it took me years to write.

classroom.

I teach high school English.  At the start of every school year, I write a letter to my students and read it aloud.  For the older ones, it’s all about how life doesn’t tend to go according to plan, that where you see yourself down the road isn’t always where you end up.  And I use myself as the example, which always leads to this question:  “But, Ms. Lavelle, if you wanted to be a writer, why didn’t you just become a writer?”

Aren’t they wonderfully inexperienced and idealistic little darlings? Clearly, they miss the point of my letter.  But, in their defense, one time I did use a metaphor that involved a not-so-easy-to-fold road map before remembering that their only understanding of a road map was made by Google.

“Well, guys, I am a writer,” I say, but then I reconsider.  Am I?  Am I really?  I’m not even sure I know what the term means anymore.

When my original plan (and I won’t divulge the original plan because, after all, I was once wonderfully inexperienced and idealistic) didn’t want to pan out, I tried to adjust.  At some point along the way, I became a teacher and thought, Yes!  I can do this (for now)! There are summer vacations and holiday breaks!  I’m done by 3pm!

left.And so I repeated the mantra I had learned in college and graduate school: The writing comes first.  Be disciplined.  Make a schedule.  Stick to it.  Fifteen years later, I can say that I have tried.

There have been many early mornings, before work, squinting through the quiet dark, watching the window lighten with the minutes.  I’ve spent planning periods (meant for planning, grading, making copies, contacting parents, checking my mailbox, eating lunch, performing lunch duty, using the restroom and breathing) frantically trying to finish a single paragraph. But then there’s an essay on Plath I forgot to grade. Or a recommendation letter I need to finish.  Or a knock on the door from the kid who keeps falling asleep in seventh period.

I had my first child at twenty-eight, a week after I finished writing my first novel.  A few years later came another baby, and two years after that, one more.  Life seemed to hasten its pace.  But I tried to keep some of those early mornings (if I had slept at all the nights before) and just as their bedroom doors closed for afternoon naps, the laptop opened.

But no matter how hard I have tried, I have never succeeded at putting the writing first.

Putting the writing ahead of my children makes me a not-so-good mother.  Putting the writing ahead of my students makes me a not-so-good teacher.  Putting the writing ahead of exercising makes me a not-so-healthy person (and — let’s be honest — just plain fat). My children deserve my attention, my students deserve my attention, and my mind and body deserve my attention.  And so the writing becomes the reward for fulfilling all of the other obligations.  I never meant for it to be that way, but that’s the way it is.

(But, then, it works the other way, too. When I’ve gone too long without writing, everything else suffers.  Because life is all about some kind of balance that I haven’t figured out. Yet.)

Each summer, I tell myself I’ll have the time.  And so here is another July — the first week gone, and I haven’t accomplished very much.  Not writing is very very hard. I don’t know how else to put it except to say that it aches.  I keep at it, working in bits and pieces, in moments, here and there.  There is no vivid and continuous dream; though the hours in my day may be vivid and continuous, they are not quite conducive to writing, no matter the height of my effort or the width of my intentions.

them.Just last week, I managed to draft a poem.  An entire poem.  But the process always goes something like this:

I set my alarm for 4 am so that I can get some work in before my run (it’s July in Florida — morning running is the only option).  At 3 am, my son comes for a visit.  You know, just to make sure I’m still there.  And then he gets in my bed. In his sleep, he inches closer and closer to me until I turn off the alarm and move to the couch.

During the day, I escape to the porch, but the screech of the sliding glass gives me away. And there they are.

“Can I have a Luigi’s?”  Yes.  Two minutes later: “Where are the spoons?”  You might want to check the drawer.  Where the spoons ALWAYS are.

Quiet.

Then comes another one.  “If I poop in my pants, you’ll yell at me and tell me I can’t play games.”  Right. Glad we’re clear on that.

Quiet.

The oldest stops by for a visit.  She sits on a tricycle she’s far too big for, and faces away from me.  She’s bored, even though we’ve already been to the playground and for a hike on a hidden boardwalk today.  I explain that I’m trying to get some work done.  The tricycle stops, and she stares ahead of her through the screened wall.

