Approaching 30

In less than a year, I will officially leave my twenties. Entering a new decade of your life always feels significant, regardless of what society tells us. As we age, we trace back over our journey in life that has brought us to our present moment, and think of all the choices we did and didn’t make, and all of the progress we have or haven’t made  towards finding the life we truly desire.

By the time you are thirty, there are certainly a number of milestones you are expected to have reached. You are expected to have completed at least one college degree, established a career to some extent, purchased a car and home, perhaps some major appliances, gotten married, become a parent. This is normal progress- maturation, and steps on the path to self- actualization. I don’t believe that anyone truly feels any one of these achievements will bring about happiness, or that any one is an ultimate measure of individual success or self- worth, yet they do count of something. At the very least, they serve as evidence that we are capable of meeting societal norms and expectations. When we can not accomplish these things, it surely means we have failed in some way, however minor it may be. There must be something we haven’t done correctly, something we weren’t quite good enough at, that prevented us from being more successful.

Yet the timeline of adulthood has been constantly shifting as our society changes; we no longer marry right out of high school, and couples are having their first child later and later in life. Fewer individuals can afford to become homeowners, and are forced to pay inflated monthly rent instead. What was the “normal” or “standard” in the past clearly is no longer so; but how much have we changed our own perceptions of progress and accomplishment? Not very much, in many ways.

I don’t consider myself an exceptional “millennial”. By that, I mean that I believe I have fared no better or worse than any other members of my generation, and that I have encountered many of the same challenges and had many of  the same opportunities. I grew up under the same conditions, experienced the same triumphs and tragedies, and have struggled to be heard in the same way as my peers. I grew up in a world evolving more and more rapidly with the accelerated advancement of technology. I have survived the difficult years where many were without any steady source of income, but it has not been a straight path towards the career I have now chosen, perhaps belatedly.

So, yes, I am another millennial who may be judged as an “adult” a bit later than traditionally expected. I am proud  to say I now own my own car, and have recently purchased a house, and have begun to (hopefully) build a true career instead of just having a job. If you had told me I would be where I am now three years ago, I probably would have simply laughed and said that it simply wasn’t possible. Of course I am proud of all that I have achieved in the past few years, and I realize all of the hard work I have done. In spite of all I have been able to accomplish, there are moments when I still feel as though I have fallen far behind my peers, and my own expectations of myself.

It’s amazing how easy it is to fall into the simply traps of comparing yourself to others and of focusing on what we are lacking rather than what we do have.

I am guilty of both of these transgressions against happiness. Through my daily social media feeds, I perpetually see friends getting married and having children, celebrating wedding anniversaries even. Recently even my youngest cousin, who is about eight years younger than me, got engaged. While I hold no illusions about other’s lives being perfect and feel that mine is inherently inferior and extremely dull in comparison (though this is true in a few instances), I can’t help but wonder why my life has turned out so different from theirs, why I wasn’t able to find the same stability and… normalcy, for lack of a better word. Was I asking too much? What had I done so very differently from them that would have prevented me from maintaining a relationship, sticking with a job I felt passionate about and establishing a solid position there? What had I “missed out” on?

In all fairness, there were things I did do that deviated from some of my peers. I went to a liberal arts college, getting a degree in Literature and Writing, nothing practical like pharmacy or marketing. I went on to work on my Master’s Degree and worked random jobs to support myself as I could. My only solid career option was teaching, and I only half-heartedly tried to find a teaching position, not feeling I would excel as a teacher and also recognizing the difficulty in obtaining a position as an adjunct professor, at least  where I was. (Though, retrospectively, I have no real clue how likely or unlikely it might have been for me to get a position, as I realize my efforts were minimal in applying and inquiring about it at the time.) As far as relationships go, I had a number of promising relationships that failed for a variety of reasons, as many relationships do, and  I couldn’t say it was the result of anything other than not being able to reconcile differences and find solid common ground to stand on. We learn from each relationship and move forward. I do not regret any of the relationships that I had, nor do I wish they had worked out any differently. However, I still wish I had been able to find a more suitable match much sooner than I did. I have had to look on with a constant tinge of jealousy as many of my friends and loved ones have negotiated relatively peaceful and healthy relationships which have stood tests of time and hardship while my own relationships ended in disappointment.

Perhaps I should have had different expectations, both of myself and of life in a broader sense. Why is it so easy to believe that we are entitled to the “perfect” life that we imagine for ourselves? Is it pure egotism and selfishness? I suppose on one level it is. But we are all entitled to happiness, at least as much as we are willing to discover in life. Our culture informs us that we must have certain things in order to be “happy”, and how much these relate to what will actually bring us contentment is difficult to say. In some ways, we seek acceptance, love, and comfort more than anything tangible. We need someone who cares for us and is there when we need them most, and that we have some sort of place in our social circle, however large or small it might be. While we value our independence and expect to be allowed to be our own person, we also do not desire to be isolated for our entire lives. To be accepted into society, we must make concessions and subscribe to certain expectations and values. We must “fit in”, for lack of a better phrase. This is not meant to be pessimistic, and it is not advocating blind adherence to “social norms”. Certainly, we can only continue to improve as a society if we question our values and reconsider what is accepted as an ideal and moral life. With each generation, we experience slow by steady progress towards new conceptions of what is valuable and meaningful, and new models of success and decent. We strive to do what is right for our fellow women and men, and for our environment. At least I believe this is true of most people. (I must believe this, and refuse to give in to hopelessness for our future.)

