Now you probably think I’m one of THOSE people–the ones who have their Christmas shopping done and are already moving on to December 31st. Well, I’m not. I’m lucky if the Christmas presents are wrapped by December 24th. I’m not talking about that day at the end of December when people either get drunk or depressed or both. The only significance that holiday has for me is that it’s my mother’s birthday, and she’s such an awesome woman that the entire world, in every time zone, SHOULD totally throw a party on her birthday.
But no, I’m talking about the REAL New Year’s, or the one that has always been more real to me than December 31st–the first day of school.
I went into Wal-Mart today to get a new bristle brush (which, in our house, we call “tickly brush” as opposed to all the “hurty brushes” we have lying around). For some reason I cannot fathom, tickly brush likes to take vacations from us now and again. One minute it’s there, then . . . gone. For days. Then it’s there again. And it’s the only brush Critter will allow to touch her unruly locks without a whole lot of whining. I got tired of scouring the house for the tickly brush that is undoubtedly not going to show up any time soon, so I decided to run into The Mart to get another one. Which I know exemplifies everything that’s wrong with the United States, along with Big Gulps and Large Movie popcorn and televisions larger than some small European countries, but sometimes I cave to Capitalistic impulses to have more than one of something because I’m tired of wasting twelve minutes in the morning looking for an item that’s turned itself invisible.
However, the spirit of frugality and restraint took hold of me today and wouldn’t let go. First, today was one of those days when I walked into Wal-Mart and the glare of those fluorescent lights and the sheer amount of STUFF in the place nearly got me dizzy. This happens when I’ve been away from Wal-Mart for a long time. Maybe it’s all the colors of all the stuff stacked together, or the way it’s so very bright, or the sheer size of the place that’s so overwhelming. I immediately felt like a deer in headlights, and nauseated, and I just wanted to get out of there. So I rushed over to the hair aisle to find they had absolutely no tickly brushes. None.
By then, of course, I had gone through the fluorescent adjustment process and was feeling much less overwhelmed, and I felt that having gone through the trouble of parking, walking through the lot, and smelling those awful Subway sandwiches on the way into the store (the outside of that shop ALWAYS smells like vomit), I should at least spend a few minutes there in case there was something else I wanted to buy that I couldn’t remember right that moment. So I started to wander the aisles right at the front of the door and that’s when I saw them: school supplies.
“It’s only July! She wants the kids back at school already?” you might ask. Of course not. I want summer to last for the next two hundred years. I love my kids’ school, and I love my friends there, and I love that my kids like to go there. But I’m not ready to start that getting up at 6am, packing snacks and lunches, nagging them to find their shoes routine that I am so thrilled to be freed from for two whole blessed months. As a matter of fact I was thinking that if school could just start an hour or so later, at 9am instead of 7:45am, my life could feel so much more civilized and in-control. But I don’t think that amendment is going to pass, so I’m not even going to propose it.
So, no, I don’t want school to start again. I miss my kids when they’re at school. What I want is The Notebooks. The Pens. The Post-It Notes. The Folders.
New school supplies are to me what shoes are to that Sex in the City character who I don’t like and never watched. But I knew she really had a thing for shoes. I could care less about shoes. Or clothes, furs. Granted, I like jewelry. But not the way I like school supplies. Other than the obvious increased chance of paper cuts, I could SO see myself in a room full of empty notebooks feeling wave after wave of joy washing over me.
I walked through every school supply aisle, slowly, and felt my eyes start to glaze and my breathing start to hitch. I leaned forward and grabbed one notebook and it smelled so new. The pages were all tightly packed together and just waiting to be opened. Oh, that CRACKLE of a just-opened notebook. And the smell of fresh paper-a clean, unblemished sheaf of paper just begging to be written on. Full of hope and promise. What might I write on you, beautiful, beautiful notebook. Mine. My own. My precious.
It took a great deal of struggle to put that notebook back. When I did, I felt like Galadriel from Lord of the Rings when she didn’t take the One Ring from Frodo. As the notebook slid back into the box my brain said, “Ah. I have passed the test. I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Diane.”
What is it about new school supplies, the new school year, that sets my soul pulsating? And why, at 40, do I still see August/September as the only new year’s that has ever been, or ever will be? Because no matter how long I’ve been away from it, and no matter what else I’ve been doing in the meanwhile, I am a teacher and a learner, heart and soul. Writing, teaching, and learning are my all-consuming passions. I’m not kidding when I compare myself to Galadriel. For her, the ring was the ultimate temptation, the epitome of power, joy, and achievement. For me, it’s teaching. It’s what I trained to do. It’s what I love to do. It’s one of the only things I can truly say I do consistently well. And yet, it is dangerous, because it drives me to distraction. The world falls away when I write, and read, and comment on student papers, and plan lessons, and teach. I’m in another dimension where I almost feel like pure energy. The time flies by, and what I thought was ten minutes was actually an hour.
I left teaching when Boo arrived on the scene. I just didn’t see how I could juggle the baby and the career. It was a tough decision to make because I had just landed a tenure track position in English and Writing at a wonderful local university. I was living the dream. But my daughter became my new dream, and I couldn’t find space in my mind or heart for both. So I had to choose, and I chose Boo. It was a smart choice, I think, seeing as how, two years later, I became so amazingly ill when pregnant with Critter that I couldn’t move most days. I couldn’t even catch my breath. I don’t know how I would have taught classes. It was the right thing to do.