“But what is your work, Mommy?”  It’s almost a whisper.

Before I can answer (not that I actually have an answer), this comes from inside: “WHERE ARE MY ORANGE GOGGLES?!”

Sigh.  Because, really, what is my work, anyway? (And I know exactly where the orange goggles are.  That’s the kind of space I seem to have in my brain.)

I scribble things down in a notebook, then forget where they came from.  There’s something about dragons, about houses on fire.  There’s something about the yellow-green glow of these afternoons.  I hope it comes back to me someday.  Or I come back to it.

aw.On Sunday, I helped my middle child ride her bike for the first time without training wheels.  The air was thick, and our efforts left us sweating. She took off up the hill in the mid-afternoon sun, and her image was melted still at the top of the street. And I realized: this is my work.  And I can’t discount it.

I’m not complaining.  I’m not trying to make excuses. I’m trying to be realistic.  I’m trying to remind myself that all of this work is valuable, not just the writing. I need to tell myself to keep at it, and it will happen, bit by bit (the same way my hair is growing gray). Maybe there’s another mom out there who didn’t get to write today.  Or yesterday.  Maybe she hasn’t written anything substantial since her first child was born more than nine years ago. And maybe she needs to hear this.

Yes, I’m a writer.  But what I’ve come to learn is that right now, the writing can’t come first. And that it will come very slowly, if at all.  Right now, this — this family, this classroom, this one-line-at-a-time — is my work. This is the work that makes my life. And maybe, someday, this life will make my work.

(But right now, I need to clean up the trail of crackers he’s left that stretches the length of the living room.  He licked off the salt, so they’re soggy and starting to stick to the floor.)

the moment, you own it, you better never let it go.

spiderman.

At a music festival we stumbled upon last spring, my son, disguised as Spiderman, ran through a tent-topped shop and proceeded to put his fingers on every piece of delicate jewelry or sculpted ceramic he could reach. Before I could untangle a silver necklace from his tight little fist, he had snatched the feathers of a giant dreamcatcher with his open hand, and the wrangling began again. Leaving my two daughters with the face-painter, I chased him out of the tent and stopped to catch my breath as he shot passers-by with invisible webs from his wrists. Next-door, an older couple was making kettle corn.  The woman vigorously stirred the sticky contents of her cauldron and called to me, “Enjoy every moment . . .”

I’m going to stop the story here to interject.  If there is something that I would never say to a mother of young children, it’s those three words.  If I’m tempted, at all, to toss around platitudes, it would be something more like, “This too shall pass,” or “Expect the worst and hope for the best.”  No mother enjoys every moment, because some moments involve poop or puke or tears or spanking or screaming.

Or incessant, invisible (but certainly not inaudible) spiderwebs.

handsEach time I hear the phrase, I imagine all of us mothers marching through town, with Joker-smiles carved into our countenances.  We’re dripping with small children, dragging our toddlers by the arms down sidewalks, through grocery stores, in and out of carseats.  They’re kicking and red-faced, and we are late for work or the doctor appointment or the playdate.  Our recitation is our rhythm: “We’re enjoying every moment.  We’re enjoying every moment.”  And we’re as in-step as a clone army.

Am I supposed to enjoy the moment I find my mammoth todder in his closed-door bedroom, two fists full of scruff, doing bicep curls with the cat? (Surely I’ve mentioned this cat before.  He’s arthritic and nineteen years old.)  Or the moment of the unexpected backflip off the couch and onto the hardwood floor?

georgiaAm I supposed to enjoy the back-talking attitude of a precocious eight-year-old? She has perfected the art of sarcasm.  Already.

Am I supposed to enjoy the shrieks and screams that carry us out of restaurants?  The terrifying fevers and full-family stomach viruses?

Today, I made myself feel better by pretending I was Miss Hannigan as I screamed into my kitchen, “Kill!  KILL!” It’s probably a good thing that the kids watched the movie just last night.