However much progress we make, we still cling to long-standing models of what the “perfect” family looks like, and what a “perfect” life should look like- a home in a quiet, quaint neighborhood, a career, two cars, two or three children, a loving and supportive life-long companion. Responsible citizens pay all their bills and taxes on time, they do not litter, they recycle, they take family vacations, they offer help to their neighbors in need, they spend quality time with their children and help them learn and grow, they do not drink excessively or get involved in any type of drug use, they stay informed about important news events, they donate to charity, they support local businesses, they abide by all laws- including the posted speed limits. They contribute to their community and have healthy social relationships, they don’t display either depression or aggression, they are polite and compassionate, they work hard while at work and have hobbies to unwind during their free hours of the day. They make sure to change their oil regularly and send birthday cards to those who are important to them. They mow their lawn before the grass becomes a tangled jungle, they attend their children’s recitals and performances and help with homework, they slowly work their way up through promotions at work. Eventually, their children will graduate, move out and begin their own journeys. They will retire, purchase another home somewhere where it is warm year round, somewhere that offers many activities and social gatherings for seniors. All of the milestones and daily activities have become engrained in our society as the correct path, full of happiness and fulfillment.

I by no means mean to say that we shouldn’t wish to have a family, have a comfortable place to live, and a career that provides us with a sense of achievement. These things are certainly valuable; they provide us with a sense of purpose as well as security and relationships that help us continually improve. Everyone wishes to be able to look back on their days and know that they achieved their goals, that we will be remembered as someone who was successful and meaningful.

Yet it is is so easy to get caught up in the day to day chores and tasks, and lose sight of the experiences that matter most. For, as many have said before me, it is our experiences that truly determine the quality of our lives. Exploring beautiful landscapes and cities, attending  a powerful concert or play, discovering history and art in museums, having meandering conversations with friends and family that have no specific subject or purpose in mind, simply holding hands and enjoying the close presence of a loved one. All of these small, simple moments are ultimately more valuable than the specific job title we hold or our physical address (and its implications, positive or negative).

While we recognize that material items and social status are hardly where we truly find value in our lives, we continue to pursue them because it is a part of being a member of society. This does not mean that we ignore our own values and beliefs, or that we discount our experiences in favor of social conventions. Instead we try to find a way to balance them, though this is not something that is easily achieved.

Part of me recognizes how irrational it is to constantly compare myself to others, and to evaluate my own worth and success based on unrealistic “ideals” or cultural prescriptions. Why is it so difficult for me to be satisfied with all of the progress I have made, and be thankful for the many opportunities life has provided me? Am I just selfish, shallow, and ungrateful? Am I that different than thousands of other adults my age around the world? I realize am not alone in feeling inadequate, rejected, and a failure in some respects.

The future has never been more uncertain, as we continue to face a great many challenges locally and globally. My generation has been provided with many advantages compared to previous ones, yet we also face challenges as great or greater than those before us. I do not wish to present us as some great tragedy, something to be pitied or granted some sort of clemency for their missteps or transgressions. I do not believe that we  are entirely self- centered and uncaring, and I do not believe that we are lethargic and unmotivated, contributing nothing valuable to society. We have done what we can under the circumstances, though this does not absolve us of the need to continue to strive for more. It also does not mean we need to look at ourselves as less capable or less accomplished because we do not reach certain expected milestones earlier in life.

I know that eventually I will get to experience the inexpressible joy of marrying someone who makes me a better person every day, and that perhaps I will become a mother. I know rationally that the fact that I have not married or become a parent yet is not a fair way of evaluating my accomplishments or worth, but that does not mean I can not long for these things and wonder dolefully at why I have been denied them.

As we continue to press forward with many advances in society both positive and negative, my generation will continue to struggle to find their own place and establish  their own conceptions of “success” and “true adulthood and independence”. Our achievements will come at different times than our parents and grandparents, and may look a bit differently. We do not need to feel ashamed of this, but we also do not need to complacently accept that we can not become exactly the adult we wish to be, that we have to resign ourselves to lesser positions and fewer fulfilled aspirations. Certainly we need to find joy in our every day experiences of beauty and companionship, and we can certainly revise our expectations of what the “ideal” life looks like. Such larger cultural changes take time, and we must always remind ourselves that it is only when we resign completely that we have truly failed. We are allowed to feel disappointed in ourselves, but we must not believe that we are not making progress or that we will not be able to have the future we desire.

