I Used to be a High School English Teacher

Last week I got a letter from HR asking me to let them know ASAP what my post-maternity-leave plans were. I’d taken unpaid leave for the rest of the school year (after my paid leave ran out), but planned to return to coaching for the spring track season. In my heart, I’d already decided what I wanted to do, and I thought the spring track season would be a good test run. I’d coach, write as much as possible during Thea’s naps, and take an extended time away from teaching.

I’m working on a longer essay about what (many) factors have changed how I feel about teaching. The most (er–only) positive factor is Thea. I’m trying to work through the ways in which issues specific to my district (a wealthy suburban district where there’s a lot of stress on the kids and a lot of parental involvement that often crosses the line into threatening), and which issues are really problems with the nature of teaching nationwide. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the archetype of the savior-teacher on the one hand and the bitter, burned-out, union-supported lazy teacher on the other hand.

This teacher-as-selfless-martyr narrative is everywhere–Dead Poets’ SocietyDangerous MindsFreedom Writers… all movies that made me cry and also kind of made me feel sick at the same time. When I was a brand new teacher, unsure of how exactly to make a rubric, how to explain what was wrong with a thesis statement on Of Mice and Men that read “Lennie likes to touch soft things, but that’s not his fault. He just wants to relax,” how to control unruly fifteen-year-old boys, the one thing I did feel confident I could do was passionately care about my students. I remember seeing some meme on Facebook that a teacher is a mom, a therapist, a coach, a friend… and thinking yeah! That’s right! 

But, it really shouldn’t be. If you haven’t seen Dead Poets Society since you were a kid you might not remember that Mr. Keating (the Robin Williams character) is living in his high school dorm’s faculty apartment, gazing longingly at a photograph of the love of his life who got away. He explains that he loves her (after telling the boys they must seize the day) but couldn’t leave Dalton. My first few years of teaching, I doubtlessly did rely on personal relationships with students, on my demonstrable investment in their education and emotional well-being, to make up for what I lacked in efficiency and experience. In some ways, those were the best years of teaching. I cried in the first PPT I attended, and, unaware, that the teacher is typically supposed to speak minimally (for fear of lawsuits) rattled on about the potential I saw in the student. I formed the strongest and most lasting relationships with my students. I’m still in touch with a lot of those kids. The other day I found a tee-shirt the first AP class I ever taught made to wear to the exam. It’s full of jokes about Lord Byron and characters from The Grapes of Wrath. We kept a class blog that I monitored diligently at night. Kids told me their parents told them they were blogging too much. Returning to their laptops too often to defend an argument about Roger Chillingworth’s evil nature or Gertrude Stein’s poetry.

It’s had to articulate what about this was bad. And not all of it was. But, like Mr. Keating, I was alone and far too invested in the world of my school. I had trouble sleeping when I worried about a student going through a difficult time. I was often at school until seven, even eight o’clock counseling a handful of kids. I started to remind myself of Jean Brodie in the worst way. With a little “set” of students who felt like my team much more than my colleagues or administrators did. I was lonely, afraid I’d never meet anyone. Grateful to love my job. I was also mitigating that loneliness and fear with misplaced feelings of duty. I am not trained to be a psychologist. I am not a mother, nor should I behave as a friend to my students.

I’ve thought often of that Facebook meme over the years and tried to figure out what it is about it that bothers me so much. It’s not that I don’t see how a teacher could see himself that way. And it’s not that I don’t think it could ever be helpful to intervene in an unconventional, non-academic way. But to frame the respect teachers deserve in terms of the sacrifices they make in their personal lives rather than in the expertise they have in their subjects and in education is problematic. It also sets up a system where the kind of people who are prone to obsessing over what others think of them and a desire to please work tirelessly to be everything to their schools, making up for what teachers don’t earn in salary and in respect from the community with self-important notions of martyrdom.

In the years since that first AP class, my life has changed and my teaching style has changed. I’d like to believe that I’m capable of enough honest reflection to say truly that I remained caring and compassionate. But. I met my husband. I started to make friends in the area. I spent more time with my family. I got married. I grew frustrated with semi-annual blowouts with parents over three-hundredths of a percentage point. I sat through insulting professional development session after insulting professional development session. I tried to make the best of new initiatives. And then these initiatives were abandoned for other initiatives. Which were abandoned for other initiatives. And with them, hours of work.

When I first started teaching, I’d go to school even when I was really sick because I had this sort of self-absorbed notion that no sub could do my class justice. I had each period packed as full as possible of close reading and writing conferences and to miss even one day seemed more work than it was worth. Everything–every lesson, every chapter of every book I assigned–mattered so much to me. The stakes felt so high.

I had forgotten I felt that way until I had Thea. And then, once again the stakes feel so high. She’s sitting here next to me in her swing listening to some classical music, yawning, babbling, fighting a nap, occasionally smiling or furrowing her brow. After every few sentences I look over hoping to see she’s fallen asleep (she’s not much of a napper, but she’s been awake for more than three hours at this point), and have a rapid-fire internal debate about if letting her swing herself to sleep is the right thing.