When my eyes began their rolling, the kettle-corn-woman added, “even the hard ones,” and I paused.  I turned to look back at her, putting together exactly what I wanted to say.  But she had stopped her stirring, and was smiling at my tiny Spiderman.  I read something of loss in her face.

Yes, she acknowledged that there are hard ones.  And she knew something I didn’t, something I couldn’t have known.  Yet.  I can’t say that I enjoy the hard moments; I’d be lying if I did.  Parenthood is about much more than enjoyment (despite what our Facebook pictures might suggest).  It’s much more about struggle and tears, fatigue, and quite a bit of refereeing.  But maybe there’s something about the hard moments that makes the good ones better.

teddy1Like the day he takes the nap he’s been fighting against these past six (twelve?) months.  Or the day his sister finally stops her sleepwalking.  Or the day the middle one offers up her month-old Halloween candy without being asked.  I guess I don’t know, yet, but I think that, probably, those are the things I will remember.

And, years from now, those are the things I will probably see when I encounter a mother of three young children. Even if I want her to enjoy it, I won’t tell her so.  I’d much rather she figure it out on her own.

but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need

stem.The start of this year’s Parent Night in my daughter’s second-grade classroom was not unlike last year’s; though the room and teacher had changed, the parents were the same. They sat, unsmiling and watchful and ridiculously oversized in those tiny elementary school desks and chairs. Glancing down at the colorful agenda on my daughter’s desk, I saw that item number seventeen was “Questions.”  I waited through the presentation for them to pounce.

And they did.  Will we see the results of this new testing?  If the testing needs to be finished by October 15th, when will we see the results?  How do you propose you’ll test each student individually when you’ve got a class to teach?  Why is Accelerated Reader down and what will happen when it comes back up?  

The teacher discussed budget cuts, decisions made at the district level, the trickling down from the state.  The parents’ eyes widened and their fingers folded into fists.  I was slightly confused at their astonishment.  Where had they been for the last eight months as the local newspaper printed article after article concerning the district’s deficit?

winning.

And then I realized:  they hadn’t paid attention because it hadn’t affected them. When one hundred and sixty-eight teachers were in danger of losing their jobs, it hadn’t mattered. When the high school was going from seven periods to six and bus routes were diminishing and disappearing, it hadn’t mattered. But now that their children were the victims of a budget crisis, now that their children had suffered the loss of a learning lab, now something had to be done.

They started asking more questions.  What can we do?  Who can we talk to?  They scribbled down the names of the superintendent and school board representatives beneath the handwritten letters on the desks before them (Dear Mom and Dad, thank you for coming to Parent Night . . .).  They suggested we all make monetary donations to this classroom, that we pay to bring back the programs for our kids.

holey moley.  And that’s when I wanted to leap from that tiny blue seat. That’s when I wanted to remind them that this was public education, that our kids didn’t deserve more than anyone else in the school (or the district) just because they’re our kids and we think they’re smarter than everyone else’s.  That they’re already part of an accelerated academy, that they know their multiplication tables and write essays with topic sentences, evidence, and conclusions in September of the second grade.  That most of them read on a fifth-grade level.  That on Parent Night, the room is filled with parents.  And grandparents.

That our kids, for the most part, are incredibly privileged.

Maybe we shouldn’t worry so much about whether or not their diagnostic reading test is given on the computer, about how many minutes per day they are offered the opportunity to stare at a monitor, about the number of “points” they’ve earned for the books they’ve read. (Confession:  I rejoiced out loud when I learned that Accelerated Reader was down for three weeks.  My seven-year-old overwhelms herself with AR stress.)

Maybe, instead, we should think of it like this:  it doesn’t cost a thing to teach compassion. Drops in the bucket are free.  A budget crisis can’t keep a teacher from modeling gratitude.

After her PowerPoint presentation, which had been projected onto the screen from the laptop on her desk, the teacher switched to the document camera to make one last announcement.  And then, turning off both, she stood in front of that room full of slightly fired-up parents and said this, “Let’s all just remember how blessed we are. Your kids are brilliant.  And healthy.  We’re all alive.  We are so blessed.”

If only we could see it.second grade.