I’m not going to say that we should ignore our social feeds, or that we should stop seeing certain milestones in life as being significant and markers of achievement. We should not simply ignore our hopes or aspirations, but instead be motivated by our desire to continue to better ourselves- not simply because society tells us to, but because we seek something a greater sense of fulfillment. There is no single path we can- or should- all follow, and we may all encounter detours and barriers that force us to backtrack. But we must keep going, and we must never feel that we are any less significant because others have made further progress than us.

So I will let myself feel jealousy and longing for something more, for the things I have yet experienced in my own life. I will allow myself to not be “perfect” but I will not stop pushing myself to find greater fulfillment and greater purpose through perpetual forward momentum toward the life I envision for myself. And I hope I can inspire and assist others to do just the same.

 

 

On Bad Writing

Everyone who knows me knows that I am an avid reader; my nose is almost always in a book whenever I have a spare moment, and even when I really don’t. I enjoy many different authors and genres, though I may not be overly enthusiastic about some fantasy and sci-fi series, depending on the style. I am one of those people that can’t abandon a book even when I am not enjoying it very much; I feel I owe it to the author to stick it through to the end to see if my opinion changes throughout the novel or story. In reality, there have been few books that I have disliked to the point where I truly wanted to quit them, as I usually find something intriguing or enjoyable about most stories and easily get wrapped up in a fast paced plot or interesting character.

Yet the novel I just recently finished was one of the few I would say I felt like was a waste of time, and a prime example of very poor writing. It was one of those novels that makes you wonder how some people get published and who decides that a manuscript is worth investing in. I wish to leave the name of the novel out, so that I can address my concerns without necessarily tying everything to specific references to the novel or seem like I am going on a tirade against a particular author.* My concerns with the novel were in part reactions to some of the details of the novel, but I want to speak primarily to principles of quality storytelling- of presenting a story that readers feel a true connection with, and finish feeling as though they understand something a bit better about their fellow humans. At the conclusion of a story, shouldn’t we feel as though we’ve had some insight into the lives of others, and feel like we are better able to understand and connect with them? Isn’t writing, at it’s heart, about our shared human experience, the truths we experience every day regardless of our race, gender, or age? Perhaps I am too idealistic in believing this.

The problem I had with this particular novel is that is seemed to be what the author imaged a “epic, grand” novel was suppose to be, rather than a naturally evolving novel, with compelling characters and a plot that was captivating and intricate. Instead, the novel jumps from one unbelievable situation or “coincidence” to the next in a way that is seemingly endless and frustrating. as there appears to be little logical progression or any attempt to resemble a real life experience (note that the novel doesn’t present itself as being fantasy or magical realism). Certainly, the unbelievable happens in many novels, and is usually welcome to some extent, since aren’t we seeking an escape through reading as well, however temporary it might be? Yet there must be some balance- the mundane, day to day events presented in contrast to the extraordinary ones. The novel is set primarily in Africa, though there are scenes in India and America as well, and these settings are described quite vividly. At some moments, the description feels a bit overwhelming, in fact, as if all your senses are being assaulted.

By many technical or “formal” standards, this novel could certainly be held in high regard. There is a complex plot, shifting points of view, and many narrative layers. While the characters are somewhat developed, they do no seem to experience any major changes, remaining generally static except for a few instances.

What was most concerning to me was the progression of events and their implications. The novel is essentially a biography of the narrator- he begins with the brutal story of his mothers journey from India to Africa, and then the traumatic event of his own birth (and his twin brother), and recounts events throughout his childhood and adolescence into adulthood. This type of sweeping narrative is no easy task, but it is an astounding thing when done well. I was relatively absorbed until the events began to deviate from the focus on the complex relationships between the primary family members and adults in the narrator’s life, and turned towards the sexual. I hardly consider myself sensitive to intimate scenes in writing or film- I’ve been exposed to enough that I generally do not feel awkward or offended. But when I read about the narrator’s first sexual desires and first intimate moments at the age of eleven, I must admit I was a bit startled and concerned. Certainly, all adolescents begin to have such moments in their early teens, but I believe eleven is a bit early for any real desire. I tried to remember what my own feelings were at that age and couldn’t recall any strong feelings of sexual curiosity. Perhaps I am the odd one, but this just seemed exaggerated and unnecessary.

From that point on, the novel turned into one about unrequited love and betrayal, and sexual repression to a mild extent. Yet the plot also expanded into murder and political revolution with guerrilla warfare, and much more. Each chapter brings one unimaginable event after the next in what feels like an endless spiral of tragic circumstances and coincidences. Throughout it all, our narrator seems undeterred from his ultimate goal, though this is not to say he has no powerful emotional reactions to these events. Yet, in the end, he ultimately shows little compassion for “the love of his life” or his own twin brother.