Although my husband and I had already discussed and decided what I’d do before I received the letter from HR, my response to the letter surprised me. I nearly ripped it out of his hands. I fired off my resignation with the same enthusiasm I had once signed my first teaching contract. It’s both sad and a little jarring to see something that once so defined me become something I’m so eager to leave behind. Although there were some ways in which my changing attitude about teaching was obvious to me–measurable changes like the number of hours I spent at school made that clear–Thea’s birth painted my fierce devotion to her in sharp contrast to the way I’d come to feel about work.

For the next while, I’m going to continue coaching–something I actually missed enough on maternity leave that I returned to it before I’d committed to. And writing. I have a lot of projects underway but far from finished and I want to give them a chance to go somewhere.

Six Lessons in Three Weeks

Today Thea is three weeks old! These three weeks have seemed both fleeting and eternal. I’ve learned a lot.

1. Not all babies like all bottles. I thought: babies like food, some food comes in bottles, babies will eat food from bottles. NOT TRUE! Nick has been trying to give Thea a bottle of breastmilk for the past three nights. Last night, after Nick’s ingenious idea to cut a hole in one of the nipple shields I use to nurse her and put it around the bottle, we progressed to Thea being willing to put the bottle in her mouth without screaming for up to 20 seconds at a time.

2. Last night, our hot water heater and heat went out for approximately an hour. During this time, I called our builder, ready to make his life miserable should he have ignored my call (he was actually quite responsive and prompt), wrapped Thea in the warmest things she owns (even though it had not even started to cool off in the house) and began packing our bags for our life on the run from our cold house. Despite the fact that I knew we could drive to my parents’ warm house and stay the night (or even several nights) there, I felt like I used to when I played imaginary games of Soviet refugees on the run (late Cold War childhood).

3. There are a lot of things I’d never be bothered to do for myself–fix the hot water heater in a timely manner, for instance (I’d be likely to think “eh, I can take a cold shower if I need to, I’ll call someone in the morning if it hasn’t fixed itself), exercise extreme caution when walking down the street, wash my hands 800 times a day–that I’ve been doing compulsively for Thea. This has even extended to taking better care of myself. Yesterday I ran a bit, which was absolutely as wonderful as I could have ever dreamed, but I, for probably the first time in my life, stopped before I needed to so that I’d be sure I felt up to whatever today brings rather than depleted from doing too much too soon. I’ve even made phone calls to strangers on Thea’s behalf.

4. Even though before, during, and after my own wedding, I felt strongly that gratuitous wedding/engagement posting on social media is annoying at best, some weird combination of narcissistic/insecure/gloating at worst, I have been completely unable to restrain myself from posting pictures of Thea. Then, when people respond, as no doubt they feel they have no choice but to do, with something about her being cute or sweet, I realize that before I had a baby, I really wasn’t interested in vague acquaintances’ baby updates and I feel a little narcissistic and annoying myself. But then I post more pictures of Thea.

5. On a more serious note, having a baby has made me more aware of mortality than I ever wished to be. I’m already very emotional about the possibility of anyone I care about aging, so I wouldn’t have imagined it was possible to feel more acutely aware of life being short. I worry about Thea a lot–a little less than in those first days where I couldn’t even close my eyes without wondering if she was still breathing–but, I also want to keep myself safe for her. I’ll find myself thinking things like “if I get hit by a car, how will Thea eat? She hates bottles!” Just before Thea was born, I started to hear a promo for a new NPR podcast called The Longest Shortest Time. One of the pull quotes in the promo was from a woman talking about how having a baby made her newly aware of death. Yeah, I get it. And am trying not to let “awareness” become “paranoia” or “obsession”–what kind of way to raise a child would that be?

6. I never could have imagined how stupid things that aren’t tending to Thea’s immediate health would seem. She had a frenectomy for her tongue-tie on Tuesday, and until the procedure was over and I saw that she was eating well afterwards, even major things like wrapping up the sale of our old house or finalizing details for insurance on the new house seemed so beyond stupid that I was miffed to be even asked to consider them. Luckily, Nick responded to the stress of the frenectomy in the exact opposite way, by trying to control everything he could around the house instead of thinking about the procedure until we were about to leave for the doctor’s office, and so we do seem to have insurance on our house.

Thea’s Birth

I’ve been a mom for just over a week now. While I did write a long, rambling, mess of little Thea’s birth story while I was still in the hospital, this is the first time I’ve sat down to think about what the past eight days have brought. Joy, sweetness, an emotionally indescribable sense of responsibility, snuggles, laughter, fierce admiration for Nick’s capacity for love and support, exhaustion, some fear, guilt, anxiety.

People keep telling me to sleep when the baby is sleeping. I’m supposed to be sleeping right now. Nick is watching Thea sleep. There is absolutely nothing dramatic going on. We cleaned up the Christmas chaos this morning. And yet, here I am, wide awake. Lying in bed, I hear what might be Thea crying. It’s an ambulance three towns over. Or the whir of the construction site down the block. Or the opening of the fridge door downstairs. Then I get to feeling guilty about not sleeping. Or not doing my pelvic floor exercises yet. Or not walking. Or walking too much. Or worrying about my milk supply.

