Dear Chicago

Like many angsty high school students, one of my favorite songs was “I am a Rock.” I loved the line “I have my books/ and my poetry to protect me.” Even at the time I, an intensely sincere and emotional teenager, could have hardly pretended that I was shielded or felt no pain. Still, the idea that books and poetry might offer a different kind of community, a more reliable, self-sufficient source of companionship than my classmates, rang true.

I first heard of the University of Chicago from my ninth grade English teacher. He was the first person, other than my parents, to take my love for reading and writing seriously. In what was typical of my obsessive level of interest in high school I both wanted to be him and wanted to impress him, and when I learned that he’d gone to the University of Chicago, I set out to figure out what this school was all about.

My parents are from the midwest, but I was largely raised in a Connecticut suburb where 99% of my classmates went to four year colleges and of those, a huge majority went to private schools in the Northeastd Corridor. Long before it was time for me to start thinking about college, my mom laid the groundwork for a different way of thinking about education. Both she and my dad, each the first in their families to go to college, had gone to their local state school, and then gone to law school in-state. Before I knew what applying to college entailed, I already knew that I wouldn’t be one of the kids who visited every small liberal arts college in New England or applied to all seven Ivy League schools just because I was a good student. All this is to say, even though learning, curiosity, respect for education were integral to the  world of my childhood, I wasn’t the type of kid you might imagine obsessing over a college in ninth grade.

I know this type of kid, because I taught high school English for seven years, and am now in my tenth year of coaching high school cross country and track. A lot of the students I know apply to ten, fourteen, twenty schools. Without exception, the most unpleasant hours of my career were spent on the phone or in hostile meetings with parents who insisted that I simply must change a B-plus to an A-minus because my draconian grading practices were the only thing standing between their child and a specific acceptance letter.

Because I went into teaching, the name on my diploma has often felt of little external importance: I certainly could have been hired to teach high school English without having attended the University of Chicago.  Many of the best teachers I worked with went to schools whose names never appear on the lists of the most elite, selective, or rigorous colleges. For this reason, it has sometimes been tempting to feel, at least rhetorically, like I could have gone to school anywhere. When I had my daughter last year, I decided to leave teaching in favor of more flexible coaching and freelance writing so that I might spend more time with her. And, because of that decision, I’ve come to see my time at the University of Chicago in an entirely different light.

I love being a mother more than I love anything I’ve ever done. And, as my ninth grade English class and Simon and Garfunkel obsessions foreshadowed, I did not grow up to be the kind of person who feels moderately about anything. On the morning I got married, an acquaintance drove past me running down the street in my hometown with by my college cross country teammates, my hair already blown straight and shiny for the wedding that night. I was the kind of teacher who really had a hard time finding a balance between doing her job well and being consumed by her school, her students, her grading, her own sense of urgency (which is a large part of why teaching and mothering felt incompatible despite the ways in which teaching is often presented, on paper, at least, as a family-friendly profession). But more than the fierce, nearly all-consuming love I’ve had for life’s other passions and obsessions, I love being a mom.

Admitting how much I love being a mother feels a little bit like going back to my five year college reunion to find all of my classmates in PhD programs while I was teaching high school English. I can clearly hear the scoffing I’d have done at anyone who claimed to feel sublimely fulfilled, happy, and at peace with motherhood. I can imagine my friends and I on the fourth floor of the Reg, overlooking 55th street, ridiculing the neo-con brainwashing that must have befallen any educated woman who could say as much.

One of the popular narratives of motherhood is of isolation, loneliness. Before I had my daughter, I imagined this was about time spent without adult company. Certainly, being the only adult in the house can feel isolating, but it is not literal isolation that has made me reconsider Simon and Garunkel’s ode to loneliness.

 

Never before or since have I felt so at home, so in my element, so comfortable with myself, as I did at the University of Chicago. Of course I did embarrassing things–I was in college. But, I was surrounded by curious, excited, passionate, strange, earnest peers. As much as I loathed my Calc 131 problem sets, I think a lot of that intense sense of belonging is a result of the Core. I remember team dinners at Pierce that devolved into heated debates about Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre’s open marriage and puns about Kant or Aristotle that grew into the kind of inside jokes that left me laughing so hard I gasped for air. Really.

Becoming a mother has made me feel separated from the friends I came of age with and more aware of the ways in which the reading, writing, and thinking I did at the University of Chicago were so fundamental to the adult I have become. But, at the same time the habits of reading, writing, and questioning that I developed while a student have served as an antidote to loneliness. During the hours when Thea naps, I read, I write. Yes, there are crumbs under the highchair and loads of laundry still in the dryer at the end of her nap, but I find that those hours of thought are restorative, both in a quotidian sense and in a larger sense. I’m energized for an afternoon of building trains and knocking over block towers, but I’m also provided with a throughline to the person I’ve always been and am still becoming.

In the years after high school, I’d often have a sort of sympathetic but condescending laugh at my old self when I heard “I am a Rock.” How much richer a life of friendships, romance, family was, how silly to imagine fulfillment could be attained on an island. And anyway, the song is obviously ironic.

Now, though, the pendulum feels as though it has swung back a bit in the other direction. By circumstance, geography, or profession, I’m far from many of those same people who first allowed me to inhabit a world of belonging. Would I love to have a glass of wine with my roommates from 53rd and Woodlawn, talk about ideas both big and small, personal and philosophical the way we were once able to take for granted doing day in and day out? Of course. I long for those easy friendships and the community of Chicago, but I also feel those somewhat trite Simon and Garfunkel lyrics in a new way. If motherhood can sometimes feel like an island, I do have my books and my poetry to protect me, by which I mean offer a connection to some of the most rich friendships I’ve ever known and provide continuity between the present and the person who I’ve spent my lifetime slowly becoming.

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