The Calling

[This is the first 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.]

The day began like every other that summer: I woke up wrestling with nausea and lost. Twice. However, unlike every other day, this one was marked by a job interview with a school board in very rural Alabama. After heaving what was left of my first-trimester stomach lining into the kitchen sink, I wriggled into a butter-yellow pencil skirt and a freshly-starched white button down, grabbed an apple and ran down the three flights of stairs adjoined to our pitiful excise of an apartment building, careful not to look through the spaces between the stairs where the ground so far below made my jaw tingle. Ten minutes later, whizzing down a country road I’d never known, captivated by the landscape of vivid Alabama green blurring by my window, I was already pining for the commute through foggy fall mornings to a school where I would really make a difference.

Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was nerves, maybe it was the hormones, but about halfway into the drive, something about the texture of the apple I’d been eating caused me to pull over and retch on the side of the road beneath a romantic canopy of trees. There was nothing cool to lean against and there was no one I could call. I had no choice but to shamble back into the car, my fresh butter-yellow skirt smeared with red clay, and attempt to collect myself for the interview. Any illusions I’d had of myself exhibiting grace and mental composure I left there, mixed with spit on the side of the road. From this point on, my memory of this day is marked by extreme heat and profuse sweating.

And so it was that I found myself sweating on the front steps of the Chambers County Board of Education. Despite my lack of experience in education beyond my years as a student, I was confident–it was the kind of confident only a young person can feel as it’s the kind of confidence that comes from never having failed at anything significant before and never having endured much of anything challenging (that is of course, if you don’t count breaking the news to my parents that their unwed daughter was going to have a baby). This kind of confidence might also come from having very little to lose.

First impression: This place is a dump. The city of Lafayette reminded me of Miss Havisham’s wedding gown. Its old, lacy Victorian homes were depressing—they were falling in on themselves, old furniture stacked to the porch ceilings and prickly signs nailed to their trees. NO TRESPASSING. The Board of Education was nestled among those houses like Miss Havisham’s rotted wedding cake on her banquet table. To the right of the Board there was a grassy hill that led up to the high school. As I began to climb the steps, I was very aware of people sitting on their porches across the street. Watching me. I became aware of how bright and clean and pressed my outfit was in comparison with my surroundings. What was I doing here?

The front door felt greasy and, as I pulled it open, seemed to stick the way the soles of my feet do when I’ve just stepped in gum. The air inside felt thick and humid, like walking into an open mouth. The large black woman seated behind the desk to my left directed me to wait in a plastic chair along the wall. More sweating. By this time I’m sure the shirt under my arms was completely transparent. A man with a preacher’s face and a politician’s smile led me to a room where I wrote an essay about what, I can’t remember, but I accomplished it and placed it back in his outstretched hand with the same kind of knowing satisfaction that I’ve always had upon turning in work to my teachers. We went into his office where he conducted an interview alongside the principal from the high school at the top of the hill. Throughout the interview, most of my attention was directed towards the amount of perspiration that was accumulating on my upper lip and how long it had been since I last licked it off. Since I’ve always been able to talk my way into or out of anything, answering questions came naturally.

There were two concepts that have stuck in my mind since that interview: “The Age of Accountability” and “Highly Qualified.” The first came from a question that the principal asked me. She was asking what kinds of things I would do in my classroom since we are now living in the Age of Accountability. I assumed that this had to do with holding students accountable for their work. In the past six years, I’ve discovered that this has more to do with teachers covering their asses than with teaching or learning. THe other term, “Highly Qualified,” turned out to be what I was. Me. The girl with NO background in education and no prior work experience in anything. Apparently, a certain number of courses in English (Literature) made me achieve “Highly Qualified” status as an educator.

So I got the job. And the signing bonus. Signing bonus? Signing bonus. $3,000. Or something like that. Because it was July and their 9th and 10th grade English students (99% of whom were receiving free or reduced government lunch, 99% of whom were minority) desperately needed a teacher. And the job came with benefits. Benefits! Health insurance! My feet were singing and dancing their way out of that office, down the cracked front steps, and I was practically waltzing in the streets across from those people sitting on their front porches looking deflated and indifferent. Hopped up on adrenalin, I called everyone I knew and practically vibrated home. I was going to be a teacher! I was going to make a difference.

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The words are purposes. / The words are maps.

[The title of this post is taken from Adrienne Rich’s poem “Diving into the Wreck.”]