Yet I missed it with every fiber of my being, some days. Other days I just threw myself into being the teacher of my kids, and it got better. But when Critter started five-morning-a-week preschool I immediately decided to go back. It was exhilarating to be back in a classroom again. It was like I’d never left. I’d been away for seven years, and I slipped back into that professor persona without missing a beat. It was like slipping into a warm bath, or opening a brand new notebook. Being back in the classroom, with my students, and the writing, and the computers, and the books . . . ohhhhh. I could have gotten lost there. And part of me did.
I was talking with a student one day and he remarked at how happy I was when I talked about writing. Without even thinking I said, “I love doing this more than I love doing anything else in the entire world.” Then, on the drive home, I called my dear friend who is also a college professor and mother, weeping near-hysterically. “How could I say that?” I wailed. “I love my kids. I love my husband. I love being with them. I should love being with them more than I love doing anything else in the entire world! Why did I say that? I’m A HORRIBLE MOTHER.”
“You’re not a horrible mother,” my amazing friend said. “You’re a wonderful mother. You’ve given up your career for your family. And of course you love being with your kids and husband more than anything else in the world. I listen when you talk to me. When you and the kids and your husband are away on vacation, or at the beach, or bopping around town, you’re truly, honestly happy. And don’t tell me you would rather be teaching than you would be walking through the Magic Kingdom on a mild Florida day with your family.”
“No,” I sniffled. “I really love that.”
“I know!” she said. “What you DON’T love, my dear, is housework. And laundry. And cooking. And dishes. And playing Candyland for the 275,000th time. You don’t love nagging people to do their homework, and picking underwear up off the floor, and finding wet towels on the bed, and not even having a moment of peace when you’re on the toilet.”
“Okay,” (see what an awesome friend she is, and how much better she was already making me feel), “that’s true.”
“You LOVE being a mom. You LOVE being a wife. You LOVE being with your family. And I bet that if your kids and husband could be in the classroom with you, you wouldn’t mind. Right?”
“That’s . . .true.”
“Right. So what you’re saying you love more than anything else in the world is living in a world of ideas, rather than a world of laundry.”
“Yeah. Yeah. That’s it! That is true! I like having conversations with my kids. When they’re not talking about poop. I love having conversations with my husband when they’re about something other than why we can’t get the kids to stop talking about poop. But you know what–not a single one of my college students EVER SAYS THE WORD POOP in class. I REALLY LIKE THAT. And they don’t follow me into the bathroom. Ever. That’s really nice.”
“Yeah! See? You’re not a bad mother! You’re just a really awesome TEACHER.”
So I persevered through that semester until the day came that Teddy Bear Pajama Day was scheduled on the same day I had to teach. I tried to make it work. I really did. I let my students come in an hour late so I could be at school first thing in the morning. But morning announcements ran long, and by the time I had to leave to get to my class, which was already starting an hour late, the kids had just started singing. So I had to duck out right as Christa was doing a teddy bear dance, and I couldn’t even say good-bye.
I cried the whole way to work.
Then I got to my classroom, where my students were wonderfully up and awake, having had an extra hour to sleep, and I tried to pull the, “Everything’s fine over here! Don’t worry about me! I just decided to come in looking like a tear-y eyed mess to give you all something to write about!”
They didn’t buy it.
“What happened?” they asked. I thought it was sweet that it wasn’t just the cute young girls that looked concerned. The boys looked truly alarmed.
They had reason to be, because I proceeded to make them all exceedingly uncomfortable when one tear slipped out of each eye as I explained, “I had to leave in the middle of teddy bear pajama day! And this is the LAST teddy bear pajama day! It’s MY BABY’S teddy bear pajama day.”
“Diane,” (yes, I let my students call me by my first name) my students said, “We love having you as a professor. You’re, like, the best professor most of us have. But you really need to be with your kids right now. Anyone in the world can see that.” (I LOVE college students. Really. I think they’re almost universally made of awesome).
So, I toughed it out through the semester, had some fun, and took yet another teaching hiatus. I’ve kept busy, of course. I volunteer at the kids’ school like a madwoman. I write some, more now that I have this blog. I have projects I work on. I’m teaching a writing summer camp for Kindergarten through 3rd graders this summer. But, oh. To go back to teaching. To have that thrill of excitement for what the new semester will bring! To have a fresh new syllabus ready for review, to have the first two weeks of lessons generally planned, to look at a new list of fresh names and wonder who these wonderful new people are going to be! Even knowing that, by 1/3 into the semester the optimism of the unknown will have sunk into the pessimism of the “Oh GOD they know NOTHING, and will NEVER, EVER, EVER GET THIS!” which will evolve to the realism of “Okay. We can do this. I’m good enough to teach them this, and they’re good enough to learn most of it” which will then morph into the desperation of “Just get me to Thanksgiving, Lord, and I promise I’ll give everyone an extension on their paper so they can, maybe, get a B” to the elation of “Last week of class! Screw it! I’m done! Go home, finish your last papers, actually PROOFREAD THE DAMN THINGS THIS TIME and no, I’m sorry, spell check is NOT going to help you distinguish between the words ‘loose’ and ‘lose,” “their,” “there,” and “they’re,” or “it’s” and “its” so actually run your eyes over your own papers FOR ONCE.” I still would be so happy to be back there.
Well, someday. I hope. Until then, I’ll just start planning all the volunteer stuff that has to be done this year. I’m sure I need a BIG notebook for that!