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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Here’s The Thing:

© 2010 David Parker

This isn’t what I was planning to write today. This is something else. This is about The Thing you want to forget. This is about the proverbial pebble in the shoe of every kind of important human relationship. This is about The Thing you fight about when there’s nothing else to fight about. When all of your other issues have been rubbed out, this is The One that remains. Like a cut on the roof of your mouth that you can’t stop tonguing long enough for it to heal.

Maybe it’s because the weather was perfect. Maybe it’s because I was hungry. Or maybe it’s because my jeans had decided to hang on for one more day before their last fatal rip. Whatever the reason or the occasion, I somehow managed to find the invisible, hidden trigger that would shatter my perfect fall morning with a silent BANG! And then there it was, The Thing That I Can’t Seem to Stop Fighting About, right there on the table next to the plate covered in powdered sugar where the beignets had been. And once it’s Out There, it just hangs heavy between you, sucking all the air. You’re both quiet because there’s nothing new to say about it. You both know that you could be kinder, but you’re both kind of pissed that the other hasn’t moved past it yet. Because, let’s be honest, in order for the Thing to exist, both parties have to feel that it is a Thing, because if it were a mere thing, then one of you would be able to dislodge it.

What really sucks is that there is no human relationship that is exempt from The Thing: parents, children, siblings, friends, lovers, colleagues, they’re all marked by a Thing. And even though you (and whoever) have The Thing in common, you wrestle it alone (seemingly forever). Until all you want is to have is a normal conversation, where there’s no trace of The Thing left in either of your voices. Until you’re pretty sure The Thing is more of a thing that you perhaps shouldn’t have given so much voice and energy too. Until you’re pushed to the point of making ridiculous claims like I won’t let it bother me again, when what you should be saying is Next time it bothers me, I won’t blame you, I won’t pick a fight about something else, and I’ll do my best not to pull any triggers. Because here’s the thing: even though you know somewhere in your Thing-laden mind that you’re both probably sort of responsible for The Thing (and the re-hashing thereof), you really just want to be forgiven for pulling the trigger. Again.

Shift

© 2010 David Parker

When the weather turns so that it feels less like walking around inside someone’s open mouth, madness gets shaken right out of the air, and, all of a sudden, I can feel my soul again. Funny thing about souls: I never realize mine’s gone missing until it comes back.

Against Transience

© 2010 David Parker

I’m sitting in a coffee shop around the corner and I’m the only one unplugged. I have no computer, no ear phones, just pen and paper and I’m fascinated by my ability to grab onto an idea and shape it into something tangible, something real. (I think I saw it breathe.) And I’m struck by how my computer is so like a doorway in the fall with leaves blowing in, and how information is so like the leaves, and how I am, constantly, gathering and scooping up the leaves but they all slip out of my hands. Transient is the word that comes to mind. But not today. Today, I can hang onto the ideas and study them and lay them down, one next to each other, and measure them against themselves. And I have the time and the space and the permanence of pen and paper to make decisions about which are the prettiest, the most golden, and I throw the rest out. These are the ones that remained.

Waiting for my Clothes to Dry

In the middle of the room, there’s a long wooden park bench that’s been painted white and worn black on the seat. The word IMMORTALITY was carved into the back of the bench before it was painted. The letters are cut deep and clear. A steady hand with plenty of time carved that word. Tacked to the wall are handwritten ads for mobile homes and trailers, cars, free pit bulls. The sound of metal drums sliding, rolling against metal. I’m surprised at how clean it is, this place where strangers bring their dirty laundry to wash in the machines that other people’s dirty laundry has been inside of. The retro-orange surfaces of the folding tables are so empty, gleaming. The air smells saccharine sweet, manufactured, electric. And people just leave their clothes. We walked in to three dryers spinning and no one around. Not even in the parking lot.

I want to take this warm humming solitude, tear it out, fold it up, shove it in my pocket, and save it for tomorrow. I want to shake it out and crawl back inside around 2:30 in the afternoon, sit on that bench, wait for my clothes to dry.

A Day Just Like This One

Today we made our way to Decatur for the largest independent book festival in the nation. We took the MARTA train. Public transportation always seems to smell like pennies and the hospital and hair and old sweatshirts and the palms of hands, and, in a strange way, I kind of like it. The cacophony of city sounds held my brain in a kind of cocoon: conversations in other softer languages, loud young mouths shouting about winning the lottery and clapping their hands stomping their feet, the roar of the train being sucked into its tunnels and back out again.

We heard Thomas Lux and Ellen Bryant Voigt talk about poetry and read some too. They both talked about how poetry is an act of discovery. How it’s important to challenge yourself, put yourself into a circumstance of not-knowing, which is the human condition, really. How the work of working through a poem or any piece of writing is what invites the discovery. How a poem without discovery is wooden. How if there’s no discovery for the writer, there’s no discovery for the reader. How poetry is composed of the most everyday moments of insight and appetite.

We schlepped back through the festival and around the corner for a Bees Knees Royale (read: gin, honey, lavendar, cava, citrus), then struck out again into the pitch-perfect September air that made our walk to the MARTA station feel like a gift. At the bottom of the stairs we descended to catch our train, there was a red balloon on a short string tied to the trashcan. The balloon felt like a poetic moment, even if its insight has escaped me.

We got home around 4:00 and did next-to-nothing until dinner at 10:30 at a funny little place around the corner. And, with Roger Miller pumping through the speakers, it was there that I had the best and lustiest buttermilk biscuit of my life. We had a lovely strange dinner of succotash and gnocci and yum. One Root Beer Float with vanilla rum and an umbrella straw later, and all 28 years of me are ready for bed.

Not Me

© 2010 David Parker

I woke up this morning to an orange-pink sky:
Ominous.
Made coffee, made lunch, made the bed.
Skipped breakfast.

I’m too sensitive. I want
to leave the house not for work.
I want to leave
for a place where I am a stranger.

Where people don’t know me so well
that they can call me a bitch
and be sure of it.
Where someone else
makes the coffee, makes lunch, makes the bed.
Where I can get by on
wit and good looks.
A place where there is no history
unraveling itself at my feet.

Instead, I sip back tears
with room-temperature coffee: nothing worse
than a pack of fifteen-year-olds
watching you cry.
I send an honest email and immediately
regret sending it: I care too much.
My raw little soul tapped into
the keyboard, onto the screen.

I see myself too clearly,
know myself too well.