Having a emotionally distant or cold narrator can be an effective tool for a writer, but this novel doesn’t seem to be truly trying to present the narrator as such. What concerned me more than narrator’s reactions, in some ways, was contrived events as well as the presentation of female characters. Each traumatic event feels deliberately forced upon the narrator for the purpose of the novel, and the events that follow only perpetuate the downward momentum. Certainly, some women are portrayed as strong and virtuous in the novel, yet many are also portrayed as temptresses and irrational- such as the narrator’s main love interest. Her actions are the main catalyst for many horrifying events, leading to the tragic climax. She is rarely shone in a positive light- instead, we are mainly shown her often unforgivable flaws. In the later scenes, she is pitiable, but still does is not provided with any redemptive qualities. She is driven first by lust, then by anger and pride. Our narrator renounces her, yet also ends up accepting her back into his life in one rather awkward sex scene only to have her leave him again.

I will say, the author is a male. My trouble with the novel is both with is absurdity of the plot and the ways it perpetuates the woman as the source of evils. While he presents some in positive ways, his “positive” woman are generally submissive or extremely devout. The one strong woman who was independent, intelligent, and in some ways kind  is also shown as someone who “toyed” with the man who loved her, thus a mean-spirited “tease” and then one who finally accepts the role of a wife and turns only to religion at the conclusion of the novel. At the same time, the novel on the surface may appear to be “progressive” in that it exposes horrors of FGM and also describes doctors devoted to improving the medical care of women in rural Africa. For me, one does not negate or diminish the other. Woman are still the offenders, and men are better left alone to fulfill their potential.

After I finished the novel, I checked out reviews on Goodreads to see if anyone else felt the way I did. I only saw positive reviews, readers “dazzled” by the description and the powerful, moving story. Nothing that mentioned the troubling scenes of child sexuality or the general mistreatment and dismissal of woman to being the sex in need of redemption, riddled with injurious sins.

Perhaps I am being overly critical and my perceptions is “skewed” by my “liberal education”, as my father likes to tell me. I do not mean, through my analysis, to directly imply that the author is misogynistic, simply another member of the male patriarchy bent on suppressing women. I am not that spiteful. Regardless of the intent, the sentiment is still present, and yet it seems to be overlooked entirely. Yes, this is simply one novel that only received mild attention in the literary world. But the fact that these issues were not recognized at all in any critique or commentary of the novel is concerning to me since this is hardly an anomaly. Despite progress we have made- and yes, I believe we have made progress- there still remains a great deal of media in all forms that continue to present women in ways that are damaging and simply encourage attitudes that reduce women to unrealistic stereotypes. Men and women can be equally virtuous and equally malignant; is it that difficult to depict this through our art?

I suppose I have gone a bit off the topic of “bad writing”. Initially, I was aggravated by the  non-sencicalness of the novel, but as I reflected on it more the more I was both angered and disheartened to recognize the inability of a “modern” novel to allow for a female character to be intelligent, independent, and compassionate, an overall good person. While these types of characters do exist, and I do realize that every individual does not consist of purely positive traits, the simple fact is that it seems males will continue to be allowed to be tragic heroes while women will always remain either passive victims or malignant schemers who deserve punishment. Neither gender deserves to be pidgen-holed, regardless of it whether or not it is “just a show” or “just a book”. Art isn’t and doesn’t necessarily have to be a reflection of reality, yet art has a impact on culture and, therefore, values. If we continue to turn a blind eye to art that reenforces detrimental stereotypes and conceptions of the genders, everyone suffers.

Bad writing doesn’t just mean writing that is uninteresting, dull and uncreative, or unintelligent. Bad writing is writing both writing that is writing that is disingenuous, attempting to be something it simply is not, where meaningful action is replace with extreme drama and/or tragedy in an attempt to be interesting. Bad writing is writing that presents unrealistic and noxious images of either women or men, in ways that are may be obvious or subtle. The novel I just read encapsulates that, and I fear that there are many more pieces like it out there, receiving praise and quietly impacting our overall culture in a negative way. Creating communities that can recognize such images is of crucial importance, and having conversations about the implications of the images we see presented to us through popular culture is equal as important. Until this happens, we will continue to have bad writing, and make minimal advances towards real equality and a truly compassionate society.

*If you wish to know the title of the novel and the author, please feel free to ask.

Discovery in Early Morning Miles

Growing up, sports weren’t exactly “my thing”. I was the bookish, academic type; my nose was always in a book, I always maintained A or B grades in my classes, and I participated in activities that were not sports related like band, Power of the Pen, Model UN and Academic Challenge. This was necessarily due to a lack of effort. When I was young, I had tried a number of sports, from baseball to gymnastics and jazz dance. None of them held my interest, and I did’t have any natural talent for any of them. My coordination, though not abysmal, was simply just not outstanding. Perhaps part of my aversion also came from my brother, who, in his youth and teen years, was an avid football and basketball player. As we grew up, often I was the only person available to play catch with or to play against in a game of one-on-one basketball. He had clearly inherited some athletic ability from our mom’s side of the family that I had not, and despite my protests, forced me face off against me, and then would constantly chastise me and make fun of me for my lack of skill. Needless to say, I was frustrated, disheartened, and embarrassed. I’m not sure it ever occurred to him that I would have maybe improved with coaching and encouragement, but that is neither here not there at this point. I dreaded the times he would force me into a football or basketball game, and longed for the days when I was finally old enough to escape these sessions. Once he entered middle school and he became involved in organized school sports, I was finally relieved of my duties, and was thankful I wouldn’t have to try to pretend I was athletic anymore.

