yeah, we tease him a lot, ’cause we’ve got him on the spot (welcome back)

Good God, Ms. Lavelle. Please do NOT become a high school teacher.  Please. He was from the South, and so his “God” had two syllables. (When he taught me to read poetry aloud in college, he did so with an Alabama accent. I still sound like a Southerner each time I read Those Winter Sundays to my students.)  He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples as he pleaded with me.  Trust me, he said.

There were plenty of reasons for him to say it, reasons that I could not possibly understand until I became a teacher.  Low pay, of course.  Long hours that often include nights and weekends.  Abusive parents.  Abusive students.  Inadvertent and even involuntary increased bladder control.

So I put it out of my mind.  I mean, I was going to be a college professor, anyway.  Write a best-seller (of literary merit, of course).  And I’d have cabin (a converted schoolhouse, actually) in rural New Hampshire or Vermont (even better) where I’d spend my summers, alone.  Writing.  And walking a dog. A very big dog.

Teaching high school was never part of the plan.  And that’s what I tell my seniors (who think they’ve got it all figured out, as I did at seventeen) on the second day of school.  I read a letter that I’ve written to them about how all kinds of things in my life have not gone according to plan. (I edited it last night because, of course, there have been plenty of events over the past year that, apparently, didn’t receive the “plan” memo).

But this August, I’m entering my eleventh year as a high school teacher.  And for the first time ever, I think I’m embracing (stomaching?) the reality that I am, in fact, a teacher.  And that maybe, it makes me even a little bit lucky (gasp!).

I read an article recently that made a good argument for teaching high school with a degree that was once reserved for college teachers (and by “reserved,” I mean that those of us who went on to get an MFA in Creative Writing had no real intention of teaching high school).  The article did a fine job of convincing me that I was not “wasting” my degree, and even made me a little relieved that I’m not teaching college (so, thank you, Mr. Nick Ripatrazone). But, I have to say (and perhaps it’s because I’m a bit soft), there are so many other (and different) reasons why I teach those darling adolescents.

Here are this week’s reasons (and by that I mean they have all happened in the past week):

  • One of the greatest kids on the planet referred to me as his “favorite person.”  No, not his favorite teacher.  His favorite person.
  • In our new “teachers’ lounge,” I opened the refrigerator to find a plastic container with my name on it.  A handwritten note said, “Here’s to the start of another wonderful year!”  Inside was a pile of chocolatey buttery goodness, from the same mom who often provides me with salty dill pretzels.
  • In class today (the very first day), one girl said, “Well that’s because you’re a good teacher,” and she didn’t intend for it to be a compliment, just a statement.  (Trust me, if you knew her, you would know she’s not the kind to give compliments — which just makes it an even better compliment.)
  • A former student sent me a text message that was a direct quote from my blog.
  • I’ve been at the same school long enough to meet the third (and fourth) sibling in one family.
  • I left work with a free pizza, and then my next-door-teacher friend (I’m in 24, she’s in 25) sent me a text message to find out about my afternoon trip to the mechanic.  Then I sent her a message to tell her that avocadoes were on sale for $.59.
  • A recent graduate let me know that he ended a tweet with #holdencaulfield.  (I mean, that’s enough right there.)

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m sure there will be still plenty of times, especially in social situations, when I say, I teach high school, and almost forget to leave out the “just” in between “I” and “teach.” Or I’ll want to punctuate the sentence with:  Really, I’m a writer!  I promise!  Read my blog!

But I’m a teacher. Truly. It’s what (who?) I am.

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quit, if you can.

I had a professor in college who told me this about being a writer:  Quit, if you can.  I wrote it down (not so much because I understood his wisdom but because I wrote down almost everything he said that year) in blue ink at the start of the first chapter of our required textbook for the course, John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist.

I had no idea what it meant.

I knew, of course, that there would be rejection.  I had heard the stories of those who had papered the walls of their offices with rejection slips of various sizes and colors.  I knew that the chances that I’d make a living off my writing were slim-to-none (but come on, who can say that the idea of the “starving artist” isn’t a wonderfully romantic notion before one begins the actual starving?).  I knew that I’d have to pursue an MFA, publish, then pray that someone hired me to teach their fledgling writers (even though another professor held his palm up to warn me that he could count on the fingers of that one hand the number of jobs in the country like his).  I mean, I got it; a writer’s life was going to be hard.

But I didn’t understand the ways in which it would be hard.  And it wasn’t until I quit “being a writer” that I began to understand why I couldn’t.

Some months ago, I told my husband that I was going to give up writing, that I just wanted to live a normal life, that teaching and raising a family was enough.  That maybe I would start gardening.  Or making salsa.  I was so tired of the nagging, the pulling of that voice that kept reminding me, “You should be writing,”  the one that measured my self-worth by what I had published (or hadn’t).  So I quit.  And it felt good to say that I quit.

But then I discovered that, for me, a writer’s mind is more of an affliction than anything else.  Everything I see or experience translates itself into words, and my brain edits and rewrites, edits and rewrites, until they are the right words, even when I have no real intention of writing them down.  It’s a kind of compulsion, I suppose.  There are words inside me that work their way out.  And I can’t stop that.  I can’t quit.

Don’t get me wrong — I understand completely that my attempt at “blogging” is selfish, that writing anything with the expectation that someone else might read it is a selfish act.  But I’m no Salinger (what would Holden say about Facebook, anyway?) and probably never will be.  At the start of my favorite novel, Papa Hemingway says, “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.”

Maybe that is why we are compelled to write.