I once read that to be a mother is to have your heart permanently living outside your body. I was reminded of this aphorism after one of many mid-night feedings when I lay, exhausted, in bed, listening to the rhythm of Thea’s breathing, trying to determine if she was falling asleep or fussing, maybe still hungry or just smacking her lips in satisfaction, and it was as if there were two layers of me. One exhausted layer about to drop into deep sleep and one wide awake layer watching over my baby.

I knew labor would be painful, and I tried to stay in shape so I’d be strong for delivery. I thought I might go without an epidural. I told people this was because I’d heard the recovery was easier, because I wanted to be able to walk around after my baby’s birth, because I heard it might interfere with breastfeeding, but if I’m really being honest, it was because I wanted to prove that I could, because being “tough” has always been an important part of my identity.

Well, let me say that the pain of labor was unlike anything I could have ever fathomed existed. I had in my head that I’d try to focus on contractions like intervals around the track. HA! Who cares about intervals around the track, really? I mean, it’s for fun, even when I was a more serious competitor (in college), it was, by definition, for sport.

Because my labor progressed so quickly (I went from dilated to a one when my water broke to dilated to an eight in just over four hours), I didn’t have a very long period of time in which I felt in control of anything. I was able to breathe through contractions for about an hour, and I tried the pain management techniques I assumed I’d use throughout (the birthing tub, holding Nick, visualizing riding over a wave, staring at a spot on the wall), but fairly shortly after labor began, contractions were lasting about a minute and a half with just about a minute in between, and I was in so much pain that I shook uncontrollably throughout each contraction. I wasn’t able to react, just to exist. I felt like an animal, not because I was fierce and in touch with my primal instincts, but because I could not even think. After trying an hour or so of nitrous oxide (which, for the record, did absolutely nothing except make me dizzy), I asked for the epidural.

While the epidural did allow me to rest, it also slowed down my contractions, and with each contractions, Thea’s heart rate decreased a bit. I could see the nurses and midwives watching the monitor, and although they told me there was nothing to worry about, I knew that wasn’t quite true: they were all watching the monitor. Then, even though I wasn’t fully dilated, they asked me to start pushing to bring Thea down, which I knew wasn’t typical, and made me even more scared. So, when I tried motivating myself to push by thinking about the last hill at my high school state course, or finishing 400s on the track, it just felt dumb. What I was really thinking was “I don’t care what happens to me, I have to get my baby out safely.” Usually what I’m thinking during a 400 is something more like “don’t be a wimp; you want to earn your beer tonight!” At one point, in what I now realize was an attempt to boost my confidence after I expressed worry and fear, the nurse told me she’d heard I ran marathons, and asked how many. Everyone in the room made a big fuss when I said “eight” (I’m not sure where that number came from; I’ve run five, but I wasn’t really in a position to count them up just then). The thing with pain in a marathon is, again, really, who cares. If you have a bad marathon you feel like crap about yourself for awhile, and maybe even feel like absolute garbage in your legs and head and bowels for days, or even, in a really bad case, weeks, but I’ve never feared that a life was on the line when I hit the wall at mile twenty or went out too fast on a hot and humid day.

I haven’t spent much time around a newborn since my brother was born 24 years ago. Of the things I was not prepared for, despite understanding logically, my baby’s vulnerability has been by far the most world-altering. From the moment I started suspecting the monitor showed signs of Thea’s distress, I understood something fundamental had changed in me.

Of course this change is a good one, and a necessary one. But, there have been a few moments where I’ve felt sad about this change. Not so much sad that I’ve changed, but sad for the part of my life that’s over. I’m no longer just my mom’s daughter, but a mom myself. It’s hard to explain what about this makes me feel so nostalgic and emotional. My mom told me that having kids made her realize how much her mom had loved her, and I think that’s part of what overwhelmed me about my love for Thea–the understanding of a kind of fierce, protective, unconditional, terrifying love that I didn’t understand before. It makes me feel a fiercer love toward my own mom, too. It makes me feel connected to generations of women before me in a way I hadn’t anticipated, and even more broadly, to women in general.

I chose midwives for my prenatal care because I liked the idea of treating a low-risk pregnancy as a phase in life rather than an illness or a disease, but the word itself means “with women.” I have never felt so strongly that I was with women than I did in the hours of and immediately after labor. Not just the women in my family who’ve come before me, but the women in the hospital who responded when I said I was scared, who tried to remind me that I’m a marathon runner, who brought Thea to my chest after she was born, who gave me stitches and helped me to the bathroom, and talked through the importance of my recovery at discharge, who gasped at the scabbed state of my nipples after three days of breastfeeding… being with these women has shaken to the core the way in which I perceive dependence and need for assistance.

Watching my little girl sleeping, unable to sleep myself, I am filled with hope that she’ll be kind, and strong, and tough, and independent, and thoughtful, but also that she’ll be able to ask for help, and understand the beauty of receiving it.