This isn’t to say that I did no physical activity; I was in marching band, which was surprisingly physically demanding, and I loved riding my bike throughout college. I would go through phases where I did basic exercises to keep in shape, and would take walks to destress. But if you had told me that I would ever become a runner, I would have told you that you obviously did not know me very well, since I was not an athlete or  did any sort of formal exercising.

Yet after getting out of college, and getting what ended up being primarily a desk job, I put on more weight than I was comfortable with, and wanted to do something about it. I had not idea what I was doing starting out, but I decided that running might be something I could handle. It was simple enough, and didn’t require any sort of special equipment beyond a decent pair of shoes. When I started out, I could almost make it a mile at a slow but not hideously slow pace. Those first few months, I wouldn’t say I loved or despised running. It was just something I was doing, and I was proud of the small improvements I was making, slowly increasing my distance and achieving faster paces. After awhile, I did begin to actually enjoy it. The feeling of my feet pounding on the pavement, only focusing on breathing in and out and placing one foot in front of the other. Perhaps what I liked best was that I wasn’t competing with anyone but myself, and I wasn’t trying to prove anything either. I didn’t have a specific goal I was trying to achieve, though I set small goals for my distances.

It’s hard to pin-point when I made to complete transition from someone who ran occasionally to becoming a runner. But as I ran more and more, I found it was something  I enjoyed immensely. When I completed my run, I felt accomplished and proud of how much I had progressed. Maybe being able to run 3 miles wasn’t a huge deal to some people, but for me, it was an achievement I certainly wouldn’t have been able to claim a few years before I first began running casually. When I was running, it was my time; it was quiet and peaceful, and I would get lost in the music and simply appreciating the fresh air and solitude.

Now I have a pretty set routine. I’m laced up and hitting the pavement sometime before 4:30 A.M (yes, even on weekends), and I go out in almost any weather. Even during the brutal Ohio winters, in temperatures that hovered around 0 degrees or below, I would still go out. Now that I live in Florida, I only really have to worry about the occasional scattered shower. Usually I log between 20 and 25 miles a week, but I have never run in a formal race. I also have never run as part of a group; I have only run “solo”. So I my running habits might be different than others, but I did become a runner despite my early aversion to athletics.

Perhaps its the sense of freedom running give me; being able to let everything else slip away while my body functions automatically, tracing the routes I know by heart. Sometimes my music playlist is spot on, and every song feels just right. Other days, not so much, and that’s alright too. Some days I will surprise myself with a much quicker pace that usual, and other days it will be a struggle to meet my average pace. That’s alright too. During my runs, I came to love different parts of each of the neighborhoods I lived in- the quiet, quaint streets of Lakewood with older homes that were well maintained, where I had to dodge sprinklers during the summer months, and the park next to the zoo in West Palm Beach where I had to learn where to dodge the roots of the towering trees that lined the path. What mattered most of the solid feeling of my feet connecting and then springing back up with each movement, seeing a bright moon and maybe a few stars overhead, being entirely alone while not feeling alone at all, the feeling of making progress from landmark to landmark as I breathed in and out, deep inhales and exhales to keep my brain rich in oxygen while my muscles do their own work. Though I am hardly a “model” runner, I enjoy the sense of tranquility it gives me, which perhaps seems odd considering it is an activity that makes your blood pump at such an accelerated rate.

During times when I have been extremely hurt, stressed, anxious, doubtful, confused and in search of clarity, running has always been there for me with its soothing rhythm and dependability. It has been there to remind me of my own strength, and remind me of the beauty that is all around us that we so often miss in the day to day. Breathing the fresh air smelling of lilac and freshly mowed grass, seeing a crystal clear full moon overhead before the sun begins to rise, noticing an impressive old tree with a giant canopy overhead you somehow overlooked, taking a new route that brings you across unexpected sight…. it’s difficult to describe sufficiently. Seeing your end goal in sight, knowing you somehow pushed through and made it no matter how much you may have wished to give up or do nothing at all- that feeling can provide you with a source of energy and hope even at the lowest of times. When I lost my first teaching position, when I had to deal with heart breaks or the loneliness of being in a new city without knowing anyone, I was still able to take a run and feel as though some sort of change for the better was just around the corner.

I  realize that running is not for everyone, for a variety of reasons, and I certainly don’t see it as a magic “cure all” for the daily stresses we all experience. For me, however, running is not just the way I exercise, and it’s not a certain “lifestyle” I have subscribe to. Running has helped me remain healthy both physically and mentally. My experience won’t be the experience of every runner, or of anyone who decides to start running. For me, it has never been about setting a certain pace, finding the perfect form, or placing first in a race regardless of how long it is. It is something I do for myself, and something I will continue to do for as long as I am capable of doing it safely.

