusing, often enriching experience that makes me truly appreciate both the time I have with her and the time I have to myself.

Christmas morning, we woke up to a dead car battery, which, with the help of AAA, we overcame. We schlepped to David’s parents’ house two hours away for an early Christmas dinner. Their warm house and the mimosas we drank were a relief to me. Our dinner was quietly festive and warm. I had decided not to join my parents and brothers on their trip to Colorado, and, though I didn’t regret my decision, I felt sad when my dad called me that afternoon. He’d decided to call it quits earlier in the day than everyone else, and I felt a pang as I realized that, if I’d been there, I’d be sitting next to him drinking a beer and looking out at the snow and the mountains. I could hear the distance in his voice so many miles away on this, the first Christmas I’d spent away from him in 28 years. The presents my family had shipped to me before they left emphasized that distance–humbled by the brown paper packaging, the lip gloss and old holiday movies my brothers sent me were particularly touching. The simplicity of those gifts–two or three thoughtful items– made me appreciate why we give gifts at all. Because “the perfect gift,” at any time of year, reminds us that we are understood, that the people we love and care most for “get us.”

The thing I loved the most about Xamp Xmas was its balance. It was the perfect mixture of holiday and rest. Rather than being a time marked by obligation and chaos, it was a time rooted in the present and marked by gratitude.