© 2010 David Parker

T.V. sounds reverberate from the living room:
loud, energetic, open-mouthed voices. Must be
a commercial. I’m trying to nail down a metaphor
to stand for the sound of her voice
(escaping through a mouth stitched shut against
crying) on the other end of the line.

And I think:
That’s a lot of prepositions.
And I remember:
to the log, over
the log, around the log,
under the log,
through
the
log,
across the log, for
the log, with the log,
about the log.

And the more I think of the word log,
the more the word becomes
not a word signifying a thing
but a strange-sounding noise
like when you say
your name
over and over and over and over until
it becomes a foreign sound and
it’s strange to think that the sound
is you
because it makes no sense
only sound.

And then you try emphasizing
different parts of the word:
YOURname, yourNAME,
you-R-name.
Or you say it different ways:
yourname. YOURNAME. Yourname?
Yourname! Yourname?!
…yourname.

But you can never separate
the sound so far from its meaning
that it won’t snap back like
a rubber band.

Try it.

Say:
tragedy.
tragedy. tragedy. tragedy. TRA-
gedy. TRA-gedy. tra-GE-dey. tra-ge-DY.
tra-ge-DY. Tragedy? Tragedy. TRAGEDY!
tragedytragedytragedytragedytragedy.
Tragedy.

That’s what we did (my friend and I
on the phone).

Us, the Most Fleeting of All

© 2010 David Parker

I like to measure time with my milk’s expiration dates. I start to get excited about things in my life when I buy a carton of milk that expires after the date of the thing I’m looking forward to. Buying organic milk means that I get excited about things nearly a month before they’re going to happen. So, today, I went to buy some milk and noticed that the expiration date is September 5 (two days after my 28th birthday). It’s finally here: my magical year!

I’ve been looking forward to 28 for a long time. I hated my early twenties because I felt like no one took me seriously. Now, I’m kind of thankful that they didn’t. My mid-twenties were full of change, change, change, and more change. From 24-26, I kept saying that next year would be predictable, constant, undramatic, maybe even boring. And I’m thankful that didn’t happen either.

But 27 has been a gritty, grace-less year for me. There were no short-cuts. I was spared no criticism, I had to ask for help, I discovered that I really have very little control over anything beyond myself, I became disenchanted. Despite its grit, 27 did bring me the best summer of my life, which I deserved and enjoyed. And 27 brought me to today, which, if you don’t count the poor decision to eat a taco from the school cafeteria, was a pretty good day.

What follows is the poem that opens The Time Traveler’s Wife. I just love it. That’s all.

Still Looking

© 2010 David Parker

All day today, I feel like I’ve just been swallowing stress. And I really tried to focus on happier things, but it just wouldn’t stick. Like this morning, after I dropped Ruthie off five minutes late, I did have a chance to appreciate the middle-school boy and his father both walking towards the school with back-packs on or the cross guard who high-fived every little kid who passed him crossing the street to the elementary school. The kids at school today were neat-o as usual for this bunch. They laugh easily and often, but not at each other. They willingly engage in discussions of symbolism and figurative language (two of my favorite things). But every little happy seemed to be accompanied by a burp of stress: the classwork already piled on the edges of my desk, the forgotten lunch, the parent conference that ran until I had to sprint to my car to pick up Ruthie on time. Even right now, Ruthie is singing in her bed, which is so sweet, but I’m a little panicky because it’s 9:00 and she really should be asleep if I’m going to wake her up with any amount of success in the morning. It feels whiney, but I can’t get away from wondering if this is really it. I’m beginning to think it is. And then I start thinking about Julia Child. For some reason, it always comes back to her and the fact that she was in her late forties before she got the acceptance letter for the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a project that was borne of her own boredom in France. And I think, when does the part begin where I really, really love what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and who I am? When I’m not working for what I’ll have tomorrow, because what I have right now is what I want? The troubling piece of all of this for me is that I’m pretty sure that part begins with me.

It would be remiss if I didn’t mention one bright spot that squelched a hiccup of stress: public poetry. So when I’m not whining about how boring it is to be an adult, I’ll be working toward doing a bit of THIS with myself and my students. Another yawp-errrific idea brought to you by one Emma Bolden, the presiding Queen of the Power of Whatever and Poetry whom I miss terribly and often.

Also, I’ll be writing earlier tomorrow because I think there’s not enough of me left over this late at night to piece together a post. See you in the morning.