Tomorrow, around 4 AM, I will be lacing up my shoes and starting up my Runkeeper App. I have the settings set to the voice of a “Boston  Guy” which always makes me smile, recalling my days of undergraduate when I was in that city of our founders. One of the announcements he makes is about going for a “Dunks run” to get your heart rate back up, and there’s another about going to the “bah” for a “beeh” after the run. When I finish my 5 mile loop, I will truly start my day, getting a shower and breakfast, and I will do so with a light heart and sense of purpose, sure that I will be able to face whatever predicament might lie ahead and that I will continue to find contentment throughout my day. I hope that everyone can find their “runner’s high” as well, however you might seek it.

“Be willing to move forward and find out what happens next.” – Frank Shorter

A Journey Into Education

In just under a month, I will be greeting my new students for the year into my classroom, that I have hopefully managed to organize and prepare well. They will be middle school aged, insecure and angry, feeling that the world is perpetually against them. We all remember what that age was like, for better or worse.

I hold two Master’s Degrees in addition to my teaching certification for my subject area. Going into college, I had no grand vision of myself as a teacher. If you asked me, it would have been on of the last professions I would have listed, probably. Especially teaching middle school. But I find myself getting anxious already, thinking about what challenges I will face and the intense work load I will face once again. Everyone recognizes the importance of teachers and how hard they work; this is nothing new. I am not looking for sympathy- this is my own decision. However much we complain, however frustrated we get, we teachers desire to help our students make a better life for themselves, to prepare them for the next stage of their life. I want to inspire my students, and help them believe in themselves. I dream big dreams for them, even if they do not.

I love the subject I teach- reading and writing has always been a passion for me and come naturally to me. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything that wasn’t related to English. This does not mean it has been an easy decision for me to settle into the life of a teacher; I had other visions for myself, of course. I imagined writing and editing for some company or publication, large or small. And maybe I still will one day. Part of me still isn’t quite sure how I came to the conclusion that I could or should be a teacher. I knew my degrees only offered a limited number of career choices; I realized I would most likely get shoved somewhere along the line into a teaching position, I held onto a belief that I would seek options and I would somehow begin to slowly build a writing career. Perhaps our negative view of teaching comes from the old saying “Those who can’t do, teach.” We think that only those who were unsuccessful in their field end up as teachers. Another false assumption we have is that teaching isn’t overly complex. I admit, these thoughts were in the back of my mind as I accepted my first teaching job. I know reading and writing well, so surely I would find effective ways to help my students acquire these skills. I went into my first teaching position without having heard the term “classroom management” and without ever written a complete lesson plan. Needless to say, I had a steep learning curve to overcome my first year, and very little assistance from the school administrators or other support staff. Considering what I know now, the school (which happens to be a charter school) had extremely poor practices, and it was hardly an ideal environment for a first year teacher, let alone an experienced teacher. I don’t want this to turn into a rant or blame game, by any means. Sadly, my experience is hardly unique and it is a reality of our current educational system that we must face. Regardless of my extremely rough start, I still felt like it was a profession I wished to pursue, and one that i could eventually excel in, though if you had asked my why I felt that way I could not have given a very articulate, reasonable answer. I wasn’t renewed for another year, and I spent the first part of the summer frantically applying to job after job, and rushing from interview to interview trying to secure a new position. Eventually I did, though it was about an hour north of where I was living at the time. While I liked West Palm Beach, I had little qualms about moving and felt excited for a new year. I would be better prepared, I would have time to review the curriculum map and organize my lessons, and I would have much more support (or so I believed).

I still struggled a great deal my second year; my classroom management plan fell to pieces, in the face of challenging students who were well below grade level in reading, I was isolated from my colleagues though they were not interested in collaborating anyway, and the administration provided little guidance or enforcement of consequences for the severe behavior problems. I took on students for extra tutoring, and was still completing classes for my second degree, as well as other Professional Development classes required by the district. I quickly became exhausted and overwhelmed, somehow holding things together by a thin thread. In spite of the challenges at work, I had found a relationship that made me happier than I had been in quite awhile, I managed to make a few friends with other teachers in the district, and I adopted a new dog who was both a joy and a pain, as any pet can be. Somewhat ironically, I wouldn’t have met my boyfriend if I had not made the move to the new school.  My classroom was an awkward shape that didn’t lend itself to any arrangement that make it easy to teach, and I had no real place to project my carefully designed presentations, nor did I even have speakers for sound when we needed to listen to a recording or watch a video (those I provided myself). Yet I had one class of advanced students who were a wonderful to work with; they were quick to grasp any new material or concept I presented, followed directions without need reminders to stay on task (generally speaking- they were still twelve year olds), and I built relationships with them, getting to know all about their lives and interests. Even though I was frustrated and at a loss of how to improve some of my classes, I saw what a real classroom could look like and knew I was getting close to where i wanted to be.

Towards the end of the school year, my boyfriend and I purchased a home that was in between our places of employment. As it came closer and closer to my end of the year review and evaluation, I had a feeling in the depths of my stomach that all was not well. My principal wouldn’t speak to me or acknowledge me, and I could tell there was little chance I would be offered a position for next year. I took time to write up a full document outlining all of the different types of support I did not receive as I should have throughout the year (having a mentor that actually met with me and provided assistance was just one item on the list). For better or worse, I sent it to my principal, and never received a response. On the day of my final evaluation meeting, I wore my favorite skirt that made me feel truly grown up and a bit like I was someone from the 50’s or early 60’s,  someone with a bit of class and style. Part of me hoped it would make me feel at least marginally better when I was finally given the news I knew was bound to come that day. The meeting happened between my first and second classes, during my planning period, so I had some time to collect myself and try to process the situation. During the meeting, I was suppose to receive the results of my evaluation and receive feedback; the meeting was less than five minutes, and there was no discussion. My principal gave me some excuse that they were changing the department for next year, meaning she had to reduce the number of teachers for sixth grade. Perhaps she was telling the truth, but it hardly seemed believable, and she wouldn’t really meet my eyes as she spoke to me. As unjust as I felt the decision was, a part of me still felt I needed to accept most of the blame and question my ability to be a successful teacher. The other teachers made it seem so easy. What was it about me that made me struggle with it so much? I followed all the advice given in my education classes, I structured my lessons according to “best practices”, I regularly contacted parents and filed discipline reports. What was I doing wrong? Was I just not meant to be a teacher? I had dedicated not only time but also money into getting my official teaching certificate and second degree, I had committed to the profession, and truly wanted to have a fun, engaging class for my students where they learned and thought critically and creatively. I just couldn’t seem to make it happen.

I spent about a month running around south Florida applying to jobs and attending different interviews, desperately hoping to be offered a position despite my own doubts. Rejection after rejection came, and I doubted even more my ability to remain in the world of education. Eventually, I was offered  two positions, and one happened to be at the top rated middle school in the district of my city that is only about six miles from my house. I hadn’t expected the offer, and it had been a short interview. I felt like there were many things I had not said during the interview that I should have, about my passion for the subject, about my extreme dedication and work ethic, about my unshakable faith that all students can be successful, about designing creative assessments to provide students the best opportunity for demonstrating their knowledge, about being consistent with a discipline policy and about laying out expectations early and establishing routines right from the beginning of the year. Perhaps the principal could tell these things without saying, or perhaps we were both tired of the usual interview rig-a-morle. Maybe she was just desperate for a certified teacher at the last minute. Regardless, I am thankful for the position and another opportunity to establish myself in the field of education.

Like every educator, I am extremely worried at the direction education is headed in our country, especially under the new administration. Yet I don’t believe I could  abandon my students; I do not hold any false notions of working miracles or creating radical change. Everyday, I will meet with my students and they may or may not retain any of the information I’m trying to teach them. I can’t force them to care about their future or the future of our globe. I still feel obligated to do what little I can. I can expose them to different perspectives, and do my best to show them that they are capable of great things. This is the dream and wish of every teacher, to some extent. At least that’s what I will let myself believe.

My students will not be perfect students, and I will not be a faultless teacher. I will have to deal with bureaucratic frustrations, parents would react irrationally at times or are not supportive, there will be days when I will want nothing more than to not have to face the classroom another day. But I want to be there for these young adults who will have to start growing up, and will eventually have to make a future for themselves. We often say that education is the most important thing in a person’s life, but I’m not sure we fully appreciate the difference it can make. There is no greater truth than that the future of the country, and the world, lies in the classroom.

In spite of everything, I am looking forward to beginning a new year, which is always filled with hope. I still have to go shopping for my “first day of school” outfit, though.

Love’s Labour Lost: A Reflection

While it is July now, it was not the hottest of days, since there had been enough cloud coverage to block at least some of the intense Florida sun. Still, they kept the air conditioning on rather than roll down the windows on the drive south. Rather than getting on the highway, they were stuck taking State Route 1. Though it was a more direct route, it was slower than driving along the highway, as they passed through shopping plazas and medical centers and car dealerships that now lined the route.  

I looked forward to the play perhaps more than would seem reasonable, given it was just a small local production, hardly anything with a large budget or A-List casting. However, sitting out on the lawn, beer in hand, losing myself in the production for a few hours in good company was always a pleasure. Simply seeing a movie paled in comparison to a live performance; though film may have more special effects, and they can reshoot as many times as they want to make each scene as perfect as possible, and have more freedom in setting, there is something about a traditional play that makes it more powerful, more capable of connecting us to those who experience it with us.

After a quick meal at a local Panera, we arrived and found parking easily enough. We crossed over A1A, the road that most closely hugged the coast, and made our way to the amphitheater. Already, the section closest to the stage was claimed by a variety of patrons. There were family with large picnic coolers and foldable camping chairs, there were young adults with blankets and wine or beer, there were older retired couples settled in, some with light jackets despite the warmth of the evening. As they searched for a place to declare their own, they passed the “Wishing Will” where patrons could donate to the company. Coming for all around us was the sound of light, joyful conversations, and in the background there was instrumental music that was reminiscent of a time long ago- simple melodies plucked on mandolins or other similar instruments. Overhead there were some clouds that lingered from earlier showers, but there was no real threat of rain, there was a pleasant scent in the air that spoke vaguely of the sea, evaporating rain, and healthy grass.

We quickly choose a spot off the the side where we would have a bit better of a view. Nicole announced she needed to use the restroom and smoke a cigarette, and I agreed to join her.  We meandered down the path towards where the restrooms were, and discussed various Shakespeare works, noting which we were more familiar with and the ones we hadn’t yet been able to read. She would be teaching Macbeth this upcoming school year, which she had to read and design lessons for, and I knew I would be teaching either Othello or Hamlet myself. We shared old memories about plays from the past and adventures from high school and college, some of them long forgotten and brought back to memory.

We didn’t have to wait very long for the play to begin; I had read the synopsis online prior to coming, of course, and vaguely recalled reading at least some parts of it at some point long ago. As it started, the sky had darkened just enough to allow the lights to accent the stage in the appropriate way. There was no overly dramatic effects created by the lighting; it simply accented the actors so the audience could better follow the action and dialogue. One of the opening scenes features Don Armado, the lively Spanish clown character who attempts to woo and court a “loose woman”. Though some moments were difficult to understand, we all were immediately absorbed in the humor and laughing along.

Local productions may not have have a “quality” of a Broadway play, but they have charm and character. They are relatively average people transformed from their standard, daily jobs, and becoming something else, even if only for a few hours. Yes, they have rehearsed for hours and studied drama in some way before, and while they are actors in every respect, they have not been “polished”. It is evident that they are doing it merely for the enjoyment of it, because it is something they love, rather than a formal job they are being paid for.

D. had never been to a play before, so I was a bit anxious to see his reaction. What if he hated it, and had a miserable time? But I could immediately tell he was enjoying it, as he laughed genuinely at the appropriate times. Looking in his eyes, he was completely immersed in the world of the play, a feeling I knew so well. Slowly sipping our beers (not chugging, of course, but drinking them slowly to appreciate and savor them), we wrapped our arms around each other, letting ourselves luxuriate in that time-worn comfort of the physical presence and nearness of the one you love.

After getting so enwrapped in the story, the quick dialogue and turns of phrases, the characters who were both cunning and oblivious, the subtly included deep truths about our human experience and love that transcend the centuries. How we deceive ourselves and are deceived by others, believing we are being clever or that we will be able to better accomplish our goals this way. And in the end… Well. Perhaps we can never be prepared for what life will bring us, but we can press forward regardless, and somewhere along the way we can find that joy and love that we deserve. I’m not a Shakespeare scholar, though. To some extent, we see what we wish to see in any text or performance, and our own biases and our own knowledge changes how we see certain characters and interpret difference actions. But back to the real focus of this piece.

The final scene is brief but substantially powerful, and the whole audience gave a short standing ovation, and we began packing up, tossing our beer bottles in the nearby garbage can. We were smiling and remained lost in the world of the play for a few moments longer. During the car ride home, we had a rambling conversation, one of those conversations that jumps from topic to topic naturally without any clear intent or clear logic. At moments, I began to drift in and out of sleep, my sandals off and lulled by the motion of the vehicle. D. and I dropped Nicole off at her apartment and continued north towards our own home. Sometimes I was still struck by the fact that it was our home; that we truly did purchase a house together, that we were somehow establishing ourselves as adults and committing to a future, however vague or susceptible to change it might be.

We remember big events and moment: weddings, graduations, the start of a new job, moving, starting at a new school, a major accident or illness. Sometimes all we need, though, are these uncomplicated moments of companionship, of joy and hope, of being completely present in the moment and allowing the past and future to be insignificant and discarded, if only for a temporary amount of time.

Despite the constant pressures we have to always be doing something more, and despite the dangers our country faces daily under the current conditions, I hope that we all get to have these brief reprieves that allow us to recenter and maintain perspective, and serve as reminders of why we must never lose hope. We keep fighting, keep trudging forward and work through our daily challenges for these fleeting moments that provide us with a great sense of purpose, and may us connected to those we care about. Certainly, we will remember the moment we first saw the Grand Canyon, but we are shaped more by sharing apparently incidental, minor events such as a car ride down the coast and a local play that was highly entertaining.

We didn’t crawl into bed until near midnight, after walking the dog and washing up upon arriving home, which was far later than our usual time, but we did not feel any resentment about this. We curled up next to each other, arms entwined, and promptly fell into a deep, contented sleep.